As iron sharpens iron…

Recently I had a conversation with the head of a new school opening up in town.  The school will be private, based on the Charlotte Mason philosophy.  I am a lover of discourse, theology, and discussion so I jumped at the chance to sit down and talk education with others who are passionate about learning and casting a vision for better education.  As we were talking about the new school, and about the Charlotte Mason philosophy of education, I realized that there are qualities of classical education that I agree with and support.  Our visions for education overlapped in several places.  Just as we ended, the conversation turned toward technology.  Those of you who follow me regularly know that I am an evangelist for technology in the classroom.  I mentioned a 1 to 1 iPad project I am working toward at another school and they replied that theirs would never be a school where every child had an iPad.

Because we ended the conversation shortly after, I didn’t get the chance to further examine the reasons for the statement.  I followed up with a few email correspondences that I would like to share pieces from.  Conflict in philosophies can be a good thing, it makes us closely examine our beliefs and ideas about learning, children, and teaching.

I began the letter with an illustration that I had read just that day from PLN member Henrietta Miller of Classroom Chronicles, I shared the post because it so beautifully captured everything that is right with technology integration in the classroom.

I am a primary teacher and every year for the past five years I have taught my class a unit of work on Antarctica. In the NSW syllabus the study of Antarctica is part of the Human Society and Its Environment syllabus for Stage 3. The NSW Syllabus documents provide guidelines and expectations on what the students will learn, starting with this:Current Issues: Antarctica
This unit provides opportunities for students to explore issues and decision-making involved in human interaction with a significant world environment, the Antarctic. The unit focuses on how beliefs about human interaction have changed over time and differ from person to person, depending on their perspective and interest in the area.

Not surprisingly there are many excellent websites, lots of fabulous books, hundreds of worksheets and many units of work to guide one when teaching the topic of Antarctica. Over the past five years I have developed my own inquiry based program, using a matrix of activities created using Bloom’s taxonomy and Gardener’s theories of multiple intelligence. I am the kind of teacher who is never satisfied that a unit is perfect and so every year I have made modifications and adjustments to my Antarctic unit, tweaking and improving it, mostly to increase the students use of technology within it but also to add IWB activities or lessons.

The story I want to share with you today is how this year not surprisingly, I used Twitter to assist me in this. Earlier this term I sent out a tweet that went something like this “I want my Antarctic unit to include more inquiry questions, can anyone help?” Almost immediately @audreynay sent me link to a complete inquiry based unit. If I had been a new teacher or someone who had not taught Antarctica before, or a teacher from an isolated school without support and guidance I would have been set for the term. This unit was fabulous. As it was, I read it carefully, reflected on my current unit, cherry picked a couple of ideas from it and used those to further improve my own work. Just perfect, I was set for the unit.

Last week I sent out two more tweets “Year 5 class seeking Antarctic scientist to skype with” and “seeking stage 3 class to collaborate on Antarctic Tourism voicethread”. To the first tweet I had two responses, unfortunately I cannot now find who they were from but I am eternally grateful, as I followed up their leads and by Monday afternoon I was in email communication with Nick, a scientist wintering at the Australian Davis Station in Antarctica. Communication and assistance from my IT department followed and we were set. So to top our final week of term two, on Friday afternoon my class enjoyed an amazing chat with not one but three Antarctic scientists. Skype does not work in Antarctica, so we had to make do with a land line and a speaker phone with some of his photos displayed on our IWB screen. Nick and his colleagues a physicist and geologist listened patiently and answered questions ranging from ‘what inspired you to become a scientist and go to work in Antarctica’ to ‘what do you eat’. Nick and his colleagues were interesting, informative and above all real. It was brilliant. The students listened intently, they were focussed and engaged throughout

Next term my students have to complete an individual task which they will choose from a variety of options. These include such things as creating a brochure, to advertise Antarctica. Or writing producing and directing a skit retelling Shakleton’s journey. Those who choose to create a podcast describing a day in the life of an Antarctic scientist will, I believe, have a head start over the others. They will be able to draw on our soon to be created podcast from Nick in Antarctica. They will be able to describe not only the science involved but a daily life devoid of trees and greenery. Where the only winter daylight is two hours of twilight. Where the temperature is -20 degrees on a good day. Of a life eating only frozen vegetables and a small amount of home grown salad. Yet one which they described as the most amazing experience of their lives, surrounded by scenery and animals that would take ones breath away and worth every deprivation and hardship.

Now all I need to do is find a school that wants to collaborate on my semi completed voicethread and I will have had complete success with my tweets. Are you learning about Antarctica in your class this year? Will your students consider the question of tourism in Antarctica? If so let me know and we can continue this learning together.

Photographs: Nick Roden

I shared this story for several reasons.  First, it shows that when technology is used effectively as a learning tool, the focus is not on the technology, but on the learning that it makes possible.  It didn’t matter that the class ended up using “older” technology (the land line telephone) instead of Skype because the technology wasn’t really the point, the point was the learning that the technology enabled to take place.  The connection and discussions that it allowed.  The second reason I shared this story, was to show what technology can do for the teacher.  Technology connects teachers, giving us on-demand resources and a sounding board that is constantly challenging our ideas, and making us better teachers.  Technology provides educators with a more complete worldview and understanding of teaching, learning, and education.  Last, this story gives a complete picture of the interactions and communication that technology provides for the classroom.  Henrietta’s students may have enjoyed reading and learning about Antarctica in the past, but this experience led them one step closer by letting them discuss what they were learning with someone who was living it.  Aside from experiencing it themselves, there is no other way to get close to that kind of learning.

Every tool used in the classroom for learning is technology.  The book was once considered the height of technology with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.  Pencils and paper were once the latest and greatest technology innovations in the classroom.  Technology is simply a means of communicating and learning.  This hasn’t changed.  Technology is a vehicle for learning, it isn’t THE learning.  Technology shouldn’t get in the way of learning, it should make it more authentic and rich.  It should be used to provide additional opportunities for discussion and understanding.  I believe that it is vital that schools use relevant technology because of the extended learning opportunities that it makes available.  I am pushing for the iPad in the classroom because it is an intuitive piece of technology.  It works the way children and adults expect it to work.  As a result, the focus is not on how to use the technology, the focus is on the learning that the technology brings to the fingertips.  The focus is on the meaningful connections that can be made as the result of the technology.   Good technology gets out of our way so that we don’t even realize that we are using it any more.  The iPad is like a pencil, it doesn’t get in the way of writing.  That being said, all technology is not created equal.  There is technology that is wrongly placed in the classroom and does get in the way of learning.   There is technology that encourages the teacher to stay at the center of the learning process imparting knowledge to students and requesting that they regurgitate it back.  This is not the kind of technology integration I am interested in.

For me the effective teacher is one who engages students in conversation and allows kids to explore relevant content through whatever medium is appropriate for that task.  This may or may not include technology.  Both teacher and student share the attitude that learning has no end, it is a continuous journey toward truth.

This didn’t end our conversations, and I will share more of our interactions as a separate post.

In the mean time keep these conversations going. It is only through discussion and challenges that we can solidify what we believe, why we believe it, and keep moving toward the goal of excellence in learning.


  1. I’ve been thinking a bit lately about college – What will it look like for my 7th/8th graders when they get there? How much will it cost? (And is it reasonable to ask a 21 year old to take on the equivalent of a mortgage?) How many of my guys will go? SHOULD most of them go?

    When we talk about college in my classroom, what I tell my guys is that my personal opinion is that nobody NEEDS to go to college. It is totally possible to have a happy, productive, meaningful life without higher education. A professor is not necessarily happier or more fulfilled than a master plumber. A successful caterer or landscape contractor can make as much money and/or difference in the world as a lawyer or engineer.

    What education gives you is more CHOICES – it opens the world up to you in ways that can be overwhelming and scary and possibly irrelevant to where your want to end up or end up ending up, but it opens up possibilities.

    That’s what technology in education does – opens up more CHOICES.

    (HAH!! You didn’t think I was going to get around to making a relevant point, did you!)

    Good technology is finding the right tool for the job – Skype or hand-written letters, blogs or posters, VoiceThreads or origami – More tools=More choices.

    Nick would try to tie this in w/a pop culture reference, so I’ll go with…um… Disney villains:

    The Shadow Man (from “The Princess and the Frog”): “I’ve got Hoo-Doo; I’ve got Voodu; I’ve got things I AIN’T EVEN TRIED!”

    That’s how I feel about my professional bag of tricks; each skill – each piece of technology I wrap my head around, each pedagogical tool I master, each new way of connecting with a student – they all make me a more versatile and powerful teacher.

    And put me one more step on my path to World Domination.

    – John

    1. College is tricky these days, with the wealth of free knowledge it is hard to justify asking a kid to take on that amount of debt. Not to mention that just because you have a college degree does not guarantee employment after. I agree with you, what education does is it opens up options, choices. And, I agree with you again that technology also opens up more choices.
      I’m going to have to catch up on my Disney to fully understand the brilliance of that reference. Haven’t seen The Princess and the Frog yet.

      Good luck on that path to world domination 🙂

  2. Good for you. Keep on telling administrators, keep on sharing ideas and continue with what you believe is giving students the best education possible. Some will actually get it….sadly, some will not.

  3. Your statement “it shows that when technology is used effectively as a learning tool, the focus is not on the technology, but on the learning that it makes possible” is exactly how I feel. It is disappointing that some schools see past this for some reason.

  4. Options and choices – I think thats education. Teaching people how to evaluate their choices and to make the best informed choices they can with the information they have. Technology helps open up those choices. It helps the learner go deeper into subjects if they choose to. As a teacher it helps me explore ways to teach and learn that may not be available in my community.

    thank you for taking the time to share so many tools and websites. I am learning tons.

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