Alan November challenged us to think about his six key questions proposed as a way of assessing a teacher’s or a school’s use of technology as part of his keynote at the INTED conference in Valencia this morning. The idea was to challenge the 1000$ question about whether what you are doing is really transformational learning or are you just using a 1000$ pencil? Below are the questions you can ask about any assignment you give to your students. The perfect result is yes to every question!

Transformational Six

  • Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?
  • Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?
  • Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?
  • Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  • Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  • Does the assignment demo “best in the world” examples of content and skill?

There followed a virtuoso performance where November used his laptop to demo a few principles.

  1. He demolished the notion that students can do efficient searches. I had already read about his example of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 but it was amazing to see it unfold on his screen in real time.
  2. He urged us to use the Way Back Machine as a way of comparing how perspectives change over time or as a way of beating the “404 file not found” message and the Knowledge Engine of Wolfram Alfra which can do the heavy lifting of, for example comparing the constituents of hamburgers versus hotdogs, and allow time for students instead to consider what might be best to take as nutrition in a space mission.
  3. November talked very powerfully about the Curse of Knowledge as described by Pinker which means that it is very difficult for you to imagine yourself not knowing something that you know. This makes it very difficult for teachers to anticipate the conceptual problems that students may face. The solution to this was elegantly demonstrated by the example of the computer science course at Harvard which over 800 students take at any one time, making contact with the professor impossible. But what they do is to employ undergraduate students who completed the course themselves the previous semester as group mentors. So even though all the materials of the course are available at the Harvard website, students still attend the class because of the opportunity to formulate their own questions and test them out with their peers or with these undergraduate mentors who are themselves still very close to the experience of the learning. This is apparently the most popular course at Harvard.
  4. Change the wording of a problem from ‘solve’ to ‘involve’ and the task changes from a one-answer problem to a cross-curricular project. (Click on the image to enlarge).involve
  5. Use the internet not just for information but also for connection to people. Here he cited Kathy Cassidy’s Twitter connection with 7 classrooms around the world as an exemplar for all to follow after he got a question from the audience about whether this was relevant to lower grades.
  6. And finally, as a way of demonstrating the value of making your thinking visible he introduced us to Prism which is an amazing free tool that you can use to poll what students are understanding. By inserting a text and deciding on a number of colour-coded factors such as ‘difficult to understand’ ‘unsubstantiated’ and ‘evidence-based’ you can then get a class to highlight the parts of the text which they think is difficult, unsubstantiated or evidence-based. The results are then aggregated in a visualisation which shows you what the class as a whole is understanding or not understanding. Apparently this tool was developed by students to help those who won’t raise their hand. It could be used at all but the very lowest grade levels with the teacher varying the criteria to be highlighted accordingly. This could even be used by the students themselves to assess their own learning if they input their own text.Prism

The big question

There were many questions from the audience and at the very end there was one very interesting question about the status of content. According to November he would prioritise skills over content, partly because nobody can agree on what the core content of an education should be as shown by the different curricula around the world. I noticed also elsewhere some pushback on the downgrading of content when Sugata Mitra praised a new app which will identify plants, with a comment on the lines of ‘So who needs to memorise this?’ I have been taken in the past by various suggestions about ‘What you need to know’ such as this one by Stephen Downes which was itself a riposte to another list (link in the article).

And so I am left wondering what should be the balance between skills and content? Does the existence of all the clever tools listed in this post and mentioned by Alan November mean that we need to know less but be able to do more? Would we need to know more if the internet disappeared tomorrow?