Monday, November 3, 2008

Paradox of Technology

“In the end, what’s at stake is not only the quality of life our children might enjoy, but also the quality of the culture that they will inhabit.”
(Eisner, 1999)

In order to unpack the philosophy of technology, we need to have some knowledge of the past, consider where we are in the present and give thought to the future. It may be helpful to begin with a definition of technology. Some authors argue the term “technology” was not introduced until the 19th century when the term was added to names of prominent institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Prior to the 19th century people spoke of the “mechanic arts” or “invention” or “science” in contexts where they would use “technology” today. Others would argue technology can be dated back to the invention of stone tools or fire. When considering educational technologies, writing could be considered one of the first technologies.

The term “technology” is believed to come from Greek origins where “techne” referred to art or craft knowledge. The German term “technik” referred to tools, machines, systems and processes used in the practical arts and engineering and was replaced with the term “technology” as late as 1934. Today, the Merriam Dictionary defines technology as the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area. The following include a few other definitions of technology beyond the standard instrumental view that technology is neutral and is neither inherently good nor bad:

Technology as a means to satisfy human needs
· “Technology” signifies all the intelligent techniques by which the energies of nature and man are directed and used in satisfaction of human needs. – John Dewey

Technology as an interdependency of tools and humans
· Technology defined in the following way acknowledges the interdependency of tools and humans; it also insists humans take responsibilities for their uses of technology: tool + intention + use = technology – Ursula Franklin

Technology as multi-stable with trajectories
· The structure of technologies is multi-stable with trajectories. Therefore, the philosopher of technology can attempt to understand these trajectories in their human significance and to adapt technical design to ethical norms. – Don Ihde

Technology as a medium and transformational
· Technology is the medium of daily life in modern societies. Every major technical change reverberates at many levels, economic, political, religious, and cultural. How we do things determines who and what we are. Technological development transforms what it is to be human. – Andrew Feenberg

Consider the quote from Phaedrus:
“Written words seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.” - Plato

In Phaedrus, we see the critical perspective to the medium of “writing” for its lack of two-way communication easily managed in oral dialogue. Plato was skeptical of writing and the impact on the quality of interactions especially between teacher and student. However, we know that print is no longer static and linear as it was when first introduced. New technologies are transforming the print medium into a more visual-aural communication space that is dynamic and multi-dimensional. Even though we are seeing this shift in communications there seems to be concern about “human contact.” For example, Lance Carlson, president of Alberta College of Art and Design was quoted in the Calgary Herald on Sunday, Oct.26/2008 as a believer in the human contact you get with that “firebrand” person talking to you. The article was about an “intellectual talks” series that will turn conversations, old-fashioned lectures into a night out and perhaps bring back the “human contact.” I wonder what Plato would think about the visual-aural communication space of today.

It is interesting to take into account some of the inventions that can be considered “technology” during different time periods throughout history. When considering each invention, it is fascinating to think about how the philosophy of technology contributes to contemporary Western thought and practices and is determining “Western Grand Narrative.” Ursula Franklin believes, “Once new technologies are introduced they seem to take on a momentum of their own and unforeseen changes that are difficult to predict and reverse.”

The printing press invented in 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg provided print material for the masses while creating unjust class divisions. The Microscope invented by Van Leewenhoek sometime between 1590-1610 was used to see very small things which led to surprising discoveries such as bacteria. The reflecting telescope invented by Galileo in 1609 allowed viewing distant objects which was seen as a benefit to the military. The moon was thought to be smooth and heavenly until it was discovered to be rough and full of cavities with the aid of the telescope. It was the invention of the telescope that provoked questions of common understanding such as the earth being the centre of the universe. The electric battery discovered in 1799 by Alessandro Volta provided a portable reservoir of electricity and was considered a great achievement even though there were uncertainties about the application of batteries.

The 19th century had numerous technological inventions including, the telephone, refrigerator, automobile, light bulb, power loom, and the assembly line to name a few. New technologies increased efficiency, for example, when textile manufacturers discovered they could lower costs by mechanizing and replacing skilled with unskilled labour – women replaced most men as weavers in the textile factories. The whole history of the Industrial Revolution is dominated by this strategy which led to a culture of compliance. As a result there were social consequences, such as, hierarchical management, fragmented work and the elimination of skilled labour.

In the 20th century computers were invented as early as 1936 and the first consumer computers were available in the 1970’s; however, computers did not become common household products until the 1980’s when used primarily for gaming and then the World Wide Web became prevalent in 1989. Technology was constructive, efficient and a communication medium that increased accessibility. At this time technology was also considered destructive, encouraging consumptive behaviour and therefore restructuring the social world, interfering with human communication, distancing reality and reducing individual involvement with nature and other human beings.

The 21st century has already amplified communication mediums of the past with the emergence of social software, e-learning opportunities and accessibility to virtual worlds. Technologies provide opportunities to interact and isolate; participate in a community and yet lose a sense of community; learn in a collaborative environment and potentially compromise the quality of learning; engage in productive explorations or choose destructive ways of living and working and it is certain that further possibilities and challenges will surface with each new technological development especially when considering educational technologies.

See a more detailed timeline created in Google Groups as a collaborative project– your input is welcome! Along with inventions and the dichotomy or dualism in consequences (possibilities and challenges) of the introduction to various technologies throughout history, the timeline correlates the authors contributing to the philosophy of technology during the same time periods. The authors are listed in chronological order by birth date (if known). There is also additional information about the authors/philosophers following the timeline.

McLuhan has a different view and I thought it would be important to consider his perspective as well. In the Global Village (1989), Marshall McLuhan posited every new technology has a “tetrad of media effects” or four simultaneous effects:

(1) enhances something;
(2) makes something obsolete;
(3) retrieves or brings back something; and
(4) when pushed to the limits, it reverses or turns into something else.

Consider a couple of my examples:
Example 1: online communications amplified connectivity throughout the world; made sending messages through postal service less utilized; brought back the value of text with digitized books; when pushed to the limit converted to text to downloadable audio books. Consider the “tetrad of media effects” with other examples.

Example 2: GPS is enhancing mapping capabilities; is making printed maps obsolete, is bringing back orienteering, and when pushed to the limit it converted to phone, camera, MP3 player, video, etc.

More Sites about the tetrad of effects:
Another link about tetrad – exploring the process of the tetrad
Interactive Tetrads
Application of tetrad to “Blogs”

What became clear when examining inventions through the passages of history is that with each emergent level, a new revelation of a paradox of technology evolved or as Feenberg describes the “methodological dualism” of technique and meaning. “On the one side, technology undermines traditional meanings or communicative action, while on the other side we are called to protect the integrity of a meaningful world.”

Perhaps, we need to combine McLuhan’s idea of the tetrad of effects and Feenberg’s dualism. I created a Tetrad of Effects template to demonstrate a possible combination of the ideas. Cut out the square shape, fold on the red lines first - this reveals the tetrad. Then fold each point away from the tetrad (symbolism: double-edged sword). When each fold is lifted it reveals both possibilities and challenges.

When considering a paradox of technology, one can also identify grand “shifts” that are occurring in our culture. For example, with the growth of social software we are seeing a surge in collective knowledge and universal communication. Communications have certainly evolved (or shifted) over time from the beginning of language and oral communication to what we could consider global or universal communications in the present. I choose to use the word “grand” because the shift to global communications extends humanity and provides opportunities for people to seamlessly interact and connect across space and time. At the same time, the plausible consequence or paradox of technology is that global communications can isolate, distance those it links or provide disposable experiences that can be turned on and off. I wonder how the Ihde’s “trajectory” of technology will continue in the future and if humanity will continue to automatically look for plausible consequences when faced with new inventions.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Seeing Through the Eyes of a Child

What exactly is needed for profound or systemic change to occur in education? When will education transform from a teacher-centered to student-centered teaching and learning environment? Why do we continue to accept and support traditional schooling as a place and a way of teaching and learning that has been the same for decades? How do we create conditions that will promote informed, thoughtful discussion about educational purposes among teachers, students, parents, and community members? This article shows and tells my educational journey as a quest to reform traditional education; that is, beyond superficial implementations. So, I posit two key areas that require further examination:
(1) There is a type of leadership that is critical for systemic change (transformation, rethinking, restructuring) to occur; and,
(2) The processes for development of reflexive leaders and practitioners with a willingness to see through the eyes of a child should ensure the best educative service of children.

The Allegory of the Cave
The current education system can be compared metaphorically to Plato’s prisoners bound in a cave in The Republic. The prisoners were comfortable with only seeing shadows projected on the wall in front of them. Reflecting on my life as a student in grade school, I often felt like a prisoner in a cave. I had twelve solid years of schooling with teachers providing models of teaching and learning and defining universal roles for teachers and students. Throughout my schooling, the classroom environment was predominantly instruction based with the teacher as the main source of information transmitting the knowledge to the students. As a student, I felt comfortable with a traditional teacher-centered environment. I imagine this may be similar to the comfort felt by the prisoners as they observed the shadows on the wall in the cave.
In contrast, as a student teacher, I experienced a paradigm shift from traditional pedagogy to student-centred pedagogy where learning became a ‘constructive’ process. Brooks and Brooks (1999) describe a constructivist classroom by identifying some guiding principles; such as: (1) posing problems of emerging relevance to learners; (2) structuring learning around primary concepts; (3) seeking and valuing students’ points of view; (4) adapting curricula to address students’ suppositions; and (5) assessing student learning in the context of teaching. (p. 33). Table 1 summarizes descriptors of constructivist teacher practice. ( Brooks and Brooks, 1999, p. 103-116).

Table 1: Descriptors of Constructivist Teachers
Constructivist teachers:
-Encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative;

-Use raw data and primary sources, along with manipulative, interactive, and physical materials;

-Use cognitive terminology such as “classify,” “analyze,” “predict,” and “create” when framing tasks;

-Allow students responses to drive lessons, shift instructional strategies, and alter content;

-Inquire about students’ understandings of concepts before sharing their own understandings of those concepts;

-Encourage students to engage in dialogue, both with the teacher and with one another;

-Encourage student inquiry by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions and encouraging students to ask questions of each other;

-Seek elaboration of students’ initial responses;

-Engage students in experiences that might engender contradictions to their initial hypotheses and then encourage discussion;

-Allow wait time after posing questions;

-Provide time for students to construct relationships and create metaphors; and

-Nurture students’ natural curiosity through frequent use of the learning cycle model.

I graduated as a new teacher filled with enthusiasm and abundant ideas for creating an environment where students would work together discussing thoughtful, open-ended and complex questions; they would make discoveries and make sense of their world by constructing their own knowledge. I looked forward to the challenge of being a constructivist teacher with a focus on the learner.

In the Cave
In my first year teaching, I accepted an assignment at an urban school with many veteran teachers who provided me with guidance and mentorship. I quickly conformed to the school’s culture and eventually felt as though I was becoming a prisoner in ‘that’ cave again. Even though I knew what a student-centered environment should look like, I found it easier to revert back to the traditional teacher-centered ways that were accepted and expected by my colleagues. I was ready to practice constructivism, a widely accepted educational philosophy and pedagogy in theory, but required the readiness and support of my colleagues and the community to progress confidently as a new teacher. My vision of teaching and learning in the classroom was clearly different from my colleagues as well as the expectations held by the school administration and parents in the community.

A few years later, I applied for a position in a different school. It was the leadership of the principal at the school that made it easy to accept a position in a new teaching and learning environment. I experienced a ‘turning point’ in my career by having an opportunity to practice the student-centered teaching and learning that I once imagined would have been my practice as a new teacher. The leader of this school provided a supportive vision and an environment that was conducive to personal and pedagogic growth and authentic progress for all learners. It was my first experience witnessing the power of such leadership. It was as if someone provided me with a re-orientation and removed me from ‘the cave’ once again.

It’s interesting that it took the first twelve years of my schooling experience as a student to learn about teacher-centered or traditional school environments. Then, it took twelve more years of teaching, becoming a school administrator, and working at the district level to realize that I still was not witnessing a ‘true’ student-centered environment. I was no longer in the cave, but I did not yet see the light. I re-located to another city due to family circumstances and decided I would start all over again as a temporary contract teacher in a new city and seek the light again.

Seeking the Educative Light
I accepted a teaching position at a non-traditional school that embraced a student-centered approach. An extraordinary leader provided inspiration that empowered others to see more than would ever be possible on their own. This leader encouraged everyone to soar. It was the leadership in the school that improved communication with the community to ensure the ‘non-traditional’ school was accepted by the parents and students alike; the barriers were removed to allow the teachers and students to truly experience a constructivist environment of student-initiated learning and habits of mind as described by Costa and Kallick (2000).

Costa and Kallick (2000) write that: The Habits of Mind are most evident when we ask students to manage their own learning. Consider all the different habits of mind involved when we ask students to choose the group they will join, the topic they will study, and the ways they will manage themselves to meet a deadline. Every occasion of self directed learning is a rich opportunity for students to practice the habits of mind. (p. 5)

It was a moment of serendipity when I realized the light I was seeking had always been right in front of my eyes – the students. I opened my eyes and became blinded by all the shining lights that crossed my path each day! In a student-centered environment, it is necessary to include the students as partners in the teaching and learning process; it is essential to involve students in their learning by seeking their input. The students are the educative light and the leadership in the school cleared the path of any obstacles which then permitted the light to be revealed and shine brightly. I learned how important it is to be connected with the students in the classroom; to engage and seek input from the students; to focus on student learning from the perspective of the student; and most importantly to serve the student.

The prisoners bound in Plato’s dark cave only seeing shadows projected on the wall parallel to those that are unwilling to alter from traditional practice where the teacher is the provider of all information and students are uninvolved participants. Leadership, both bottom-up and top-down, are necessary for the prisoners to successfully leave the cave and see the bright light. What is required in order to build leadership capacity where leaders are open to the ideas, knowledge and enthusiasm of the children and are willing to support new methods for teaching and learning? Fullan (2005) argues that “capacity building involves developing the collective ability – dispositions, skills, knowledge, motivation, and resources – to act together to bring about positive change” (p.4). How do we create an educational environment that promotes reflection and development of the collective ability and sustains educational reform?

In summary, educational reform in the classroom occurs with supportive leadership at all levels, leaders who are willing to remove the barriers that are associated with change. In addition, it is when the leaders and practitioners become reflective and desire input from the children they serve, that profound change is made possible. There is a need for more research and study on reflexive leadership and the impact of student input when implementing change. What are the possibilities when leaders, educators, parents and communities begin to view education through the lens or eyes of a child?


Brooks, J. G., and M. G. Brooks. (1999). In Search of Understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms, with a new introduction by the authors. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Costa, A. and Kallick, B. (2000). Activating and Engaging Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Fullan, M. (2005). Leadership & Sustainability: System thinkers in action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Plato. (360 B.C.E.) The Republic, Book VII (B. Jowett, Trans.) Retrieved September 18, 2008, from

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Facebook Experience

My main reason for avoiding facebook is that I don’t have time to maintain yet another web page. I find it challenging to keep my blog updated... my last post was quite a while ago. I worry that too much personal information will be exposed on the Internet and wonder what future implications this may have. I never thought I would create a facebook account. However, due to increasing pressure from friends and family that are using it, I created a profile or “caved” as described by my niece. There are so many people that have crossed my path throughout my life and I have neglected to contact or have lost contact through the years and hope facebook may help in building some of those connections again.

During the last week I have communicated with an old friend from elementary school, several from high school, one from grad school, one from another city that I used to live in, a couple from a dance group I was part of and family members from all over the country. I have laughed and cried while reading and responding to messages. I know that I would not have communicated with all these people if I had not created a facebook account!

Another reason I wanted to create a facebook account is to assess any educational applications for this tool. Web based systems are being utilized in many classrooms to share course content, provide feedback and assessment and are considered by some as an invaluable tool for teaching and learning. An element I really like in facebook is the news feed that is provided to each user with updates on any changes or posts that have been made by friends. This makes it really easy to know what’s new and navigate through the pages quickly. A live news feed would increase the ease of use of a classroom web based system as well. When students log in, they want to see information that is customized to their needs and they want to quickly know what has changed since the last time they logged in. Students are accustomed to web content that is dynamic and constantly changing. After my facebook experience (of only one week!) I understand why students view our web based tools used in the classroom as outdated and become frustrated when they do not see things changing regularly.

I believe it is important for educators to be aware of the tools that are used by students and determine if there are educational applications. I recommend trying out a social networking tool, such as facebook, and see why students are spending so much time reading and writing messages, posting and tagging pictures and videos and communicating with others on a daily basis. I also recommend the following facebook Wiki -