Social context, not just tech with teens

A few days ago,  I looked at why it’s important for us not only to teach our teenage students good English, but to do this while stressing higher order 21st Century skills at the same time.  Because adolescents’ brains are undergoing enormous changes in the pre-frontal cortex they are particularly receptive to work done on these social skills which are so vital to their future success as confident individuals who can work well with others.

Today I want to talk about how this impacts on the way we use technology with our learners.  And what I would like to suggest is that the most productive lessons on the use of technology for our teens (and maybe for us as teachers as well) actually have very little to do with technology per se, and a whole lot more with our awareness of  the social context in which we use it.

A particularly interesting model for the evaluation of technology use which was developed by Ruben R. Puentedura in 2011 called the SAMR model might be instructive here.  If you’re interested you can hear him speaking about it in this video, but let’s just quickly deconstruct the acronym to get an idea of what it’s all about.

Puentedura divides uses of technology into those which merely enhance the way you carry out learning tasks and those which truly transform those tasks and the learning process leading to improved outcomes.

Enhancement is represented by the letters S (Substitution) and A (Augmentation) of the acronym.  An example of substituting a technological tool for an existing one might be using a word processor instead of pencil and paper, or sending your teacher your work via e-mail instead of handing it in.  It’s kind of nice, but it brings little new to the table.  Augmentation goes a step further and the student might start to use some of the improved functionality of the word processor to format the document differently, add media or use a spell-checker, for example.  If you notice, what the students are adding to the task in both of these cases are mostly technical elements.

But ultimately I think students can do many of these things on their own.  What really interests me are the M and the R – the ways we can transform learning with technology.  Puentedura identifies these as Modification, where you can significantly re-design a task using technology, and Redefinition, where students are going beyond what was before possible, being empowered to employ the technology to carry out tasks which have never before been undertaken.  Obviously this level of outcome is precisely what we should want our students to aspire to as it impacts not only on their individual development, but ultimately on how innovative our society as a whole can become.

Putting aside what a truly transformative task might look like for a moment ,there does seem to be a great deal of agreement about the kinds of skills that are required to make them work.  In contrast to the almost purely technical skills required to carry out substitutional uses of technology, Transformation, as I read it, can only take place if higher order, 21st Century skills are thrown into the mix.

For Modification and Redefinition to occur we need to have prosumeristically-minded students who are able to collaborate with others, organizing information by applying critical-thinking , sharing it in an appropriate way which will impact positively on continued debate and stimulating future contributions by others.  In short we are asking for nothing less than to have them lend a hand in building up this vast shared construct we call human knowledge.

And this is where the teacher comes in.  When you think about it there is nothing particularly 21st Century about 21st Century Skills.  Were Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity unheard of before 2001?  Of course not, but they have once again been put center-stage by a society which has seen an explosion of internet-based tools which demand a new understanding of these skills in a new context.  And the role of the teacher is to help our students transfer existing analog skills to a new digital and increasingly hyper-linked landscape.  But the trick is to see them more as social than technical aptitudes.

Take a Google doc.  It’s a fantastic tool for pushing our students in this direction – a shared document which lends itself to collaboration, shared insight, group editing and, hopefully, sharing or publishing – the ultimate in empowerment.  But when you open up a document it is still nothing more than a blank page.

Students are likely have the technical know-how to deal with all its bells and whistles, but how many really know how to work productively on a project with their colleagues?  How many have the social skills to undertake a project with that level of organization?  How many are prepared to give or receive criticism or correction from a classmate, turning their mistakes or someone else’s insight into a personal or collective gain?  And how many are aware of the power and risks implicit in pressing the publish button in today’s day and age?

Once again, this is where the teacher comes in.  When teaching with technology we are often under the impression that we need to master the tool.  But what is really true is that we need to help our students master the context in which they will use the tool.

And as teachers we already have these skills, honed over years of experience in getting students to analyze print texts, think of their effect on the target reader, the register and context they are written in.  It is only a question of transferring them to a new and highly public arena where titles pop-up in Google searches, footnotes have morphed into hyperlinks and even URLs can provide context.

In many ways things really haven’t changed all that much.  In forming literate members of society we have always started out with the basics with younger students, gradually increasing not only the linguistic difficulty at which we expect our students to read and express themselves, but also building their awareness of the social complexity into which our cultural artifacts are woven.  Known as “Digital Literacy” this is a logical extension of where our society is going and it obviously impacts very directly on how we need to see our role with our students  (if you need any more proof of this – or practical examples of how to approach teaching it I suggest you check out Digital Literacies by Dudeney, Hockly and Pegrum).

Our teens are moving quickly towards a future where much of their lives will be online.  We know that one of the things which can help them the most at this age is raising their awareness of social behavior, helping them to work together effectively  and empowering them to make their own critiques of the world around them.  If you open up a shared doc with them (or use any other tech tool for that matter) maybe you shouldn’t sweat the tech stuff so much.

Stick first and foremost to what you already know as a teacher – how to foment an understanding of communication in a broader social context.  And see it as an opportunity for a project that’s going to help them ask bigger questions about their future than which tab to click on to get the chat box to come up.  They’ll figure that part out for themselves.  It’s how they use that chat box with their classmates which is going to make the difference.