This week I led a reading group session at my school on the article, “Have Technology and Multitasking Rewired How Students Learn?” by Daniel Willingham (here). Having led a lot of these, I’m convinced that reading groups are a more effective and enjoyable form of professional learning than ones that do not focus on a text. One reason why this is may be related to the concept of “Three Point Communication,” as shown in the infographic below. As teaching is so closely tied to identity, it can feel confrontational to talk directly about one’s teaching. Using an aid (like a research article) changes the dynamic:
I’ve also found that professional learning opportunities without a text tend to revolve around teachers describing their beliefs and folk wisdom about teaching. While such opportunities may allow teachers to share and develop their personal philosophies, there is also the danger that the influence of groupthink and social proof will lead to the reinforcement of popular, yet damaging, myths about teaching and learning, rather than eradicating them. Having a shared, research-based text shifts the focus of learning from “what we believe works” to what the science suggests is likely to work.
Towards the end of the session I led on Willingham’s text, the discussion expanded to address commonly held myths about edtech and technology-enhanced learning. In the rest of this post, I’d like to briefly go over five of the most persistent myths I hear as a Director of Educational Technology and as a student of instructional design for online learning. As you’ll see, believing in all or any of these myths can be detrimental to building an effective edtech program that supports student learning.
Myth #1: Digital natives exist
Some people believe that students’ brains have been rewired so that they think in completely different ways than those who grew up without technology (Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017). This is untrue; Many students do not possess a “knack” for technology, many older teachers are quite skilled with technology, and many young teachers who grew up with technology are not skilled with technology. This myth is damaging because it encourages teachers to plan lesson sequences where students must figure out technology for themselves rather than employing the more efficient strategy of directly teaching students how to use a technology. It also encourages teachers to expect students to learn a new technology at the same time as learning new content, a two-for-the-price-of-one scheme that is likely to overload working memory and impede learning.
Myth #2: Technology is inherently engaging
Many people believe that “kids these days” will find school more engaging if we include more technology in our lessons. However, as Willingham points out (2010), studies have shown that while students may be initially enthusiastic about a technology when it is first introduced, this doesn’t necessarily lead to increased enthusiasm for the subject matter. The truth is that content that is mundane will probably still be mundane online, and that powerful knowledge and challenging problems to solve can be engaging even when taught with simple line drawings and hand-written text. This myth is damaging because it encourages teachers to spend valuable planning time investigating the next flashy tech tool that they can use to “engage” their students, and to waste precious class time introducing new tool after new tool, rather than focusing on planning for student learning by linking proven instructional methods to a small number of tools that help achieve the learning objectives.
Myth #3: Students can multitask
Some people seem to believe that keeping students busy by giving a large number of tasks to do simultaneously helps students to exercise their “brain muscles” and to develop the skills required to succeed in dynamic, “21st century” work environments. There are several reasons why this is fiction. Advances in cognitive and neuroscience point to the fact that we are not good at multitasking, even when we think we are (Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017; Willingham 2010). In fact, what we call multitasking may just be task switching (flipping attention between one task and the other), and it results in severe penalties to productivity. If we are to educate students to succeed in a wide range of work environments, be they futuristic office pods or humble “20th century” cubicles, we have to teach students that it is better to approach tasks one at a time, and to limit the amount of background distractions that can interfere with productivity. Since research demonstrates that it is unlikely that teachers can do anything to increase learners’ raw processing power (i.e. through multitasking or brain training games; Harrison et al., 2013; Simons et al., 2016), we should focus instead on teaching what we can – powerful knowledge and understandings – by designing carefully sequenced instruction that acknowledges learners’ limited capacity to juggle too many things at a time.
Myth #4: You can just “Google it”
People have been proposing for some time (Hirsch, 2000) that schools as we know them have failed to adjust to the times, specifically that teaching things is no longer necessary because everything is just a quick internet search away. This argument fails to acknowledge the role that knowledge in long-term memory plays in enabling learners to know what to search for, to conjure the right keywords for a Google search, or to comprehend what is being read once they have actually landed on the internet resource. Furthermore, a pedagogy that relies on teaching Google search strategies to the exclusion of teaching knowledge restricts a student from using said search strategies to search for things beyond the familiar and the ordinary (ie. what the student would normally encounter in everyday life). Instead of outsourcing teaching responsibilities to Google, teachers can enhance students’ capacity to search the internet effectively by teaching knowledge on a wide range of topics, as well as the vocabulary necessary to be able to access the meaning behind the words on a webpage, so that students become armed with the resources to be able to understand and take full advantage of what’s possible on the internet.
Myth #5: Students learn best when allowed to discover things on their own
Before the pandemic, discovery learning fads came and went, such as 20% Time, Genius Hour, PBL Mastery Hour, and other similarly named approaches centered around free time to work on projects. Despite its popularity, there is plenty of evidence that pure discovery learning, as in, allowing students to freely explore topics with minimal instructional support, is inferior to active models of teaching (Ashman, Kalyuga, & Sweller, 2020; Rosenshine, 2012) that fully guide students during the initial phases of learning and gradually remove supports and scaffolds as students develop expertise. I consider this myth an edtech myth because it’s believed in some circles that, since the students are digital natives, that technology is more engaging than what a live teacher can ever expect to replicate, and that the internet is a good substitute for knowing things, that we’re in a new era in which students should be free to explore and multitask in unstructured spaces, unshackled from the chains of conformity and the sick fetish that is explicit instruction.
What teachers have found during the pandemic is that, perhaps counterintuitively, an unguided, unstructured approach is a pretty lousy way for students to grow into independent learners or learn about or produce anything of value. Despite claims by edutweeps that “discovery learning is heavily guided,” by definition and by design discovery learning lacks an initial instruction phase that embeds foundational knowledge that the students can explore with, and it reduces the capacity for teachers to provide descriptive, but time consuming, feedback, what with the other 25 kids in the class that each need help with a different project. Instead of thinking of digital devices as all-in-one “inquiry machines” that might one day replace a teacher, we should see them as nothing more than teaching tools that, under the management of a skilled, active teacher, can be used to facilitate the acquisition of powerful, durable understandings that extend beyond what can be discovered on one’s own.
As always, I enjoyed writing this. What other edtech myths and misconceptions have you encountered during remote learning? Interested in starting a reading group?
– Zach Groshell @mrzachg
Ashman, G., Kalyuga, S., & Sweller, J. (2020). Problem-solving or explicit instruction: Which should go first when element interactivity is high? Educational Psychology Review, 32(1), 229–247. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09500-5
Harrison, T. L., Shipstead, Z., Hicks, K. L., Hambrick, D. Z., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2013). Working Memory Training May Increase Working Memory Capacity but Not Fluid Intelligence. Psychological Science, 24(12), 2409–2419. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613492984
Hirsch, E. D. (2000). ‘You can always look it up’ … or can you? American Educator.
Kirschner, P. A., & De Bruyckere, P. (2017). The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. In Teaching and Teacher Education (Vol. 67, pp. 135–142). Elsevier Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2017.06.001
Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2005.00507.x
Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 17(3), 103–186. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100616661983
Willingham, D. T. (2010). Have Technology and Multitasking Rewired How Students Learn? American Educator, 34(2), 23–28. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ889151