Remembering the Social Contexts of Learning

Posted: July 12, 2011 in digital culture, edushifts, reflections

I’m struggling with a few thoughts at the moment…

I continue to read, and be inspired by, blog posts, statements, tweets, etc from educators about the need to integrate technology into daily teaching and learning. I continue to see, and am inspired by, evidence of educators successfully integrating technology in their classrooms and the benefits to their students. Then I reflect on why it is that we have to constantly reiterate the need to integrate more technology into teaching and learning and I see a disconnect.

Allow me to state right here that I continue to be an advocate for increased use of technological tools to help teachers teach and to help kids learn. My concern is that it seems to me that we are spending all of our time discussing the tools and not enough on the social and political contexts of teaching and learning and how to navigate these spaces successfully in order to broaden technology integration.

I am pointing my finger a bit here at technology and curriculum specialists. I respect the work these individuals do. After all, I use to be a curriculum consultant in Academic ICT myself. I am pointing my finger in this direction because the talk is always about the ‘what’ (as in what should be done) and the ‘who’ (as in who should do it) with an overuse of the word ‘should’. Being an administrator, I feel the pressure and the guilt associated with being that ‘who’ of technology leadership and the guilt associated with not doing what ‘should’ be done as quickly as some desire.

The disconnect here is that proponents of technology, myself included, often spend enormous amounts of time and energy discussing the mechanics of technology use but do so outside of the social contexts and realities of teaching and learning.

Education is highly social and highly political. Contexts vary from city to city, area to area, school to school and classroom to classroom. We talk about, for example, mobile learning, and the mechanics of success but often neglect to consider how some schools are flooded with money that can support such initiatives while others are struggling with 10 year old Pentium I computers. Children in some schools have the social capital and leisure time to delve into the technology while children in other schools have parents working multiple jobs and spend their free time supporting the household. Then there are issues of immigration/language barriers, social makeup of classrooms, physical realities of older buildings, multiple and often competing priorities from school districts and government ministries, etc.

Working as an administrator in intercity schools had opened my eyes to these. My experiences have reminded me that the conversations we often have online about technology integration happens in a vacuum. I desperately want to continue to champion the development of 21st century skills and the use of 21st century tools but I think that we need to move outside of this vacuum before we can start to experience broader implementation and broader success. Namely, we have to start to consider the social and political contexts of schools and learning environments and discussing the mechanics of technology-based learning within those multiple contexts. We have likely shied away from doing this because it’s hard and because it’s messy when you have to include people and subjective opinion and action in the conversation. However, it’s only by navigating through these difficult conversations that we can truly address the concerns of some and support the work of the rest. Let’s start having these deeper conversations and let’s start having them now.

  1. Colin Jagoe says:

    Hey Rob, You put into your blog some of the same things that I’ve been thinking about recently. Only I’ve not just been thinking about tech tools, I’ve been thinking about all tools. And I’ve started to consider that the skills we focus on in Ontario are part of that set. Literacy, numeracy, critical thinking. All those buzzy kind of words. If we continue to focus on those as end goals themselves, and not as means to a larger end, with learning that is relevant and meaningful, then we’ll not move forward at all. It’s about learning, and I don’t think it matters if it’s a cognitive tool, such as a literacy skill, or a hardware tools, such as a computer that students use, they are all tools to serve a larger end which is their learning. And you’re correct in that the social context has to be considered. I think this is a deep subject, and I’m just starting to wrap my bacon around it.

    • Thanks for the comment Colin. You make a good point here – a lot of focus on technical and procedural items without the context. One specific conversation I have had recently around this topic is around EQAO and the fact that some of the questions on the test don’t make social sense to some kids depending on their social reality. For example, a question that uses rush hour as a context for the question is meaningless to a student in northern Ontario who lives in a town of 1000 while questions about harvesting don’t make sense to an urbanite. My point here is that the context of the question can negatively affect student results even if they have the technical skills to answer it with a Level 3 or 4 response. I would venture to state that there should be two or three versions that schools can choose from depending on their demographic – a version for urban schools, one for rural schools and one for intercity schools. In this way, we can still assess learned skills but do so that also somewhat address the socio-economic realities of the school.

      • Colin Jagoe says:

        Exactly Rob. If it’s truly about learning, then context shouldn’t get in the way of an evaluation of that. I was having a discussion with some of my colleagues about the EQAO tests, and technology and all of the other things we discuss, and it struck me that in a lot of ways we’re completely missing the point of all of the bits and pieces. Literacy for example, if we focus on literacy for the sake of literacy (or some test of literacy) then we’ve got zero relevance for any one except those that that love literacy. I know I didn’t learn to read and write so that I could read and write, it’s simply a skill (dare I say tool) to allow me to learn about the rest of the universe and get along in a modern world. That’s the point that I think we often miss.

  2. […] From Principals, VPs, and AdministrationOn the heels of Joan’s post, flip over to read what Rob DeLorenzo has to say about "The Social Contexts of Learning". […]

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