Rejecting the Huxley Supposition: Using Technology in the Classroom for Real Transformative Learning

Mark Barnett
January 12, 2019
The worst part was all of the wide-eyed educators and administrators who were just eating it up, all mesmerized by the message that using these tools are how kids should be learning in the 21st Century.

In a 1962 interview with Aldous Huxley, (author of Brave New World) he said that “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” Upon first glance, it almost seems laughably absurd; how could we possibly go backwards with the advances in technology that have helped our society with medical breakthroughs, space travel, and the internet? However, I was recently at an international education technology conference where the who’s-who of technology education vendors were there preaching from podiums about how transformative educational experiences can be enhanced with the latest spherical robot, 3D printer, programmable circuit board or kit of screw-together parts. The worst part was all of the wide-eyed educators and administrators who were just eating it up, all mesmerized by the message that using these tools are how kids should be learning in the 21st Century. It’s an easy sell, because 3D printers, robots and circuit boards certainly look like lots of fun.

In reality, being sold is the same model of rote memorization, do as the teacher does model, that was happening in the 1800’s. We just have fancy new gadgets to do it with; and this is where progress only looks like progress, similar to what Huxley said. It doesn’t have to be this way and there are many educators all over the globe who know this as well. We can use technology to really leverage learning instead of just using it as a chalkboard upgrade.

In the same year that Huxley said technology was taking us backwards, there was hope that technology could be used to transform and progress learning instead of sending us back to the dark ages. This inspiration came from Seymour Papert after studying for many years with Jean Piaget; Papert was developing models of education that used technology to enhance learning where children can use math and computers to construct knowledge models with out the need to for teachers to instruct with traditional methods. Papert said that Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed. Papert knew that real transformative learning required new models of teaching, where students had more control of learning, where failure was seen as a tool and where students needed to think critically about information instead of being told what to think.

As I look across classrooms all over the globe, I see more technology in the classroom, but I still see traditional teaching methods where students are just taught to obey. The students are having more fun and it looks like students are doing really innovative work, but alas, in reality it is just more of the same. To help educators overcome this rut, I have some advice and resources that can help guide your teaching practice towards more constructive and innovative ways of learning.

1. Encourage students to be critical

Letting students have a voice plays an important role in establishing a culture of trust in the classroom, even if students are being critical about the current lesson and their interest in it. Though, another important form of criticism in my classroom is for students to think critically about the use of the technology that we are currently using and it’s impact on the future. To help aid these discussions, I engage with student in conversations about the 150 Copenhagen Principles in order to guide deeper understanding of how technology could have positive or negative effects on society.

2. Design lessons that include room for failure

Failure in the education system is typically seen as negative and educators feel the need to stray from it all costs. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I plan opportunities for failure to present in every lesson. Failure usually looks like a problem that needs to be solved, but instead of giving students the answer, I give them time to try on their own. Students learn in these moments of failure that failure isn’t the end, but just the beginning to overcoming an obstacle. One way that I help students practice the art of overcoming failure is by having them fix things that are broken and I often point student towards de-bugging projects in Scratch.

3. Let students play

In every lesson that I design, I always provide time for unstructured play with peers and I find this to be the most effective at the beginning of the lesson and especially when introducing a new technology. Building on the works of Seymour Papert and the Reggio Emila approach, the LEGO Foundation has published many great resources about the power of play in education. I recommend checking out The Future of Play and Learning Through Play. Most educators cite that time for play simply does not exist in a rigorous learning schedule, and it is true that it may be difficult to design time for play, but give it a try and you may find that it is more valuable that any rigorous learning schedule can provide.

Mark Barnett
Mark is the Learning Experience Designer/Head of Makerspace at Harbour School Hong Kong. Mark is dedicated to developing makerspaces that have all children succeed in learning.
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