We need pedagogy, not just cool tools

Rubik Apps
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: César Poyatos via Compfight

Whether we have fully integrated technology or not, few of us can deny that learning technologies can revolutionise language learning and teaching; we can find information at the click of a button, create content and share it with the world, communicate and collaborate beyond the boundaries of our classrooms, have a Personal Learning Network and be inspired to become lifelong learners.

There are plenty of options available; various blogging platforms, voice recording tools, LMS software (Learning Management System), social media, you name it; and there is also a lot of information about them. Colleagues who have tried a tool might write a blog post; educational technologists might give reviews on new tools. All this is valuable and I have personally learned a lot out of it. However, what happens when this information comes out in the form of lists such as “100 must-have digital tools for teachers” or “50 tools every teacher should master this summer”? What about blogs whose only purpose is to present “cool tools” day after day? Isn’t all this a bit overwhelming?

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Through discussions with colleagues and trainees, I can only say that such information can hardly help teachers decide what to choose and what to reject. Some of their comments include the following:

  • “There are too many tools but too little time”.

  • “I’m not trained, I can’t decide”.

  • “They all look the same to me”.

  • “New technologies seem to appear everyday. I just can’t keep up”.

Does this ring any bells?

I don’t think that what those teachers need is a reminder that they should soon master 50 or more tools. Education has never been a matter of quantity. I guess what they really need is training and clear criteria against which to evaluate and choose technologies; they need to be able to make informed decisions about whether or not to integrate them into their classrooms. They also need to be reassured that if their goal for students is language learning then technology is just a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I feel that just presenting tool after tool is a rather narrow perspective about the potential of Educational Technology.

The hype to use the latest and greatest digital tools – rather than the meaningful use of technology – is like driving a cool car without any vision for where we want to go.

Let’s take the focus off the tool; Instead, let’s focus on:

  • the pedagogy behind the tool and use it because it addresses our students’ cognitive needs, not because it is available or exciting.

  • developing critical thinkers with the ability to find, reflect on, curate and synthesise information.

  • developing lifelong learners who will be able to create and use their Personal Learning Networks to self-educate and grow.

  • educating digital citizens, that is, responsible members of an increasingly global and interconnected world who know their rights and responsibilities; people who can make informed decisions about the content they create or share and its impact on themselves and on the other members of a digital community.

Cool tools might still be welcome to our classrooms but this won’t make them more appropriate for learning.

If you are interested in the topic and you are around Thessaloniki, Greece, on the 15th of December, come along and join us at the TESOL Macedonia – Thrace Christmas event where I will be talking about “Evaluating and Choosing Educational Digital Tools and Apps ”.

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21 thoughts on “We need pedagogy, not just cool tools

  1. Nice to see that top priority is given here to pedagogy. Shame, though, that so few teachers (online at least) are saying anything interesting about the subject. Where are the digital pedagogues who can articulate something that might deserve to be called a “philosophy of education”?

    • Hi Torn,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I believe there are great minds out there who research, write books and blogposts, speak at conferences, mentor and inspire teachers. It’s a real shame that what stands out is a “tool-after-tool” approach; this is not what Educational Technology is about. Sure, we should develop a great understanding of the tool if we are to use it effectively; but it’s the rationale behind it that really matters. And this is where we should be focusing on.

      Thanks again,

      Sophia

  2. Dear Sophia,

    I am so happy you have written this post – the past four years I have been active on social media I have seen scores upon scores of tools being recommended, and most of the times not having the rationale behind them explained.

    The points you mention that we should focus on are spot-on: not focusing on the tool, but the pedagogy.

    This is a must-read and I will forward it to everyone I know that hasn’t seen it or isn’t active on social media!

    • Dear Vicky,

      Thank you so much for your comment; like you, I think that this approach should stop. It’s ineffective and misleading. Educational Technology theories have never ever suggested the focus should be on the tool. We never focus on the pen when we write on paper, right? Why should we focus on the app when we chat?

      Thanks again :-)

      Sophia

  3. Sophia, what a terrific post. I’m in the middle of writing a post of my own and will share a link to this blog post and I’m using the word fabulous. I think that you’ve nailed it; so many people are on the “staying with the coolest treadmill” and end up missing the goal of education – teaching the student. With the proper tool, it can make a huge difference. Using something just because it’s cool has so many issues.

    Thank you for your post. You really nailed it.

    …Doug

    • Hi Doug,

      Thank you so much for this. I’m truly honoured and humbled to get positive feedback from such a great educator :-)

      I’m looking forward to reading your post,

      Best regards,

      Sophia

  4. Interestingly enough, I was just discussing this with a group at a conference the other day. We were saying that if a conference session is “Top 10 Tools for…” or “50 Tools for…,” it tends to be standing room only. At the same time, sessions that have more pedagogy-focused titles, sit mostly empty. It’s a shame.

  5. A great blog post and yes the comments from your colleagues and trainees definitely ring bells with me. I am drafting a blog for vocational education teachers in Australia about some of the ways they can apply a few technology tools for training and assessment and why they may help, rather than overwhelming them with a list. I will be referring to this blog, thanks!

    • Hi Kerrie-Anne,

      Thank you very much for your comment and happy we are now connected on Twitter. Please, let me know when your blog is posted. I’m looking forward to reading it!

      Best regards,

      Sophia

  6. An interesting post, Sophia.
    You begin by saying that ‘few of us can deny that learning technologies can revolutionise language learning and teaching’. I wouldn’t disagree that learning technologies could change language learning / teaching, but even a quick look at the history of educational technology shows that this change has never happened. There is no reason to believe that the latest tool will change anything more than the previous latest tool.
    The writers and bloggers who take the line that you criticize should be forced to read Larry Cuban’s ‘Teachers and Machines’ – 25 years old now, but still essential reading.
    Best wishes
    Philip

    • Hi Philip,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I only found Larry Cuban’s blog which I read with great interest. I think that whether we integrate technology into our classrooms or not, our students will grow up within a technologically dependent society; they should be able to use information purposely and responsibly, create and publish authentic works, be effective collaborators. We need to prepare them for this; if we don’t, they will explore and experiment anyway, unfortunately without the skills necessary.

      What I wished to highlight in this blog, however, was the need for purposeful use of technology. We need to see beyond the bells and whistles and understand that for learning to happen, we need a sound pedagogical framework, not tools; A tool is and should be just a means to an end, not an end in itself.

      Having said that, isn’t it a miracle we are having this thoughtful discussion using a digital tool? I think this can happen among students as well; in fact, it is happening in many classrooms around the world. But this is because of the vision and skills of a dedicated teacher, not because of the tool.

      Thanks again for the discussion,

      Best wishes,

      Sophia

  7. Thanks for an interesting post, Sophia! I very much agree that pedagogy must come first, otherwise all we’re talking about is “technology in search of a problem to solve”. Not much listening to teachers going on there – and not much “value creation”, either.

    Looking at things teachers (need to) do should be the place to start; the question then becomes what value is added by ICT use. Suggesting criteria for tool evaluation sounds like a good idea….will you be looking into teaching contexts in December?

    Best wishes,

    Philip

    • Hi Philip,

      Are you asking about my upcoming presentation or a future blog post? Like you, I believe that context is key to pedagogy; we will be looking at teachers’ educational contexts and discuss whether -or not- specific tools can add value. I think that teachers know better than anyone else what their students really need. What I will try to highlight (and hopefully encourage) is that we should first reflect on our students’ educational needs and then select tools that are likely to address them, not the other way round.

      Thank you very much for your comment,

      Best wishes,

      Sophia

      • Thank you very much for answering the question I’d intended to ask, Sophia! I hope the talk goes well for you: I definitely agree it’s a question of empowering teachers where ICT is concerned.

        Best wishes,

        Philip

  8. Talk of “tools adding value” indicates how imperative it is for teachers to spend more time thinking about the philosophy of education and less time thinking how to keep up to speed with the latest tech.

    Talk of “adding value” uncritically borrows an essentially commercial discourse that fits perfectly with the commodification of education. The point is not to “add value” but to teach value, and the question in relation to technology is: What values are being fostered when the tech is used in the classroom in the particular way a teacher arranges for it to be used?

    • Is it necessarily uncritical to insist that tools be useful to teachers? I don’t believe anything I’ve said commodifies education at the point of delivery, but I think the question you raise is still an interesting one.

    • Hi Torn.

      Thank you very much for this. Of course our primary aim should be to teach value – something that no tool can ever achieve. My point is that with the right tools we can enhance this. An example might be when we try to foster communication. We start teaching this in the classroom but with the right tool we can extend this beyond. We can also use tools to make learning more flexible for our students and allow them to personalise their learning experience. But I would definitely agree with you that the notion that a tool can have all the answers is a narrow one and doesn’t take us anywhere.

      Thanks again for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Sophia

  9. “Of course our primary aim should be to teach value – something that no tool can ever achieve.” Do you mean: No tool can teach the values that children really need to learn, or: No tool ever teaches values. The former is a proposition worth looking at more closely; the latter is patently false. Every tool teaches values. Mitra’s SOLEs are the 21st century equivalent of Sunday bible classes for pre-teens, with the iPad taking the place of the Guttenberg bible, without Mitra ever having to spell out to the kids: “The future is good (the past is bad), and the path to the future goes through Silicon Valley.”

    ” the notion that a tool can have all the answers…” But this is a straw man. Even Mitra doesn’t believe that the internet has all the answers. The internet and the iPad need the SOLE. They need teachers to pretend they are ignorant in the classroom – to pretend that no living human being has any intellectual authority or knows more than what is in Wikipedia in virtue of their experience.

    The problem is not in some particular idea about tools, rather the problem is in the level of thinking evident in the discourse about EdTech – at least the level evident online, where things are supposed to be “happening”. McLuhan (for all his weaknesses) highlighted the way in which the child is indoctrinated by every exposure to the media. Where online are the 21st century thinkers about education that acknowledge this – thinkers who absorb McLuhan’s wisdom and move things forward? People like Mitra and Robinson slip way, way behind McLuhan, criticising schools and ignoring the wider media environment that has such a deep impact on the developing psyche.

    • Interesting critique…however, in my opinion your last paragraph underlines just how much we need teachers like Sophia to speak up!

      I think one can differentiate tools and their practical use from the way they are represented in the media. The problem lies not in the tools, but rather the discourse surrounding EdTech, which is too tech-dominated and insufficiently centered on pedagogy. Teachers need to raise their voices, and Sophia is to be commended for doing so.

  10. I agree 100% with everything you said! I love technology but it is of no use if it can’t be integrated meaningfully into the classroom. In addition, many educators will not even look at something that is not free. I guess they’d rather have an overwhelming number of free choices than a few that would really make a difference. I’ve been using technology since Apple II days but it seems like everyone wants to jump on the new free app bandwagon immediately. Very disappointing! Great post!

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