How technology creates facilitative disruption in the classroom

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There is no doubt that technology has the potential to be a major disruptor in the classroom. There are two kinds of disruption: facilitative, or “good”, disruption; and debilitating, or “bad”, disruption. So what matters most is the type of disruption being caused not so much the disruption itself.

You can’t really get away from disruption in the classroom no matter what you do… Learning itself is a process of disrupting, or destabilising, thought and behavioural patterns. When asked for a definition of education, the American educational psychologist David Pearson stated that it was a process of building bridges between the known and the new. Piaget, the great Swiss child psychologist said that learning occurs when an organism interacts with the environment. For example, if a curious cat burns itself on a hot stove, it quickly learns not to go near the stove again. In our case, the “organism” is the learner. Piaget has shown that when learners acquire a new piece of knowledge, in the first instance, they will attempt to incorporate it into their existing knowledge structures. Piaget referred to this process as “assimilation”. More often than not, however, the new piece of knowledge, won’t “fit” into the existing structure which is disrupted. Piaget called this process “accomodation”. This is what I referred to as :good” disruption.

Disruptive technology in Vietnam classrooms

Let me share two vignettes with you. Both are taken from classroom observation notes I made during an investigation into blended learning in elementary classrooms in Vietnam.

LVT Elementary School Hanoi
The class consists of 17 grade one boys and girls. The lesson topic is “sea creatures”. It begins with the teacher revising vocabulary from the previous lesson. She mimes the actions of fish, dolphins, shrimp etc, asking “What is this?” and the children shout out the names of the creatures. After several other teacher-fronted activities, she directs the students to hexagonal pods, each of which is set up with a tablet. Each tablet is connected to the teacher’s desktop computer, which acts as a server. The students listen to a story and follow the animated movie that accompanies it. They are then to do a self-paced pronunciation activity. Almost immediately, problems occur to approximately half of the tablets: some of the tablets fail to load the programme and have to be rebooted, on other tablets, the programme loads, but there is no sound. The teacher hurries from malfunctioning tablet to the next, trying to sort out the problems.

The failure of the technology is a major problem. It distracts the students and consumes precious class time as the teacher works to try and get the students’ tablets working. This is an example of what I call debilitating disruption. Debilitating because it has a negative effect on the learning process: in this instance because it distracts the students from the learning task and reduces that amount of time the students have for learning and the teachers have for teaching.

LZT Elementary School Hanoi
A grade one class. Students are seated at their pods with tablets loaded, but are taking part in a teacher-fronted activity prior to doing a self-paced activity on their tablets. During this phase, one of the boys, who I will call ‘Multitasking Kid’ lifts his tablet and takes a photo of the teacher, which he begins colouring in with a colouring in app.  He then grabs the arm of the boy in the pod to his left so his artistry can be admired. The girl to his left peeps curiously around the divider between his pod and hers to see what is going on. He surreptitiously picks his nose and wipes it on his sleeve, keeping an eye on the teacher. (I’ve noticed that there’s a great deal of nose-picking in grade one classrooms!) When the teacher moves about the room and asked a question, he instantly flicks his screen to the lesson slide and calls out a response to the teacher’s cue. He then bids vigorously for a turn. I note that he has about a dozen different screens open on his tablet and flicks through them, although always lands on the correct screen when the teacher approaches, and then returns to his artwork when the teacher moves away. The teacher then instructs the children to put on their headphones and complete a listening and repeating activity. Multitasking Kid has a problem with his headphones which he sets about trying to solve. The teacher notices that he has a problem and approaches him. “Please don’t,” I silently plead. I want to see if he can figure it out for himself. Too late! The teacher quickly and efficiently fixes the problem for Multitasking Kid.

This is an example of facilitative disruption. Multitasking Kid uses the technology to take control of his own learning. We see him actively constructing his own learning, not only in the self-paced tablet based segments of the lesson, but also in the teacher-fronted activities. He moves seamlessly between both modes.

Why don’t teachers teach what learners learn?

Years ago, the British applied linguist Dick Allwright posed the question: “Why don’t learners learn what teacher teach?” An appropriate response might be: “Why don’t teachers teach what learners learn?” In Multitasking Kid, we see Piaget’s adaptive learning in action. The child integrates teacher-fronted and tablet-based activities into a smorgasbord of learning opportunities, perhaps in some ways learning less than the teacher intended, but in other ways learning more. However, it is also clear that while he is integrating new information into his pre-existing mental schemata, those the schemata are accommodating to the new information.

According to Shaffer, a major benefit of digital learning, particularly of computer games, is that they stimulate this process of mental or schematic accommodation by requiring young people to think innovatively and creatively in order to solve problems. In other words, in order to solve the challenges posed by digital games, they have to think differently. He says: “We have to develop the tools to help young people learn the epistemologies of creative innovation. One way to do this is through epistemic games: games that are fundamentally about learning to think in innovative ways. This is surely not the only way to use new technologies to change education for the better, but it is the kind of solution we need: one that uses technology to think about learning in new ways appropriate for a postindustrial global economy and society.” (Shaffer, 2006: 10)


Share your innovation for a chance to win the Pearson ELT Teacher Award
We’ve just launched a new Pearson ELT Teacher Award! Aiming to recognise and celebrate teachers, the Award is open for any English teacher who has developed innovative ways of teaching in their classrooms. You may have used technology or digital tools in unique ways or re-invented traditional tasks. The Award encourages teachers to enter who can show that their ideas are not only unique but have improved learner engagement, motivation and success.

Prizes include all-expenses paid trips to IATEL or TESOL. Deadline for entries is 1st January, 2017 so enter or nominate a teacher today!

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