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The local school board has recently voted to spend $482,000 to purchase iPads for a high school. “If we don’t do this now, and are already behind, we will get swamped. Instead of buying for a grade level or a school, it’s going to have to be for every kid in the district,” stated the board president. Chiming in was the superintendent who said “It’s not the wave of the future, it’s here now,” Mr. XYZ said. “It’s about the digital world we’re in more than it is about the device. We just have a device now that allows us to do that. The struggle now is getting everyone up to speed.”

There is utterly nothing novel or surprising about these sentiments among educators. The eternally open door to the brave new world beckons educators to outfit their classrooms with the latest and greatest. This is a healthy and vital impulse that I hope we all value.

From where I sit as a 59 year old industrial chemist, the image of new iPads holding a key to mending our educational woes seems like only the latest false prophet to pass our way.  Am I just grumpy or quietly jealous of the lucky young pups getting their iPads? Well, I am prone to grumpiness. Jealous of the students? No. I have declined the issuance of an iPad at work.

I think part of what we see is FOMO: Fear-Of-Missing-Out. To be sure, iPads or other brands are popular for a reason. They’re a wonderful tool for finding information about nearly anything and they are just plain fun to monkey with. So, as a resource to students, the iPad will obviously provide an ever widening portal to the world’s treasure of information. For this it has merit.

Two things can happen to those who frequent cyberspace. First, we find information through the use of search terms that lead us to a great many sources to choose from. But which are the most credible sources? Are they out dated?  Eventually, if civilization holds up long enough, we’ll relearn the importance of rigor in publishing. Secondly, and critically, when we find some information will we understand it? Searching and finding is not equivalent to substantive understanding.

A psych prof once related to me that true learning requires struggle. In my experience I have found this to be a fairly accurate truism. In my college teaching years I always conveyed to students that part of the secret to success in chemistry was to read the text several times and strive to understand the reasoning in the example problems.  Just as importantly, always do the assigned problems. Freshman chemistry is heavily weighted in quantitative concepts and math problems. In fact, freshman chemistry can often morph into a math class for many students.

Being an organikker I taught sophomore organic chemistry. Chemistry is highly vertical meaning that successive course work depends on content from previous classes. Organic chemistry is a bit different in that much of it is qualitative and heavily weighted with new vocabulary and the symbolic language of reaction mechanisms. I used to say that sophomore organic was the year of 10,000 structures. An important part of learning organic is the rote mechanical-tactile brain activity of drawing structures by hand. We chemists are just crazy about structures. Drawing pictures helps to seal the connection between vocabulary and structure. Being asked to draw structures correctly and adding functional groups forces one to associate symbols with composition and vocabulary, but also to acknowledge the 3-D aspects of molecules. Like freshman chemistry, organic requires a good bit of struggle.

In the past I was involved in public outreach with the science of astronomy. Having racked up many seasons of observing and studying the topic I was conversant enough to give star talks and usher visitors for a chance to peer through the 18 inch Cassegrain in the dome. I did this for some years but finally tired of it. What wore me out was that the public rarely had more than superficial interest in the topic. They were just happy to see the moon. It was infotainment and I had been an infotainer. What I finally realized was that to truly appreciate the wonder of astronomy and the mechanisms that grind the universe forward, a visitor would have to sit down and grapple with a lot of physics and new phenomena. A person has to be willing to commit to some struggle to gain the wonderful insights. My hard won knowledge offered to visitors just washed over them for the most part. It was a show and I was a performer.

So let me close the loop by connecting struggle with educational technology. It is my fervent hope that curriculum does not confuse learning to operate a device as evidence of subject knowledge. Most devices are designed to be easy to learn. What is crucial in K-12 education is that a groundwork of basic facts and knowledge of systems and processes are absorbed by students. A basic knowledge of geography facts, government facts, history facts, math facts, grammar and vocabulary facts, sciency facts, etc. are still necessary to have to build upon in the future. Any notion that facts can be left by the wayside in favor knowing where to look for them is a tragic mistake. Eventually people have to draw upon facts to properly search Google. After all, facts have names and to dig deeper into a topic, the user must supply the right search terms. The wrong synonym in a given search may not take the searcher to what they are looking for. Facts in your brain are still very necessary.

 

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