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Brenda's Blog

Developing Learners With Thinking Buzz.


"Computers will not live up to their full potential until we start to think of them more like finger paint and less like television."
-- Mitchel J. Resnick (associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Media Laboratory)

I think Mitchel Resnick is onto something here. Theres a big difference between students who mindlessly watch computer screens, and students who get their hands dirty while involved in creative computer-supported learning adventures. Gone are the trance-like eyes associated with staring into television space. Instead, students involved in creative computer pursuits demonstrate an alertness and vibrancy that comes when someones thinking is intrigued and challenged. Those students are mentally engaged in what theyre doing; asking themselves (and others) questions, all the while moving through hyperlinks that lead them into deep-learning territory.

Mitchel Resnick is right -- as long as we limit computers to simple information retrieval tools, we will be disappointed with our students learning gains. Until we develop wired learning environments based on what Seymour Papert refers to as "dirty learning" principles, we will fail to develop learners alive with thinking buzz.

"Dirty learning" is not for the intellectually dazed; its constructivist-based activities are complex, challenging, and often messy to the observer.

Using the Web to investigate real life problems, students involved in authentic activities turn to a vast array of online resources and tools that facilitate complex thinking skills, organize their understanding, and connect them with learners in other countries. That brand of intellectual involvement demands much of learners. They definitely cant sit back and passively watch the computer screen. Dirty learning leads students to emotional and often highly intertwined topics that can alter their mental models about such thorny topics as poverty, global warming, and childrens rights -- and it has the potential to lead to the creation of innovative solutions.

Over the past few years, Ive seen some amazing examples of educators who actively pursue ways to use computers as mind tools. The Global SchoolNet Foundation is one of those organizations. Sponsor of the annual international CyberFair competition, Global SchoolNet provides an online platform for classrooms all over the world to conduct research and publish their findings on the Web.

CyberFair participants not only use their project work to become local ambassadors for their towns and cities, they use technology to evaluate one anothers projects using a complex online evaluation tool that involves students in a rigorous assessment experience. Now in its twelfth year, CyberFair participants are challenged to produce projects that "shine the spotlight" on people, places, businesses, and other aspects of their local communities -- projects that serve to "empower, inspire, motivate, and encourage positive change."

Theres no doubt that using technology as "finger paint" introduces students to a whole new level of engagement and in-depth learning. Third grade teacher Robin Arocho suggests that the key to increased learning gains is connected to a simple, but profound principle: " the more hands-on it is, the more minds-on it is."

Who Is Brenda?

Brenda Dyck is a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching preservice teachers, Brenda is the moderator of MiddleTalk, a listserve sponsored by the National Middle School Association (NMSA). Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in NMSA's magazine, Middle Ground. Brenda also is a teacher-editor for MidLink magazine.

Author Name: Brenda Dyck
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Updated 09/22/2009