Technology by Design: Using Technology to Foster Critical Thinking
While sorting through boxes of books in the attic not too long ago, I stumbled across the Britannica Encyclopedia set purchased by my parents in 1968 by a smooth-talking door to door salesman. In the working class community I grew up in, this was somewhat of an anomaly, so our volumes were borrowed by cousins and neighborhood kids long after I had left home. As far as I can remember, this resource was used by all of us for one thing and one thing only: to painstakingly copy word for word the weekly history reports we passed in to Mr. Hebert. He always returned them the next day, and if you wrote neatly, spelled every word correctly, and didn’t miss a comma or an end mark, you’d get an “A+” and a whistle from Mr. Hebert. I got a lot of whistles, and I adored the grandfatherly Mr. Hebert, but I still don’t know much ’bout history. Today, of course, the Britannica Encyclopedia is online, and Mr. Hebert is long gone, but I fear that for many of my middle school students, the research process is much the same, albeit less painstaking thanks to Google and copy + paste.
According to its corporate home page, when Google was founded in 1998, its mission was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Now, twelve years later, there is hardly an aspect of our digital lives that Google is not part of, but for most, Google continues to be synonymous with research and the Internet. In theory, instant access to all the world’s information should make us smarter. Paradoxically, some have begun to ask Is Google Making us Stupid? and Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind? These are fair questions to ask. Today’s students have grown up in an age when a sea of information is at their fingertips, but what good is access to the world’s information if students aren’t learning to think about it? Could it be that in our zeal to integrate the newest, coolest tools and applications, we are foregoing sound educational pedagogy that fosters critical thinking?
As a practitioner, I am mindful of the importance of critical thinking at the heart of every learning activity, but when integrating technology, I can easily lose focus, get mired in the minutia of the technology. Over the years my students have had rich opportunities with a variety of digital technologies, but many times I’ve felt that the technology dominated the lesson. I lost sight of the purpose, the intended learning outcomes, the guiding questions.
My concern with this disconnect led me to the work of Punya Mishra and Matthew Koehler who assert that good teaching requires an understanding of how technology relates to the pedagogy and content. TPACK, or Technology Pedagogy and Content Knowledge, is their framework for thinking about these three forms of knowledge and how they intersect. In other words, practitioners need to consider what is being taught (the content), and the means of teaching it (the pedagogy) before considering the digital tool or resource that is most appropriate. Hitting that sweet spot in the middle is the challenge of good instructional design.