Curriculum, EdTech & Design, Promising Practices

Building Cool Things

I grew up in the small town of Snow Lake, Manitoba, in the 70s. This means, first of all, that I’m getting old. But also it means that when we wanted entertainment as kids, we had to make it. In our community, we had two TV channels (seriously), one radio station, and one store that sold magazines. No one was coming to save us from boredom; it was all up to us. So we spent endless hours building cool things – forts or go carts – or ripping apart things that we found in our parents’ garages.

When I was a young teenager, one of my friend’s dads brought home a Commodore 64 computer. We were interested in it, but only because it had a game that let us pretend we were in the Olympics. Besides that – with no one giving us a screwdriver and wanting us to tear it apart – we couldn’t think of what we would use it for.

But with every passing season, we saw new and improved computers for sale, more powerful and surprisingly useful. It wasn’t long before desktop publishing came along, followed by the ability to edit photos and videos. Within a few years, computers let us connect with others we hadn’t seen for years and forge new friendships. They became invaluable tools that let us do things almost unimaginable only a few years before. But as I grew into an adult, I could still make the connection between these machines and the times when, as a kid, I wanted to make new things and create something cool; computers were machines that gave us the ability to be creative in new ways.

But lately I’ve been wondering. Does our commitment to educational technology allow us to do new things or just get new things?

I am an absolute advocate for ICT in classrooms. I believe it gives us an opportunity to reach into new corners of learning and expand what happens in classrooms in ways that are not possible without it. But I also believe that simply throwing technology into classrooms will change nothing. We need to challenge our students to use these tools to create, to connect, and to tinker. Do we believe that we are preparing students for the future simply because we’ve spent thousands on iPads or SMART Boards or whatever shiny gadget has garnered society’s attention for the moment? If so, then our educational technology is focused on the consumption of products and information at the expense of creativity, connection, and community.

We often make the mistake, in North America, of judging the success of our educational technology programs the way we would judge a car. Shiny? New? Thinking like consumers, if the answer is yes, we have to have it. Instead, we should be evaluating the success of our programs by thinking like producers. Will the purchases we are making challenge our students to think, to communicate with real people, to create new artifacts? A key question we should ask ourselves before we make any purchase is, “Will this give our students the opportunity to make cool things with interesting people from far away?”

The students in my classroom connect with people around the world. We’ve worked with kids who live in the slums of cities in Brazil. We’ve exchanged photos with students in Indonesia. Connecting with others has helped us to understand how our lives compare with students living in places like Los Angeles and the farm towns of Ontario. The connections that my students have to the outside world are as essential as the papers that fill their binders. We’ve built software, designed animations, and traded videos with other classrooms. Creating and communicating – the overriding goals of everything that happens in my classroom.

I hope that we in education take advantage of the opportunities that technology gives us, but I worry that we won’t. I worry that, instead, we will chase after the newest machines that come with a textbook installed and a set of teacher “photocopiable” worksheets. We will buy what is best marketed at us to help raise test scores. We’ll buy what we’re told is easy to use. If we go that route, there is a real danger that we are locking our students into a place where form is more important than function and where they are simply consumers of information and not active creators of global understanding and connections.

I used the tools I had as a kid to build cool things; lets give the students in our classrooms today that same opportunity. 

Meet the Expert(s)

Clarence Fisher

Clarence Fisher is a Grade 7 and 8 teacher who still lives in his hometown of Snow Lake, Manitoba. He blogs professionally at evenfromhere.org and in his classroom community at ideahive.org. He speaks at conferences around the world and spends too much time on Twitter.

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