Point of View: Beyond Technical Wizardry

January 1, 2003

Socrates to Plato, Plato to Aristotle, Aristotle to Alexander-it's the classic sequence of teacher to student to teacher. But how will the teacher of today's 12-year-old student get him or her to internalize the precept "Know Thyself," rather than "Know Thy PowerPoint," when wild colors and thrilling sounds are mere mouse-clicks away?

Until recently, most teachers have not had to deal with the relationship of form and content in student presentations. The issue seldom arises when the medium is, for example, newspaper clippings pasted to poster board. But now, when a wide array of media is available to students, how do teachers deal with the nature of form? How do children learn that technology is most powerful when its use illuminates concepts, instead of shrouding them in technical wizardry?

Great Digital Expectations
Technology tools have exponentially expanded the potential for communication in the world today. While technology offers a compelling medium for students to express ideas, key to this process is recognizing that learning begins not with a focus on the technology, but with what the student wants to say. To take our opening example, students might choose to illustrate the Socratic dialogue and what it contributed to Greek culture and subsequent cultures. First, they must understand the concept. Then, they can use technology to figure out the best way to convey their knowledge. In this inquiry around form and content-which requires higher-order skills including analysis, synthesis, and evaluation-students gain an even deeper understanding of their topics.

The 21st Century Challenge
Teachers already know how to teach important concepts for written communication: how to help students create a coherent sentence, paragraph, or story; construct a persuasive argument; use descriptive language, metaphor, and tone; and consider a particular audience when crafting a piece of writing. These skills constitute the bulk of writing curriculum in any classroom.

The challenge for 21st century classrooms is to apply and extend these skills into the area of digital media. How do the mechanics of constructing an argument change when students have more to consider than word choice and paragraph structure, and must also think about what images, graphs, animation, sound, and links to use? How can a student transpose an argument she once presented in a five-paragraph essay into a nonlinear interactive web site-in a way that exploits the qualities interactivity can bring to a persuasive piece? Finally, how can the use of digital literacy skills actually deepen a student's interaction with content?

These are issues that most teachers have not had the time or training to consider, and in the absence of that time or training, the qualities of technology tools-sounds, pictures, animation frames-are mere distractions. We need to recognize that these elements of multimedia tools need not be distractions-any more than adjectives, metaphors, or stylistic techniques distract from good writing.

Technology offers new canvasses for students to express their understanding and ideas upon; however, the route to understanding and insight remains largely unchanged. To draw upon Plato: First, know thy topic. Second, know how to present thy topic.

Originally published in the January/February 2003 issue of Scholastic Administrator

The ideas expressed here reflect the work of Margaret and her colleagues: Cornelia Brunner, Katie McMillian-Culp, Andy Gersick, Connie Kim, and Julie Thompson.


Margaret Honey