Douglas Adams, The Fourth R and Learning

I was happy to see that technology was on the agenda at the annual Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) conference 2010. Almost every speaker, including heavyweights such as Batt O’Keeffe (Minister for Education and Science), Eamon Gilmore (Labour leader), Enda Kenny (Fine Gael leader), Vincent Browne (Journalist and TV presenter), Seรกn Coterell (IPPN) and Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski (DCU) spoke at length about the importance of technology at primary school level. All the above (apart from Minister O’Keeffe) were critical of the government’s lack of funding in this area for so long. As someone who has been writing about ICT in education for some time, I was thrilled that it received so much focus.

However, I was a little disappointed that the panel seemed to be talking solely about putting technology, such as hardware and software, into the classroom. There was some talk about how teachers would be trained in how to use the technologies like Interactive Whiteboards and visualisers. The supposition was that most teachers were uncomfortable with using the technology. Worse yet, one of the panel, who is a journalist from the Irish Independent said that he didn’t see how technology could improve learning and how a pen and paper were as effective tools to teach and learn.

I had to raise my hand.

Standing up in front of 600 principals, the possible future Taoiseach, a few journalists and TDs is a daunting experience. The next 30 seconds were a blur. I remember quoting Douglas Adams word-for-word but little else. I sat back down and instantly the following phrase came to me.

We should not be focussing on how to use technology but we should be focussing on how we use technology.

Vincent Browne said that he didn’t see the worth in teaching a child to use Twitter. For me, he was missing the point. We don’t need to teach a child “how to use” Twitter. No-one taught me how to use it. We don’t explicitly teach a child how to walk or go to the toilet. Either the child discovers for themselves, learns from the modelling of others or the desired behaviour is scaffolded or facilitated.

I discovered how to use Twitter by experimenting with it. The makers of Twitter provided a scaffold and I played around with it for a while. However, Twitter is effectively invisible to me. If I want to let a lot of people know what I am doing right now, that what I use. If I want to share a web site that I found with other teachers, again, Twitter is my port of call. That’s not to say I shouldn’t learn how to use aspects of Twitter. If I want to know cool things to do on Twitter (like hashtags or retweets) I can do that too but I shouldn’t need to in order to use it in the first place. We need to teach children how Twitter should be used and how Twitter can be used to learn.

In fact, take “Twitter” out of the last sentence and replace it with “technology”

For example, is it a good idea to use technology to tell people exactly where you are? Can you summarise a story in 140-characters or less? Is it a good idea to send a public message which might hurt someone’s feelings? Can you use technology to find out the answer to a problem? Is it a good idea to use technology to boast about yourself? Can you do your homework on a VLE or intranet? This list of questions is endless covering a range of learning skills, both academic and social.

In the last few years, the way we use technology has completely changed. It is something we use to communicate with others in a very different way to before. Essentially we can now instantly communicate with thousands of people instantly. I believe this has effectively added a fourth “R” to the traditional three. In Ireland, that will be Reading, wRiting, aRithmatic and Rรญomhairรญ, (the Gaeilge for computers). This new communication is both a very powerful and very dangerous thing.

I knew I’d get to my point about Douglas Adams who quotes in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, that earthlings were “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Most adults are still really amazed by computers and what they do. Most children just use them and don’t think about it. To make a basic analogy, I’m pretty sure when electricity was first discovered, people were interested in what to do with it. We don’t even think about it now. We simply use it. A digital-watch maker (probably a robot) puts all of its small components together – the LCD screen, the buttons, the wires, etc. We don’t care about that, we just use them. The digital watch is a very basic thing today, which we don’t teach how to use anymore. We automatically learn what happens when we press the top right button and see the date. We also automatically learn what happens if we press the screen very hard. (If you haven’t tried it, you probably still can tell the time). However, as we know, even the humble digital watch can be used for learning opportunities. As a teacher, I don’t think about how I’m going to teach the child how to use the digital watch, I think about how I am going to teach time using a digital watch.

Learning through technology is not about teaching children how to use Twitter, Facebook or Google. These tools may come and go or in some cases become part of our lives, like the digital watch or calculator has done. Technology doesn’t need to be learned by children anymore. They just “know” it. We need to stop thinking technology is a “pretty neat idea” and start using it as a fourth R.

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