Monthly Archives: September 2012

What Tools Do Learners Really Need?

by Hap Aziz

Mark Helprin’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Skip the Paris Cafés And Get a Good Pen,” made me stop and think a little bit about the emphasis we place on technology tools for learners. What is truly necessary and helpful may be something completely different than what learners want–or what we (educators) insist on providing for our learners. I found this passage to be very enlightening:

“This brings up Levenger, which sells “tools for writers.” The fewer tools the better, and they need not be costly or complicated. Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It’s not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen—the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page—but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.

“In short, a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel.”

How does this sentiment align with our expectations of digital literacy, technology competencies, and instant and ubiquitous connection and communication with anyone anywhere on the face of the earth? Does the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, for instance, set up barriers against our ability to think and feel? And how important is this type of thinking and feeling to the cognitive schemas we are constantly building and rebuilding in our minds?

In conversations with higher education faculty across the country, I often like to comment that our current educational process involves spending years to teach students how to code and decode information (read and write) before we even begin to teach about the actual content of a particular area of study. Ultimately, this will need to change if we hope to reach students and inspire them with the true love of life-long learning.

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Play as a Learning Driver

by Hap Aziz

Our family dog, a White German Shepherd, loves to play. That isn’t surprising. But what does fascinate me is that clearly our dog has very specific rules to the games he plays with us, and that different “games” have different rules. There is acceptable and unacceptable physical contact. There are “safe zones” when chasing or being chased. There are appropriate ways to call time out. All of these are rules that our dog worked out on his own, and he expects that we will follow them faithfully when we play. Play is serious business, after all.

After playing with Bolt (yes, I know, a White German Shepherd named Bolt just like the movie) over the years, I considered the concept of animals playing and having rules to their games just like people. Clearly, the evolutionary mechanism for play among dogs (and other animals) is to work on actual survival skills used in activities like hunting, protecting food, and fighting. I realized that the very same mechanism is a component of human play; that is, before we as a civilization began to formalize learning, we developed our survival skills through play competitions (the competitions of running and throwing things really speak to the skills we use in the hunt). It seems obvious that play developed to a large degree as a means of facilitating learning.

Then we humans formalized learning and sucked the fun of play right out of it.

The idea of gamification addresses the issue of play elements in the modern learning experience. Though more and more educators are becoming aware of the potential benefits, the majority of people in the teaching and learning community have not really made up their minds as to its value. The following articles on gamification are worth reading. If you do take a look, leave a comment here and let me and your fellow readers know what you think about the topic.

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