Friday, June 18, 2010

Willingham on Technoogy

Last year at this time in the CASTLE summer book club I was criticizing Daniel Willingham for not considering technology in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?. Scott McLeod thought I was too harsh on Dr. Willingham, and Willingham excused himself by saying, "Well, the book is about the human mind, it's not about the uses of technology in teaching. You may feel that technology is essential to the future of teaching. . .if so, that may prove a lively point of debate in the book group."

Well, this June, Dr. Willingham has, at least, taken a beginning look at how technology fits in with teaching. His piece in the current issue of the American Educator falls way short of being thorough and well thought out, though, despite the twenty-two end notes which are mostly from the last ten years.

As long as we're at the end of his article, let's note that I think the editors must have chopped off his ending, because there isn't one- the article just stops at the end of a list of four things that answer the question- What Does All This Mean for Teaching? The four items are:

1. Encourage your students to avoid multitasking when doing an important task.

2. If a new piece of technology is placed in your classroom with the expectation that you will use it, take advantage of online teacher communities.

3. Think about what the technology can and can't do.

4. There's nothing wrong with engagement.

I don't know many teachers or parents who would argue with the premise of the first point while it's almost a given that there are lots of teen-agers who could offer a very spirited contrary opinion -my daughter being one of them. The second point begs a further discussion about what teachers need to do to insist on being given proper support in the classroom which includes adequate professional development to be competent with the tools of our trade, and the tools are changing and will continue to change.

In his discussion of the third point, Willingham compares a chalkboard to an overhead projector. That's about as useful as comparing a horse drawn carriage to walking as a means of traveling from Minneapolis to Chicago. Horse drawn carriages and walking are both still very lovely things to experience, but neither are practical for traveling from Minneapolis to Chicago. I still really like a chalkboard for some things but I would never buy a new one, and all overhead projectors need to be tossed as soon as possible for lots of reasons - a document camera does everything an overhead does and so much more. I wonder if Willingham has ever used one in a classroom? I guess we shouldn't expect that much investigation from a cognitive scientist- No, wait a minute; Yes, we should, especially one that's writing in a magazine called the American Educator that's published by the AFT.

Willingham reveals his superficial understanding of Twitter by pointing out that while it provides asynchronous communication between two people, the users are limited to 140 characters. I can't really take seriously anyone who claims to be writing about technology and teaching who's that limited in their understanding Twitter. It's in his fourth and abruptly final paragraph that Willingham reveals his lack of engagement with the technology. He suggests that Twitter might be useful for providing a moment of fun or energy and implies that's all it's good for. Willingham asks us to "be clear-eyed" while he's only seeing a small corner of the picture.


  1. This seems to be a case of writing and making judgments without investigating or understanding what he is talking about prior. He obviously has not made an attempt to visit a classroom of this century, collaborated with teachers on Twitter, or looked into why technology works in the classroom. It certainly makes it hard to consider him an "expert" on any subject. The problem is, because he has failed to do his homework here, I am also tempted to discredit anything legitimate he has done because he is not showing me that he understands the research process.

  2. The above post was commented on by Shelly Blake-Plock on his blog

    The discussion went for a ways there with Ira Socol chiming in and Willingham engaging in the ensuing discussion.

    Then, when I and my family were staying near where Ira lives while on our trip to Toronto earlier this month, I was able to chat with him over coffee one more morning. We agreed that we would like to take up Willingham's offer to help get an article published about the issues that were raised. The discussion has continued with new twists on Ira's blog-

    I'm thoroughly enjoying this pursuit of clarity on an issue that I think is so critical to teaching and learning.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This link should take you to Shelly Blake-Plock's discussion