Thinking about Educational Technology 01

This has been my field for most of my career thus far, and I have felt a commitment if not a competence about the comings and goings of different gadgets and how they are used to promote and oft times inhibit learning. Educational technology, to my mind, is the use of tools to complement instruction. So, technically, chalk and blackboards are the starting place for this subject, and they should be.

Learning is this thing that happens. The sensory pathways we’ve got that run from ears, eyes and the nerve endings drawn uniformly over our bodies all converge on our brains in a hurricane of activity that cascades en masse for hour after ceaseless hour of data acquisition. Handy for us that we have this complex sorting apparatus at the ready to take this blizzard of blinky white noise and interpret it as discernable information, which we aggregate initially as reasons to cry or coo. This is thinking.

We sit around from birth to death with these little data sorters cooking. Not put too fine a point on it this is learning. We have all of these internal mechanisms that divvy information into visual images. These are sorted into rather arbitrary distinctions of vertical and horizontal forms, and into chromatic and luminescent information. Audible data is piped right into the brain as the frequency it is heard and is written in and we distinguish it by pitch, rhythm and timber. But we also have this capacity to infer language.

We learn and then we think. It comes in and rattles around in there. Plato and Descartes’ old saw about thinking establishing existence’s proof, is certainly true turned around, as “I am, therefore I think.” Would that be “sum ergo cogito?” The fact is that there is vastly too much coming in to reasonably remember, much less consider. If you doubt this read a paragraph out of a book and ask yourself what you just read. Then ask yourself if the page was clean or stained? Then ask yourself what was the noise you heard in the background while you were reading it? Then what the smell was in the room while you were looking at the page” and so on ad infinitum. This is an important point. So I will restate: We can take in more than can be stored, digested or used.

They have these simple tests where they will say a series of nonsense words in sequence, and after varying pause lengths ask you to repeat them back. Folks can repeat back like five to nine words, or numbers or colors if they are wholly random to the hearer. Centering on about seven items. This is where the myth that we can only think about seven things at a time comes from. Really this is how much a person can take into short term memory. We also have long-term memory of course, as you can remember that particularly wonderful elementary school teacher, or that devastatingly embarrassing outfit mom made you wear to that party in middle school…

My point is that we can, at will store some information with varying success. We are experts in this as you know what you do not know. I will explain. I say the word “know” to mean that I know it happened. I remember it being so. If I asked you if you had ever seen an elephant in your front yard, you would say “no” with resolve. Now that is a fascinating. We know for certain what we do not know, and have never known. You have never recorded in your brain’s existence an elephant in the front yard. It is sufficiently novel that you are certain that is a thing that you do not know.

We also know things that we do not know. I will explain. I regularly ask groups if they know what Play-Doh tastes like. One must be of a certain age, but the positive response is about 80%. That is equally amazing that we store data secretly away from our internal inventory appliance—the part that notes what we know and that which we do not know—and that some things are universally and verifiably stored away never to be retrieved. (The answer is “salty.”)

The point here is that our brains are tricky and they don’t take in all information, and they are organized by some evolutionary hand that makes sense if one only needs to eat, sleep, and procreate. The information that they tend to acquire is often unmoved by our urgent desire to remember all of the bones in the human body for a anatomy test, but instead our brains use that needed real-estate to remember every word to the Gilligan’s Island theme song.

I will follow up tomorrow with what any of this has to do with educational technology.

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