Category Archives: technology

Handwriting – the beauty of variation

Keyboards are everywhere. I marvel at the speed with which my own kids manage to pump out text on a full sized keyboard or with their thumbs on a smart phone. In the USA there is a growing debate about whether or not children need to be formally taught cursive writing. The new Common Core State Standards do not mandate its teaching. In Australia we have seen frequent discussions about the problems faced by final year high school students being required to write extended passages long hand in exams, when they are unused to the practice during their school year. They feel they lack fluency and their hands ache!

For some years now I have been troubles by the weird and wonderful ways in which I see young adults holding pens and pencils. They look awkward and they revert to keyboards as soon as practicable.

When I taught grade one and two children  a major part of my curriculum was teaching them how to hold their pencils efficiently and how to form letters that would lead to fluent, legible, effortless handwriting. The refrigerators in the homes of my students were festooned with examples of their early attempts.

There are those who regard this particular learning process as a waste of time,  as clinging to an old, outmoded technology.

I disagree!

How often do we set things that are essentially different up against each other for comparison and competition?

Which is better, the movie or the book?

Which side of the brain is most important, the left or the right?

Who is smarter, men or women?

Which do you prefer, oysters or chocolate cake?

Which is better, a photographic or a painted portrait?

These comparisons don’t work.

Neither does the question, ‘which should we teach, keyboarding or handwriting?’

There will always be a place for the handwritten, just as there will always be a place for the painted.

Just because a child can easily take a photograph of a tree doesn’t mean that we should not give him the opportunity to draw or paint a tree. There is something about the artist that is revealed in a painting, a personal response to the subject matter and a reinterpretation of the literal truth that comes about when a subject is painted or drawn.

So it is with handwriting.

We know that every person’s handwriting is unique. Why? Because the movements of the pen on paper are influenced by the character and experiences of the writer. They keyboard gives us the vocabulary and the syntax. The pen gives us something of the person. Another manifestation of the marvelous variations between people can be seen in the formal, controlled and perfectly formed handwriting of one person, the tight, tiny, cramped writing of another and the expansive, impetuous scrawl of yet another.

Our handwriting is one of the things that proclaims our individuality.

How many of us hold dear the early attempts of our children to write us notes, the love letters of an early sweetheart or even the handwritten name of a long dead loved one in a favorite book of poems?

We seem to be very good at throwing out our babies with the bath water in education.

Let’s not do it again.

Let’s continue to teach our children the intimate, expressive art of handwriting as well as the efficient, expedient skill of keyboarding.

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Filed under Classroom practice, Language and literacy, Teacher education, technology, Thinking

Babies and Bath Water

I am reading a fascinating book: ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains’ by Nicholas Carr. I strongly recommend it. I was particularly drawn to his analysis of the differences between ‘deep reading’ and the kind of interconnected, hyperlink driven reading that we engage with when we read on the internet.

Deep reading is the thoughtful, internalized reading we engage on when we read a book from cover to cover, when we engage with it at a deep level and contemplate the characters or the ideas contained within it. It is essentially linear – we start at the beginning and go on to the end.

Internet based reading is a different animal. It is filled with distractions and opportunities to be sidetracked that take up working memory as we decide whether to ignore them or follow their seductive paths. Carr is afraid that this kind of reading – and it is fast becoming the predominate form of reading – will lead to superficial thinking.

In a recent conversation with a university professor friend I heard her bemoaning the kind of ‘gist thinking’ that she felt was becoming far too commonplace among her students. “They think they understand, but they are satisfied with just the gist of the idea”. This, I think, is exactly what Carr is writing about.

But when something new comes along we are naive to think it will simply replace what has gone on before. Every new medium does not mark the previous media for obsolescence. People feared that TV would bankrupt cinemas. It has done no such thing and multiplexes thrive and continue to grow. We thought TV might destroy live theatre, but it has not. Certainly the CD led to the demise of the cassette tape, but that was because the CD did exactly the same thing as the cassette tape – only better.

Internet reading, with its interconnected, networked nature involves a very different kind of thinking from the deep, linear thinking that a good book offers. They both have us thinking in different ways, and both ways are powerful.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to teach our kids how to navigate the rich, interconnected world of the internet. We need to encourage them to make connections, to link old knowledge with new discoveries, to create networks in their understandings than are essentially horizontal, broad and integrating. But we also need to make sure they see the value of deep reading, of mining at depth a rich seam of knowledge. There is a place for ‘gist’ thinking, but it doesn’t replace deep thinking.

 

 

 

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On Books, Ipads and Kids

l was sitting recently in a doctor’s waiting room. Next to me was a young boy of eight or nine completely absorbed in a shoot-em-up game on his Ipad. His back was bent over and his eyes were glued to the screen in total, absorbed focus. People came and went, the ladies behind the reception desk asked questions, offered advice and gave people forms to fill in. The doctors came out from time to time to usher their patients into their consulting rooms.

The boy saw none of this. He was totally occupied killing aliens.

How do we learn about the world and how it operates? We learn much by observing – by watching and listening to the people around us and by trying to make sense of what we see and hear. But what is this lad seeing and hearing? What world is he striving to make sense of? A world full of aliens, where his job is to shoot them.

Would I have minded so much if he had sat there absorbed in a book? Might I not have been pleased to see him engaged in such a traditional and respected activity? Perhaps, but there is a significant difference between the involvement we achieve when reading a book and when we are shooting aliens on an Ipad,

When I read, I set the pace.

When I play a shoot-em-up on my Ipad, the game sets the pace.

I know that if I lift my eyes from the page of my novel, when I look down it will still be exactly as I left it, I can re-enter its world exactly where I was before I looked up. Not so with my Ipad game. A momentary lapse of concentration might see me dead or missing magic charms, extra powers can popup out of nowhere or I could be suddenly, unknowingly ambushed by a whole new set of aliens.

l am the player, but l am not in control. The level of engagement in these games is of a very different order from the level of engagement in the most engrossing book. To stay in the game the player needs to remain totally disengaged from the environment and everything going on around.

We see children involved like this with tablet games in restaurants, on public transport, in cars, anywhere that adults want a bit of peace and quiet. It is so easy to keep a child occupied with a tablet. But what are they missing out on? The world is going on around them and they are not a part of it and so they are not learning about it.

We have a lot of work to do. Our children are living in a different world and we adults need to understand that world so that we can help our children make sense of it. If we don’t, they will make their own sense, but their decisions will lack the wisdom, experience and advice that parents have always handed their children as their road maps. To fail to do this is to abdicate our responsibility for helping our children grow up.

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July 10, 2013 · 1:42 pm

Through the Rear View Mirror

Every new medium that comes along takes time to find its feet. At first we just see it as a better way of doing ‘business as usual’.

When the movies took off, at first they looked an awful lot like stage plays on celluloid, or they made our novels visual. It took time for film makers to work out what they could do that live theatre and the printed word could never achieve.

Television began as a way of bringing the movies and plays into the living room. Newsreaders sat in front of the camera in sharp suits and did the equivalent of reading the newspapers to us. Today TV news is instantaneous, right in the middle of the action and all over the world in an instant – something only TV could manage. 

Electronic communication began as a wave of emails – old fashioned letters in a new format. Today we text, send instant messages, videos, instagrams, we tweet, we blog and we facebook. We are beginning to use electronic communication for its own sake, making the most of the new things it can do that older media never could.

That’s why many schools are having a hard time incorporating these new technologies. The media and the devices haven’t settled in yet. We haven’t fully recognized what they can do that is different, that they are not just the same things from the past in a new wrapping.

Ipads are still being used as a natty new kind of text book. Kids and teachers are using them as a substitute for pen and paper, sharing homework assignments and submitting written projects. They use them as dictionaries and as encyclopaedias, but they can be so much more. We are still looking at the new media through a rear view mirror, as Marshall McLuhan would have observed.

The trick is to ask yourself ‘what can this device and its software do that only it can do?’

Once you work that out, exploit it to enhance learning. Projecting a twitter feed on a classroom screen gives everyone immediate access to the insights of the whole class. You can’t do that with a pen and paper. Skyping a classroom half way around the world (if you can fiddle the time zones right) and watching what they are doing, can’t be done with a conventional phone. Every kid can find his own TED video to watch and then share what he has learned by building a Prezi.

It goes on and on – so many things to be done with an ipad that are not simply new ways of using books or pen and paper.

It will take time. That’s inevitable. But eventually we will find ourselves using electronic technology in ways that amaze us, because we will discover how to get the technology to do what it does best.

The big question to ask is “What can this do that nothing else can do?” rather than “How will this help me do what I have always done better?”

 

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Digital Etiquette

“It’s out of control and it’s scarey!”

That’s how many parents and even teachers feel about technology and their kids right now.

I visited a primary school recently and the kids had ipads and iphones on their desks. And yes, they were connected to the net. The teacher expected her students to make use of the resources available. “Don’t forget to use your online dictionary if you are not sure of a word. And remember the web sites we bookmarked in case you want to check up on some of the information.”

Many of the children had brought their own devices from home and others were using the ones provided by the school. A BYOD policy made best use of limited funds. The goal in this school is to embed the technology in the children’s learning to such an extent that an ipad is no more remarkable than a book or a paper and pencil.

A few nights later I attended a forum on children and cyber safety.

I could feel the fear.

A big subject was sexting – kids taking photos of their ‘girl and boy bits’ and sending them to each other. Some kids, particularly girls, had suffered excruciating embarrassment and humiliation thanks to this practice.

The technology is dangerous, right? This proves it.

No, it doesn’t prove anything. Kids have written obscene notes about one another and circulated them for generations. We haven’t blamed the paper and pencil. Rumors have been whispered and spread about sexual behavior and many an innocent kid’s reputation has been damaged thanks to the malice of a few bullies. We don’t ban whispering.

OK. But they spend hours staring at the screen and firing away with their thumbs on the keyboards. They even bring them to the dinner table, have them when we go to visit grandma and when we occasionally take them out for dinner. They never talk to us.  They are always texting their friends.

Really?

Well, I remember my parents telling me it was not OK for me to kneel on my chair at the dinner table, that I could not walk around the house eating a bowl of spaghetti, that I should finish up my phone call because dinner was ready and that I was to get my ‘head out of that book’ when I came to the dinner table.

These technologies have roared out of the woods and taken over so much of our lives so quickly that we haven’t learned how to deal with them. Our lack of good manners and decent behavior isn’t the fault of the technology.

We haven’t had the time yet to develop a digital etiquette.

So let’s get started.

Sexting isn’t the fault of the smartphone, Twitter, Facebook or the digital camera. It’s the kids who are sexting. It’s the kids we need to talk with because the problem is their behavior. Until someone explains to them clearly what the dangers are, they will continue to get themselves into trouble. And it’s bullying we really need to deal with, not sexting.

My parents taught me how to behave when I was around other people. I didn’t always get it right, but there was no way in the world I would have been listening to my transistor radio or Walkman when I was sitting at the dinner table.

There is a small restaurant I frequently go to for lunch. Orders are taken at the counter and there is a sign that explains, “Please be polite enough not to talk on your cell phone when you are giving your lunch order.” I like that sign.

I’d like to see a small basket on each table in restaurants with a notice explaining “We know how you love good conversations. Please place your phone in here until you have finished dining with your friends.”

We all need a bit of help developing our digital code of behavior, our set of good manners, our digital etiqette.

 

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