All Play and No Work Makes a Jack a Dull Boy

This term I introduced my students to Nings, Diigo and–for some–moodle. Most already know how to work a wiki and all are fluent with Google Apps. That’s a lot of stuff and I expected the kids to feel at least a little confused and frustrated.

And they do.

But their behaviour suggests that their confusion and frustration isn’t caused only by the number of tools they have to use. Indeed, they are quite adept at learning how to work any number of new games. I wonder if another part of problem is that they see a computer as a tool that delivers entertainment and not a tool for doing work. I need to clarify that: I think they do see that you can use a computer to produce things–word documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoints and so on. But they don’t see that we can use a computer to discuss and publish work. (That wouldn’t be surprising because I don’t think anyone has yet shown them how to that.)

So now when we talk to our students about new technologies, we divide the tools we’re using at IPS into four categories based in function with the idea that this structure might help kids see things more clearly:

Production Tools
Google Apps, Jing, video editors, Garageband etc.

Discussion Tools
Nings, Diigo, IM, email

Publication Tools
wikis (there are other platforms, but these are best compromise of ease of use and sophistication for our grade 6 – 9s)

Administration Tools
Google calendar and moodle edmodo

I realize there is some overlap in the capacities of theses tools. Wikis also make excellent discussion platforms, for example. But my hope is that this structure actually gets us away from talk about the tools and moves us to talk about the function, which I think is more important.

What do you see in your classrooms? How are your students taking up new technologies? How do you deal with gathering up all the output from all the tools?


Since writing this post I’ve added a fifth category of tools: research tools such as Google and Bing, but also custom search engines, RSS and Twitter.


  1. Reply
    Chris October 1, 2009

    Perhaps its a question of doing real things with tools.  I can give you an amazing hammer but if you have nothing to nail, or no need to use it, why would you bother.  And if what you really wanted was a baseball bat, then the hammer isn’t too enticing.Similar to our conversation about community engagement: people will show up when the tools are there to do stuff they need to do.  So what about thinking more deeply about purpose.  What overwhelming need do these students have to use these tools?  What about reviewing games?

  2. Reply
    Brad Ovenell-Carter October 1, 2009

    I wasn’t being clear enough. Or maybe I overstated things. I completely agree–there needs to be purpose; and I try my best to give the kids meaningful work–I think it morally wrong to give them busy work. But, on the other hand, it’s hard to know what a tool can do just by looking at it. See Dorothy Sayers wonderful essay, The Lost Tools of Learning. She’d say we need both: an opportunity to noodle about with tools, and as we’re noodlin’, we might as while noodle on something worthwhile. John Seeley Brown also talks about the great value of tinkering–that’s his word for it.In any case, I think my students see the prupose, or at least trust me that a purpose is there.But now that I think more on it, I wonder if I’m not hitting up against some deep structural problems. Schools are essentially market economies–students trade papers & projects etc for grade. Morevover it’s an economy of perceived scarcity, rather than abundance, and the competition in this market is so fierce that students, even by the age of 11 or so, when we take them in, have an every-man-for-himself way of working. Last year, for example, I ran an experiment in collaboration: I divided the class into two groups and told them to write an essay. They were to write the best possible answer they could to a a question–I can’t remember what it was at the moment. The passing grade was 95%, but they were allowed to use any resources they wanted: books, internet, parents, me, any expert they could find, each other etc. Despite the opportunity and the assurance that they could not be accused of copying (so long as they atttributed) as they were allowed to borrow freely, both groups guarded their work jealously for fear the other group would “steal ideas” or “do better.” The point of all this, is that I think students’ habit is to wrorry about their performance, rather than the creation of knowledge and understanding.If this is the case, then the collaboration platforms would seem strange, maybe even threatening. It would explain the “Why would we want to share?” response I frequently see (and not just in my students, I might add.)

  3. Reply
    Phil October 1, 2009

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts Brad.  I like the way you have broken the tools up into categories by function and I have spent some time staring hard at those categories trying to see how they would fit into a lesson; specifically into the MYP Design Cycle, but no clear picture is emerging (could be I’m exhausted).My guess is that the biggest frustrations are all to do with the Discussion tools.  I agree with your comment below, I think the issue isn’t just with the confusing array of technologies that we are throwing at them but that we are asking them to do things with these technologies that they don’t do naturally face to face, namely share and actively engage in process, not just product.

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