Sunday, December 19, 2010

Embedding digital tech makes our children scientifically illiterate

A Crooke's radiometer measures sunlight intensity, which sounds all scary and scientificy, until you see one in action. It's simpler than a Talking Elmo.



The more intense the light, the faster the radiometer's vanes spin inside its glass bulb. It looks like a toy.

I keep one on the windowsill in our classroom. On sunny days in September, it spun so hard it rattled. In December's dying light, it moves like an elderly statesman--steadily, slowly, with a hint of what once was.



Sunlight is not abstract. The spinning radiometer is not abstract. Telling my lambs that the sun barely rose 25 degrees above the horizon is abstract. I can show them fancy solar data charts on the internet, teach them algorithms for interpreting the data, and get them to bark like trained seals.

We need the abstract. I get that. Focusing on the imaginary before children grasp the real, however, will create a generation of idiot savants.

***


Our children live in an abstract world. They bop along life with personalized song sets, immerse themselves in virtual worlds with personalized avatars.

We used to worry when kids held on to imaginary friends a bit too long. A toddler talking to a giant imaginary squid is cute; a 13 year old doing the same thing is disturbing.

Constructing the abstract is a special kind of imaginary thinking, but the abstract is still imaginary. If I describe my Christmas tree, a lovely balsam afflicted with minor scoliosis now covered with ornaments, some made by hand by my children years ago, I am talking about something real.

If I tell you that the average balsam sold in Bloomfield this year is 2.11 meters tall, weighs 20.3 kg, and has 533.7 branches, you might be able to imagine it in your head, but it does not exist. Anywhere.

Yet when we teach science, we focus on the imaginary average, often at the exclusion of looking at the bent-over balsam sitting in the room.

Using a machine that helps a child grasp the abstract version of a Christmas tree may improve test scores (though there's evidence that it won't); it cannot, however, help a child see the real tree.
***

There is a huge push to use "technology" in classrooms. By technology, I am assuming most folks mean the digitized high-tech expensive stuff, or else the discussion is just silly. All of us use some sort of technology in class, even if it's just paper and pencil.

The Innovative Educator blog is a fun read, with lots of good ideas. It has almost 1800 followers. It carries clout. A few days ago, Lisa Nielsen, The Innovative Educator, headlined her post:

Tech Doesn’t Make Us Illiterate.
Not Embedding it Into Instruction Does.

In it, she discusses reactions to The New York Times article discussing the failure of 1:1 computing in some schools, then reconstructs the false dichotomy tossed about in the ed tech world: tried-and-true old skool ("readin', ritin', rithmetic") vs. the visionary new big thing.

What gave me pause, however, is her suggestion that we turn classrooms into video games:
What would happen if rather than lament what our kids loved to do, we re-envisioned school. They love games. What if we stopped fighting it and the adults changed and started looking at School as Video Game?

Ms. Nielsen does not stand alone. I read similar words every few days, hers just happened to be the latest I stumbled upon.

What would happen?
Science in the classroom would die. Science requires contact with the physical, with the real. Until children know the ground under their feet, they cannot hope to grasp models.

I use plenty of technology in class: our Crooke's radiometer, our Drinky Bird, our Newton's Cradle, our classroom garden (hey, we even use fluorescent lights!), our prism, our aquaria filters...and on and on.

I agree with Ms. Nielsen that tech doesn't make us illiterate. Embedding digital technology into science too early, before our children get a decent handle on the physical world, does make our children scientifically illiterate.

It's why my class has an analog clock. It's why I threaten to smash calculators in class.

Do I use a computer? Yep. Sometimes I sip a good Oirish whiskey as I do so. Neither belongs in the hands of a child.





Radiometer pic by Nevit Dilmen, used under CC.

The cost of one laptop buys a lot of tangible science gadgets.
Bet a young student learns more science from a bag of magnets than from a puter. .


24 comments:

John T. Spencer said...

I wrote a recent post on how fog beat out netbooks last Friday. I'm not sure if it was a victory. Yes, I'm happy my students chose to stand and observe the mystery of the fog. However, the notion that the netbooks had become "normal" and thus lost their magic was a bit scary to me.

Sometimes I have to remind myself of what's real. Fortunately, I don't have 1800 followers, so I'm not exactly in a place of influence. On my worst days, I want that, though. And ultimately that can be scary, too - when not only the medium has become normal but so has the narcissism that comes with it.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I wrote a response to your "Fog" post. I loved it! (Somehow my words got eaten up by the fog between here and Arizona.

The physical world takes care of narcissism in a hurry. No one ages on the internet.

We all die here on Earth.

(I hope my response to your fog post turns up--your words inspire me!)

David said...

Is doing logarithms or square roots by hand useful? Surely there are some uses of technology and computers which are good for science.

I'm wondering about graphing data. It's a pretty tedious thing to do by hand, and yet it's something a computer or graphing calculator can do with ease quickly.

Do you think students lose sight of what they are actually manipulating when they create a graph with a computer? I think it doesn't matter if a student makes a graph by hand or if they make it with a computer, a numerically illiterate student will not understand what they are doing either way.

It could also be that in the process of creating a logarithmic graph of some data by hand, students could forget why it was in the first place that they wanted to make this graph.

Would you rather that the student could produce 10 different graphs in 20 minutes and compare them to each other to look for trends, or which of these graphs actually fits the data best?

I don't think you can throw out all technology because some of it is useless.

We agree however that using a computer simply for the sake of using a computer is not useful. PowerPoint presentations are just for the convenience of the instructor rather than for improved instruction. Simulations which the students do not understand are much worse than real life phenomena they can play around with.

I suspect that the optimal world for science instruction lies somewhere between the two extremes you've described.

doyle said...

Dear David,

Doing logs by hand, using tables, is useful when first done. It exposes children to the data sets that rest electronically in their magic boxes. I'd argue that a slide rule can (and should) be used until children grasp intuitively what they are doing with the numbers.

Setting up a graph requires some thought. As tedious as plotting points may be, until a child can logically construct graphs using adequate and appropriate spacing, that child should not be punching numbers into a program until she knows why she is doing it.

Many of my students simply have no handle on numbers now. A numerically illiterate student has no chance of grasping graphing functions on a computer. With practice, he has a shot at getting it on paper. As a teacher, I can see where his thoughts break down when he does it step by step.

As far as the efficiency of producing graphs, yes, computers win hands down. When a child gets to physics, and already has god command of numbers and graphs, computers are phenomenally useful.

At any rate, science instruction (like arithmetic instruction) cannot happen in the abstract alone, or it's meaningless. My biggest problem is not kids working in the abstract--they do that all the time. My biggest problem is linking the abstract to the physical world. Several times a month I'll hear kids complain that the experimental data does not fit their idealized expected results, shocked that the physical world is so messy.

I suspect that what folks see as "extreme" on my part is more of a problem than most of us recognize, at least in my population of kids (and adults) in a largely urban district.

Thanks for the push back--keeps the mind humming!

David said...

Well I'm going to disagree strongly with the slide-rule on the grounds that it is just as much a magical number crunching device as a computer. If you think computers and calculators obfuscate calculation, I'm pretty sure that a slide-rule does the same thing.

I'm not sure yet if doing calculations actually builds numeracy skills. Calculations are generally just algorithms that students follow and only the most gifted of students sees the actual mathematics behind an algorithm, most of them think of them as arbitrary steps that we follow to "get an answer".

Numeracy in my mind is recognizing the relationships between numbers and has no association with memorized algorithms. Just doing multiplication won't make you numerate. Being able to recognize trends in calculations, patterns, and make estimations in your calculations are far more important in my mind.

That being said, when a calculation can be done faster in your head, as many simple calculations can be, it is much more efficient for students to be able to do that calculation. We need to be able to quickly estimate the solutions to problems.

In terms of graphing, I agree that if the software handles the scale of the graph too easily for the students, that they won't understand WHY we have a scale. I provide Geogebra for my students to use for their graphs (after we have practiced at least a few by hand) and it doesn't help much with scale, but it does make it easier to change between scales.

One of the reasons why students think that their experiments should be idealized is because of poor mathematics instruction. Students spend too much time in mathematics being given the scale and size of diagrams which do not exist in the real world. They somehow think that measurement of dimensions is this absolute quantity, when in fact we both know that measurement is a randomly distributed variable with a mean and standard deviation around the area of the length of an object.

When mathematics teachers give the dimensions of an object and then ask students to find its area, they are robbing students of the chance to discover that things like length and area are not absolute quantities.

Far more time needs to be spent in mathematics formulating problems, measuring the real world, and applying mathematics in context.

I agree with you on the abstract thinking. Move from concrete to abstract. I just see a graph on paper as an abstraction of the world, and think that the important part is the recognition of the connection of that graph to the world. Numbers are another kind of abstraction from the real world as well.

David said...

Well I'm going to disagree strongly with the slide-rule on the grounds that it is just as much a magical number crunching device as a computer. If you think computers and calculators obfuscate calculation, I'm pretty sure that a slide-rule does the same thing.

I'm not sure yet if doing calculations actually builds numeracy skills. Calculations are generally just algorithms that students follow and only the most gifted of students sees the actual mathematics behind an algorithm, most of them think of them as arbitrary steps that we follow to "get an answer".

Numeracy in my mind is recognizing the relationships between numbers and has no association with memorized algorithms. Just doing multiplication won't make you numerate. Being able to recognize trends in calculations, patterns, and make estimations in your calculations are far more important in my mind.

That being said, when a calculation can be done faster in your head, as many simple calculations can be, it is much more efficient for students to be able to do that calculation. We need to be able to quickly estimate the solutions to problems.

In terms of graphing, I agree that if the software handles the scale of the graph too easily for the students, that they won't understand WHY we have a scale. I provide Geogebra for my students to use for their graphs (after we have practiced at least a few by hand) and it doesn't help much with scale, but it does make it easier to change between scales.

(continued)

David said...

One of the reasons why students think that their experiments should be idealized is because of poor mathematics instruction. Students spend too much time in mathematics being given the scale and size of diagrams which do not exist in the real world. They somehow think that measurement of dimensions is this absolute quantity, when in fact we both know that measurement is a randomly distributed variable with a mean and standard deviation around the area of the length of an object.

Mathematics instruction which focuses too much on rote calculations, and not enough on reasons to do those calculations, cripples students.

When mathematics teachers give the dimensions of an object and then ask students to find its area, they are robbing students of the chance to discover that things like length and area are not absolute quantities.

Far more time needs to be spent in mathematics formulating problems, measuring the real world, and applying mathematics in context.

I agree with you on the abstract thinking. Move from concrete to abstract. I just see a graph on paper as an abstraction of the world, and think that the important part is the recognition of the connection of that graph to the world. Numbers are another kind of abstraction from the real world as well.

Anonymous said...

I do not believe that mathematics should be taught as only arithmetic. What if elementary school children learned to experience the world ("science") and then learned to make descriptions of what was happening ("when you shove harder, this goes faster") then learned to make equations (letters and symbols represent words) THEN they learned to put in numbers?
I know lots of applied mathematicians. None of them use numbers. All their models are made as above - usually I have to nag them to try real-world numbers. I really don't know any pure mathematicians, but I've seen their work and I'm pretty sure it has nothing to do with multiplying by 7.
I agree with David about the sliderule - it's just a specialized non-battery-operated computer.

doyle said...

Dear David,

The slide rule allows you to see the operations; the physical act of sliding the rule a certain distance helps one to "feel" the numbers. The need to approximate between lines makes the numbers yet more tangible.

I'm not advocating their use in engineering firms; I do think they are useful for developing number sense at the adolescent level. I'm not a big believer in magic, and though I have a pretty good head for numbers, I doubt I'm unique seeing numbers better on the slipstick than on a calculator.

It would be an interesting study to set up--not sure how to go about it, but I bet it could be done. I realize my anecdotal story hardly makes a case for one over the other, but having used both efficiently, I can at least say that there was a difference for me.

Sue VanHattum said...

David's question and your reply sort of answer the question I was going to ask. Do you think science might be the subject that gets most damaged by 'embedding digital tech'?

I agree that graphing by hand for a while is important. But I also remember graphing hundreds of functions when I was in calculus, as I worked at understanding the relationships between the equations and the graphs. I think experimenting with a graphing calculator would have been a more pleasant way to learn that.

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

I never said that only arithmetic should be taught--still, attempting further operations without number sense reduces early school math to parroting. The symbolism involved in even simple algebraic relationships can be insurmountable for many before puberty.

Should slide rules be just specialized non-battery computers, at least they last longer and run cheaper. Got one 50 years old. Still works.

Sue VanHattum said...

Wrote that before seeing the more extended disagreement about slide rules.

I never learned to use a slide rule. I graduated high school in '74, and everyone just a bit older than me know how to use slide rules. Not knowing made me feel like I wasn't a real mathematician.

They're hard to figure out! If you wanted to have students use them for thinking about exponential relationships, and how logarithms help us, and ..., it might be a good idea to have them make their own. I think I've saved a blog post someone wrote about that.

Good discussion. I'm agreeing with both of you, which is making me think about this in more detail.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

When exploring complex relationships using calculus, computers make sense. I associate physics with calculus--at the high school level, physics is really the only science that uses calculus.

I teach biology, though I've taught physical science as well. Simple relationships matter.

I am very interested in your thoughts on the importance of a feel for numbers. I have been accused of having a ridiculous affinity for numbers by other teachers; I think it stems from an obsessive need to understand any tool that I use.

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

I love the idea of having students make their own slide rules. Might get me into the Luddite Hall of Fame.

Sue VanHattum said...

I can't find the post I thought I had bookmarked. I thought it was about making a very simple slide rule sort of device.

'Accused'? Is that like being accused of being smart? I don't get it...

I think you get a feel for numbers from playing with them. Playing is the way we learn best. It got encoded into us by evolution (or that's what seems right to me, anyway.)

doyle said...

Dear Sue,

Yes, "accused." Some teachers think I may be expecting too much.

I don't think so, of course, and I know the joy that waits those who jump into this feet first.

Playing is indeed what we do best. The recent thrust of "efficiency" over play will destroy us.

The Innovative Educator said...

Sometimes it's best when the teacher steps off the pedestal and realizes that different strategies work well for different students and that using tech doesn’t mean not using alternatives when they are available. I have always gravitated toward a combination of real-world experiences and technology. Simulation software provided me with understandings too costly and/or inaccessible. Recording devices allowed me at a young age to tell my stories and make my radio shows when I was less proficient with writing. Photos let me capture memories. While speaking to my grandmother in person would have been nice she lived 3000 miles away so we spoke on the phone or used planes to visit each other.

Why it must be one or the other at any age? Students and teachers can think of many great ways technology can support students in learning and expressing themselves at all stages and ages.

Blanket declarations are dangerous and stifle creativity. What works for you does not work for all. For me working with young students I may find something that works well with a student. It may be a pen or paper that talks, or a book that reads, or augmented reality, or a camera that brings images or astronauts from space into our classroom. It may be a technology that translates text enabling a student to understand what I’m saying or enabling me to understand a student or students to understand each other. A shy student may prefer telling her story as a Voki and her parents may enjoy leaving her a comment.

If students are using tech to learn and there are teachers who are experiencing success...then lets celebrate, not condemn their success and empower them to continue to educate innovatively.

Thank you for sharing my blog and encourage you and your readers to visit often to get more ideas about educating innovatively.

doyle said...

Dear Innovative Educator,

It need not be one or the other at any age--those of us on the wrong side of the fence of visionaries, of e-tech, of the shiny new, get weary of the false dichotomy posed by those who urge us to toss our chalk, our pens, our paper, our experience.

A few fields do not tolerate the abstract well--science, home economics, shop, and phys ed all require a grip on the real in order to work well. Our children, understandably, no longer know how to separate the real from the abstract. Many adults, less understandably, share the same weakness.

Your blog title provokes, as it was designed to do. Stating that "not embedding [tech] into instruction" makes us illiterate stakes a strong position, a commonly held one, and one that is not true.

I agree that blanket declarations are dangerous. That's why I took the time to respond.

Your responses to others in your posts makes clear that you have a nuanced view, and your words are worth reading. It is my hope that leaders of ed tech such as yourself take the discussion away from the amygdala and back to the cortex.

The Innovative Educator said...

What if we allowed you to keep your chalk, pens, and ink wells, but you allowed students to use the tools they love to connect, create, and learn. My problem is that I see educators banning students from rather than empowering them to use the devices of their choosing to communicate and create. It’s not about shiny new gadgets. It’s about enabling students to make meaning, connect, create, and share their passions using the tools that work best for them, not best for us.

Technology need not take us from what is real. Technology can help us capture, share, and connect. It can bring experts and images, and simulations into our classrooms that we may otherwise not have access to. When you try to make it seem that technology is abstract you make an inaccurate argument. Your blog is real. It lets you communicate and connect in ways never before possible. Videos let students learn from experts around the world. Sure who wouldn’t prefer the experts physically come into our classroom or walking on the moon rather than experiencing it through a simulation, but often that is not possible and so we have the option of enabling technology to bring the world to us.

Regarding my blog title perhaps better stated would be, “Embedding tech into learning does not cause students to be illiterate, it enables them to be empowered.” I’m not sure, but it was indeed in response to teachers in general who refuse to update instruction and some in particular who put tech to blame for illiteracy in America...and that just ain’t so.

And, as someone with a science background that consisted of reading chapters and answering the questions at the end, I’m not too sure if I know my amygdala from my cortex, but I think I want to keep a little of both in the discussion.

doyle said...

Dear The Innovative Educator,

To be fair, my students use just about everything in class--pens, cell phones, netbooks, an old typewriter, spectrophotometers, markers, electrophoresis chambers, whatever.

Tool choice matters, I agree, and the goals in mind should dictate the tools used.

In science, at least at the underclass level, we need less reliance on experts and more on direct observation. Simulation software mimicking experience perverts science. (Simulation software designed to test mathematical models is a whole different beast, worthy of a separate discussion.)

Do I use it anyway? Of course, but only after explaining to my students its limitations.

Not all of us critical of the potential misuse of technology are reactionary old farts dreaming of mimeograph machines. Really. I even have a Timex Sinclair to prove it!

The Innovative Educator said...

Well, if you do indeed use those tools then you are embedding digital tech and your children are coming out scientifically literate after all. I like to remind folks that ultimately technology is only technology to those who were born before it. To you it might seem like a glittery gadget, to a student today it's the thing in their pocket.

Regarding experts I'd like to reframe that. While the traditional concept of experts is valuable, what I love even more are those unexpected experts that can be found using technology. Perhaps you'll be inspired by this student who used YouTube to draw out experts who could help him use his bowdrill set http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuFsDN8dsJU .

In short, when I talk about using technology, it is not to replace what is real but to bring meaningful opportunities to students not possible without it.

doyle said...

Dear The Innovative Educator,

Not sure my lambs are scientifically literate when they leave, and if they are, no idea how much of the credit goes to the newer technologies. I'm betting the Newton's cradle in the room has inspired more thought than the netbooks.

I'm not sure what you meant with your last sentence, but if you mean technology is useful for bringing virtual experiences to those who cannot otherwise have the real experiences, well, there's plenty of meaningful life everywhere we turn. You just might have to pull your head out of a monitor to see it sometimes.

The Innovative Educator said...

o Where we have a meeting of the minds is that if real is possible that is undoubtedly best and I think I can tell you are an engaging and effective teacher...though I’d love some guest posts from your students :-)

As far as pulling my/our heads out of the monitor, I agree, but often it needs to be there to connect and create. When you can then bring that to real life I agree. The result is in a perfect marriage of using tech to make real-world connections.

Phyllis P said...

I am a Supervisor of Applied Sciences in NJ and came across your blog while researching with some of my science teachers---what a find. I spent my lunch reading your blog. I too came to teaching as a second career at 39 and have never regreted the decision. I now spend a great deal of time with new teachers. I have found that many pre-service elementary teachers do not get enough practical instruction in teaching science or math as many courses of study concentrate on literacy. My in-service trainings are run as I would teach ...we do science. Before a "Forces & Motion" day with the 5th grade the teachers participated in all the open-ended stations and then we discussed what we did. For the first time some of these teachers "understood" what they were actually teaching. I've been at this job almost 5 years and they all know that when I walk into a classroom I don't want to see quiet little children in neat rows working in workbooks. As for the application in Math I find it much more effective to use manipulatives even at the upper grades---if students use fraction tiles and pictures to "play" with fractions before moving to the symbolic. Sure you can teach the rules/procedures "when dividing fractions, flip the second fraction and multiply", but this doesn't explain what happens. If the students are dividing fractions with fraction tiles they begin to understand that dividing makes the pieces smaller and the part of the whole i.e., denominator gets larger as the pie is divided into that many smaller pieces. The "aha"s I hear from teacher always makes me smile--- I look forward to many more postings.