Activities, actions, gestures, and digital technology

In this week’s readings, I was drawn to the connection between learning and physical activities, actions, and gestures. As Winn (2003) points out, “successful students are anything but passive” (p. 13) and our classrooms must reflect and foster this fact. If students are to involve their entire bodies in learning, rather than just their brains, thereby embodying cognition as Winn describes it, then as educators, we must look carefully at how we construct our lessons and projects to support this. As Winn discusses, our natural views of the world are very limited and are based on our own experiences. While some digital technologies may recreate experiences for us, the question becomes how accurately can a computer programmer recreate a unique experience that each individual user’s knowledge and understanding can evolve from?

Ahmed and Parsons (2013) offer that mobile technologies provide students with “opportunities for increasing engagement, motivation and learning (Lin, Fulford, Ho, Iyoda, & Ackerman, 2012)” (p. 62). Their study uses a mobile learning application called “ThinknLearn” to engage students in abductive scientific inquiry while scaffolding learning so students are able to generate hypotheses based on inferences made through observations. The study places students in a real-life environment where they follow the Abductive Inquiry Model (Oh, 2011, as cited by Ahmed and Parsons, 2013, p. 64) of “exploration, examination, selection, and explanation” (p. 64) to collect and examine data with the aid of the “ThinknLearn” application to enhance learning experiences, performance, and critical thinking skills.

In a “no-tech” embodiment of learning, Novack, Congdon, Hemani-Lopez, and Goldin-Meadow (2014) explore the effect of physical action, concrete gesture, and abstract gesture in helping grade three students solve math equivalence problems, and beyond that, students’ abilities to generalize what they learned to a new concept. While the study showed that the students “were equally likely to succeed on the trained problems after instruction” (p. 5), researchers found “acting gave children a relatively shallow understanding of a novel math concept, whereas gesturing led to deeper and more flexible learning” (p. 6) with abstract gesture aiding generalization and concrete gesture leading to conceptual understanding.

In my own practice, I can see embodied learning being used to support a simple machines unit in science. Students can plan their machines using gestures and actions (in groups – incorporates social learning/collaboration), and will then build and test their machines in a trial-and-error learning environment, basing their learning on their interactions with the machines they are themselves creating. Technology can be brought in as students research and watch videos to help them overcome difficulties they face throughout the duration of their projects.

Questions for discussion:

1) Is it possible for a student to interact authentically in an artificial environment, given that the environment is created using if-then models based on predictable outcomes?

2) How does the increased integration of digital technology into the classroom impact the physical activities that connect students to learning? Do activities or actions performed using an electronic device connect students to learning in a similar way that physical activities or actions would in a traditional classroom setting?

3) “An artificial environment is completely predictable, because we have made it” (Winn, 2003, p. 13), but how does the environment that corresponds with the programmers’ views of the world match up with the experiences and understandings of an individual user? How does an artificial environment impact the learning of students who are from a different cultural background than the programmer? For example, how would an Indigenous student’s own experiences and knowledges be represented in an artificial environment created by a Western European? How would the experiences of a student who has recently arrived as a refuge be represented in an artificial environment created in North America?

References:

Ahmed, S., & Parsons, D. (2013). Abductive science inquiry using mobile devices in the classroom. Computers & Education, 63, 62-72. Doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.11.017

Novack, M. A., Congdon, E. L., Hemani-Lopez, N., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2014). From action to abstraction: Using the hands to learn math. Psychological Science, 25(4), 903-910. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3984351/

Winn, W. (2003). Learning in artificial environments: Embodiment, embeddedness, and dynamic adaptation. Technology, Instruction, Cognition and Learning, 1(1), 1-28. Retrieved from: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1028641.files/Winn2003.pdf

10 comments

  1. Hi Mary,
    Great questions.
    Is it possible for a student to interact authentically in an artificial environment, given that the environment is created using if-then models based on predictable outcomes?

    In my opinion, the authenticity of the artificial environment would be dependent on the demographic using the technology. If I had a student who was very tech savvy and immersed themselves in technological environments then learning in this created or artificial environment may actually be more beneficial to them than perhaps having them use hands-on materials. Student’s who are abstract thinkers and can imagine scenarios we can not recreate for them in the classroom would thrive in this environment. On the other hand, students who are still at a very concrete level of thinking may have difficulty understanding or extrapolating data. In one of the articles I read in a science simulation on global warming some students decided global warming was not a problem because they viewed their action (planting trees) as having an immediate effect on the environment. The artificial environment that sped up created misconceptions in their thinking as they did not realize how much time was passing in the simulation.

    2) How does the increased integration of digital technology into the classroom impact the physical activities that connect students to learning? Do activities or actions performed using an electronic device connect students to learning in a similar way that physical activities or actions would in a traditional classroom setting?

    This question had me thinking on two levels. One, many schools do not have the hands on material necessary for students to physically interact with materials to test hypotheses. In these instances I believe a simulated environment using technology would be more beneficial than looking at diagrams in a text. On the second level I believe simulation should not replace hands-on learning altogether. Students need the opportunities to build and test their ideas in real time and space. To make adjustments and try again.

    Catherine

    1. Hi Catherine,

      Thank you for your response! In regards to question one, I too was interested by the students’ misconception about global warming and the fact that passage of time was a factor not acknowledged by students in their reasoning. Along with this, would be the fact that trees are cut down at a faster rate than they will regrow, lumber is a major resource/industry in Canada, and so on. By providing a simulation, students are exposed to many, but perhaps not all aspects of a problem. If students simply take a simulation at face value (as you pointed out, “students who are still at a very concrete level of thinking may have difficulty understanding or extrapolating data”), then the inquiry and critical thinking needed to comprehend the various concepts of many simulated situations may be lost; whereas, students who are able to think past the initial simulations, ask questions, delve deeper and explore the simulation while keeping a connection to how the simulation mimics the real-world will likely find that they are much more engaged and learn on a deeper level than they would have in a traditional classroom setting.

      In response to question two, I agree that many schools do not have the materials needed to allow students to explore hypotheses and develop a deeper understanding of concepts taught in science and math. One issue I have with some classroom-based digital technology (this is especially true of math games) is that many applications I have seen are simply mimicking the rote learning of traditional classrooms, but this time with colourful, animated games, avatars, and tokens to increase interest and engagement. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, it is not helping students to develop inquiry or deeper-thinking skills that can then be applied to other concepts or to life. While using a math game to increase basic fluency skills might be a step in the right direction, it is not effectively integrating technology into the classroom (this is where I started when I began “integrating” technology into the classroom, so I know it happens!). In contrast, if a simulation is used that can actually extend learning and encourage students to generate ideas and hypotheses, examine and evaluate data, and then continue to evolve from there, then the time spent in digital learning is absolutely worth it. I do agree that we need to continue to support a combination of hands-on learning and digital technology in our classrooms. A concept I loved from one of the interview videos shown during Lesson 2.2 (Video Cases) was given by the teacher education professor (“Teacher E”) in Case 8. “Teacher E” discussed that digital technology should be integrated into our classrooms as it enhances learning, but that there are times when students can learn just as well from a more traditional teaching method (i.e., a book).

  2. Hello Mary,

    I believe part of Winn’s point was not so much that we want artificial environments to be realistic but that we want the to behave according to fixed rules. If students create the cognitive representations as a result of interactions with environment it follows that if we control the rules of the environment we can control, at least to a degree, the direction in which students’ representations will be developed. It was noted that more recently developed conceptions were more affected by such an approach. I woudl suspect this is because students have not come to rely on the predictive power of fresh conceptions. Thus, if the new conception seems feasible, provides utility, and solves a problem the old one cannot, it will be more readily adopted than a conception that has a proven history of utility value.

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Thank you for your response! I suppose my concern is that if a virtual environment behaves according to fixed rules, then are students learning in a way that is applicable to ‘real-life’ situations? My other concern is whose rules are we using? Everything that is constructed contains biases whether we mean for them to be there or not. What biases are being built into the virtual environments we are creating for our students and how do these biases exclude certain aspects of the world, cultures, or environment around us? An Indigenous perspective of the natural world is very different than a western scientist’s perspective. This does not mean that one is “right” and the other is “wrong” but we must take both into account as we teach our students. I suppose my other concern is that I question how much control we want to put on the direction of students’ representations. I suppose I feel that the opportunity to explore and learn through trial and error is part of the ‘draw’ for me in terms of virtual environments.

  3. I have been reflecting on your referenced point that mobile technologies provide students with “opportunities for increasing engagement, motivation and learning” and in fact I have been reflecting on this personally throughout this course. I want to know if this is because our traditional teaching methods are not as engaging or because the mobile technologies add a new element to the learning OR if it is because the students have been immersed in this technology driven communication in their lives both in and out of learning institutions? I just bring up these points to get another viewpoint as I do see my students engaged whenever technology is introduced as part of teaching and learning, but I am still unsure as to the full implications of this. I think using technology as a panacea for disengagement is what is troubling me. I am still trying to figure this out. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    1. Hi Michelle,

      This is an interesting question and one I have spent time reflecting on myself. When I have asked students about this, I have received a variety of responses. Students have told me they find books “boring” and like the colours and animation provided through online learning environments. Some students have told me that they simply think learning from books is what “old people do” and feel that digital technology is the way of the future. Many students like digital learning environments because of the ease with which they can browse various sources of information. A topic that would have taken hours to research in the past can now be researched in minutes.

      I read an article by Kalantzis and Cope (2010) in which they discuss the fact that students today are no longer passive learners who are willing to simply follow rules and work quietly throughout the day; they expect more from their education. Kalantzis and Cope point out that while in the past, teachers imparted knowledge to their students and students attempted to absorb the information through memorization and recitation, today’s students are part of a participatory generation where they play characters in video games, they create their own videos, and they are able to choose what they watch (television, YouTube, etc.) or listen to. If children/youth today are interested in a topic, they can simply look it up; they no longer have to wait for an adult to provide them with that knowledge. With this understanding, it then makes sense that when they are given such control over participation in their everyday lives, they would expect a similar experience when it comes to their education.

      Ultimately, I do not yet have an answer to your question, but I suspect that all of these factors play in to one degree or another.

      References:

      Kalantzis, M. and Cope, B. (2010). The teacher as designer: Pedagogy in the new media age. E-Learning and Digital Media, 7(3), 200-222.

  4. The Abductive Inquiry Model (Oh, 2011, as cited by Ahmed and Parsons, 2013, p. 64) of “exploration, examination, selection, and explanation” (p. 64) to collect and examine data” is an interesting contribution for this week, since most of the inquiry processes promoted in science education are of the hypothetico-deductive and inductive type.

    Abduction, from Charles Peirce, however, is said to promote the development of an explanatory hypothesis or the formation of a conjecture based on a (surprising) observation or a small set of observations. The formation of the conjecture has been (somewhat controversially) described as, ” an act of insight, or an instinct for guessing right, or what Galileo called il lume naturale” (see http://www.iep.utm.edu/peir-log/#SSH2bii). This early hypothesizing (an early explanation of a phenomenon) is not typically cultivated in inductive (where there is usually a larger n) and deductive forms of school inquiry.

    I am glad you shared this with the class since as the term inquiry is well utilized in science education and this aids in our exploration of the various forms of inquiry with digital technology like ThinknLearn, Samia

    1. Thank you for your response, Dr. Khan. The concept of abduction was interesting for me, as I generally approach science through a deductive or inductive form of inquiry. I am interested to learn more about abductive science inquiry and what that looks like in various environments – thank you for the link, I will take a look at it!

      Mary

  5. “How does the increased integration of digital technology into the classroom impact the physical activities that connect students to learning? Do activities or actions performed using an electronic device connect students to learning in a similar way that physical activities or actions would in a traditional classroom setting?”

    As my school division moves deeper in personalized electronic blended learning, we have had parents question how physical activity and learning will be impacted by the focus on technology-supported learning. My response to them is usually that some activities, such as those that are not easily explored or represented on a normal scale, are best suited for digital approaches, while others will remain tangible, physical activities. I think that both remain to serve a valuable purpose in the classroom, depending on the students, the concepts, and the resources available. The balance will need to be a conscious choice, however, on the part of teachers to ensure that both opportunities are being used to maximize learning. For example, I have a coworker who is a first year teacher teaching Grade 12 biology this semester. Dissection is part of the curriculum, but digital simulation is an acceptable means of accomplishing the outcome. As she has never led a dissection before, she was leaning towards just having the students do a digital dissection instead of an actual one. After discussing it (I am her mentor), she decided on doing a digital simulation dissection as an introduction, and then doing an actual simulation. She was able to recognize the value for students of doing an actual dissection, especially as an opportunity they may not otherwise ever get. She realized that her initial desire to use the simulation was not because it would have been better for learning, but because it was less intimidating for her. I am interested to hear her feedback on the digital versus hands-on dissection once she has done the activity in her classroom.

    1. Thank you for the response, Stephanie. Your coworker’s experience around a Biology 12 dissection brings up such an interesting and important consideration about what motivates us to use digital technology in our classrooms. Ultimately, we must, as you and your colleague obviously did, reflect on whether our use of technology is for us or for our students’ learning. Thank you for sharing!

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