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Technology is as good as our relationships

Technology is as good as our relationships

Cover: Photo by Juri Gianfrancesco on Unsplash

To kick off my post for the week, I’d like to look at a quotation. According to Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy’s book, A Rich Seam:

“Meta-analyses of the impact of technology on learning outcomes confirm that, up until now, technology use has had a below-average impact on learning relative to other interventions.”

Shocking! Counterintuitive! Tech is not as effective as other (likely simpler and cheaper) interventions! This sounds like it’s straight out of Hattie’s “Visible Learning“, doesn’t it? I remember reading it for the first time and being so surprised by the idea that technology, the thing I had been pushing, could actually get in the way of learning. If we are to trust Fullan and Hattie, then it’s safe to say that technology alone does not promote learning; in fact, it can distract from it.

Visible Learning is a must-read for all educators on all topics, not just technology.

The above book is quite exceptional that even Michael Fullan seems to have read it! In it, Hattie analyses all kinds of meta-analyses related to education and rates interventions on a sort barometric scale. There’s an entire section dedicated to technology. Looking back at my notes from when I read it, educational technology is effective when…

  • there is a diversity of teaching strategies.
  • educators are trained in how it can be used as a teaching and learning tool.
  • there are multiple opportunities for learning
  • peer-learning is optimized.
  • heterogeneous groupings are significantly more effective than homogenous.
  • feedback is optimized.

So there you have it, doesn’t that sound like good teaching though? These statements could be about anything in education. Technology is not a replacement for good teaching! Perhaps it’s safe to say then that technology is effective when it’s serving good teaching practices.

Continuing on with Fullan’s A Rich Seam, the authors make the case that based on Hattie’s work (amongst others), educational technology has been ineffective because it has been a band-ade placed on teaching practices that are actually ineffective. The authors use the term “traditional pedagogies”.

Tradition in Education is a scary word to me because it’s the idea that we have always done it this way, don’t question things, it’s just always worked that way around here (despite the discoveries in cognitive sciences!) One manifestation of this mindset is “well, that’s how I learned.” I was having dinner the other day with some colleagues and their partners. One of the non-teaching partners spoke up when we brought up kids being late. She said, “you know what I would do? Exactly what my teacher [30 years ago] did with me: lock the door when the kids are late and call them out on it in front of everyone when you open the door for them. I guarantee you that if you embarrass them enough times, they’ll fall in line. Just you try it and see.”

Brene Brown on Courageous Classrooms

The dinner party conversation fell quiet at that point. I wanted to hand her Daring Greatly, a book all about shame, but I thought it wasn’t my place. I wouldn’t have wanted to use her technique and embarrassed her in front of the others because, as shame researcher, Brene Brown tells us, shame can leave emotional scars and lead to very destructive habits: suicide, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, stress, and so on.

Everyone should watch the video above, but in case you don’t have 30 minutes, here are the Cliff’s Notes:

  • Shame = I’m bad
  • Guilt, embarrassment, humiliation = behavior is bad

The variable between these categories is “deserving”; someone experiencing shame feels like they deserve the punishment or to feel bad because they themselves are bad.

Finally, a standout point was that shame cannot live without secrecy, silence, judgment; on the other hand, shame cannot survive in an environment filled with empathy because empathy is “me too”; empathy is a connection between people. And when you don’t feel like you’re alone, you can’t stay in shame.


That “me too” of empathy is all about having conversations, listening, and connecting with one another which is something I’ve written about several times in the last year on this blog as connected to Cognitive Coaching (just in case you’re getting tired of reading about it). But I have to say that empathy is not the destination… empathy is part of making a human connection. Pablo Freires discussed human connection and how it occurs through specific traits in dialog.

“Faith in [people] is an a priori requirement for dialogue; the ‘dialogical [person]’ believes in other [people] even before [meeting] them face to face.” – Paulo Freire, 1968

It’s the idea that we have to have positive presuppositions and believe down to our cores that people can be successful no matter what (check out “Never Work Harder than Your Students” by Robyn R. Jackson if you like this idea). It’s that belief that optimistic teachers have that subtly influences the way we speak and interact; it’s ever so apparent when it is lacking as well. I have found that when I believe in people, they will rise to the occasion and perform at the level of my positive expectation. Furthermore, I believe that positive beliefs and the dignity we give someone are major drivers of connection.

Learning is social.

Ok, so I’ve made a few big jumps. Let’s trace them back and break it down.

Just because it’s new (e.g., technology), doesn’t mean it helps people learn. Technology needs to enhance scientifically proven good practice (e.g. peer support, variety of approaches, etc.) At the core of learning, is communication with others. In other words, technology should help people connect and strengthen relationships.

Just because we used to do something in the past (e.g. tradition, the way your teachers taught, etc.), doesn’t mean it was right. But just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it was wrong either. Perhaps we need to consider what is effective for the specific learners in front of us in this day and age. One trait of many learners around the world today is that technology is the environment in which they are deeply immersed and it would therefore make sense that it is leveraged as a means to learn.

A 21st Century skill is the ability to empathize. Empathy is not the end goal, but rather is it one way to build interpersonal connections with others. Part of connecting with others is also strongly and firmly having faith and optimism in others.

What we really want is for students to have a dialog, to trust, to open up, to take risks, to try something new, not to clam up and be silent. We want them to be courageous and vulnerable. I think we can all agree, if you don’t, want Brown’s video above again. 🙂

I have witnessed shame across cultures and countries. In schools, it often centers around grades or a person’s evaluation of a student’s work after he or she took a risk and put themselves out there. Grades are another person’s judgment upon your thinking, often stamped on the top of a page in bold red letters. For children, it can be difficult to make that distinction between themselves and their thinking. That is to say, they don’t see that their thinking is plastic and can grow and change or that their thinking or performance is being evaluated. Instead, they see a personal and direct judgment upon themselves when they see a grade. I know I sure did as a kid.

Krashen tells us about the affective filter that can paralyze learning altogether. Feeling safe and connected with one another is a non-negotiable for the classroom. Students’ discomfort can manifest itself in many ways, but as Brene Brown tells us above in her video, it can all come back to self-judgment. When students’ self-talk is “I am so stupid” not “that was stupid” we can see that students are shaming themselves.

All of the new technology that is rapidly accelerating and becoming readily available may very well be making the need for connections even greater. As humans, we need dialog, conversation, connection to grow, to learn. It’s through forming ideas, building hypotheses, testing, feedback, and testing again that we form ideas and learn. A critical component to that cycle is dialog and interpersonal relationships, not technology. But what role does tech play?

Technology is engaging and fun. John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” states that technology’s winning feature is engagement due to its stimulating feedback and novelties. But as a learning tool, it’s not entirely effective because at the end of the day, the tools we use depend on the user’s skill. A chef can only make world-class cuisine, not Joe from the street, even if they did use the same pots, pans, and knives. Tech is the same. Tech is only as effective as the people using it. Tech is only as effective as our relationships and teaching.

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