Take the TWEE out of Tweeting: teaching, learning & technology

During a recent online debate, one of those undemanding messages that so many Twitter-inhabiting educators seem to love popped up on my TweetDeck and then popped up again and then again and again as more and more people retweeted it, until finally I was forced to mute the originator of the platitude just to make it go away.

It read:

Technology does NOT teach.


It is of course true that, just as bakers bake and dancers dance, teachers teach. Hard to disagree with, but hardly insightful. It is also true that teachers often don’t teach, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the context and on the reasons for not teaching. Equally, some teachers teach badly – all teachers do at some points in their careers, surely – at which times it is not particularly helpful to beat the drum for their teaching.

So why, apart from its banality, did this particular example of the twee in tweeting annoy me?

It takes only a modicum of thought to realise that sometimes technology CAN teach, and often rather effectively. It is arguable that, where people learn from their interaction with technology with minimal or no human intervention, the technology might be said to be teaching them.

There are good examples and bad examples, just as there are good and bad teachers. Think of game-playing: much learning can be gleaned from computer games and online games. It would be churlish to try to argue that games do not teach. Think of programmed learning and the notorious teaching machines of old (and their software descendants in computer-based learning): they arose out of the reductionist swamp of behavioural psychology, but whether they managed it well or badly, they did teach. There are just so many examples where technology does indeed teach, sometimes in isolation, often as a helpful prosthetic to human teachers.

Of course, there’s no harm in admitting that, mostly, technology doesn’t teach. And sometimes, even like the best of teachers, when technology does teach it does so badly. The point is, none of this really gets us anywhere in terms of our educational thinking, does it? If the act of teaching by a teacher is the key, what happens when a teacher ‘teaches’ to an empty room? Not much other than the the teacher taking some pleasure form hearing his or her own voice uninterrupted. But put a purposeful learner in an empty room with a book or a connected device and some learning is a more than likely result.

It reminds me once again of Ron Burnett‘s paper, Learning to Learn in a Virtual World, in which he taught me the memorable phrase, the radical impossbility of teaching, a phrase and an argument that set me on the road to I Am Learner. Ron asks questions such as (to paraphrase heavily):

When teachers teach and learners learn, what is the nature of the causal link between the two, if any?

How does teaching produce learning?

Does teaching produce learning?

Is learning merely an accidental consequence of teaching?

The platitude, I’m afraid,  expresses a view of education, of teaching and learning, that is just unhelpful. It focuses on teaching as in some sense the direct cause of learning. It promotes the view, intentionally or otherwise, that the learner cannot learn without the intervention of a teacher. It is a view that, I would contend, is imbued with the centrality of formal education, the hegemony of the school and of the academy. And it is a view that, whether it likes it or not, deprecates any learning that does not come about as a result of teaching.

In today’s world, at this moment of interplay in education, where the role of the teacher is immeasurably more complex than it was in earlier and simpler times, when the teacher needs to bring all of his or her wisdom, experience and skills to bear to help learners to learn rather than simply to ‘teach’ in some simplistic sense of transferring ‘knowledge’ to the unknowing,  we do education no favours by  raising nice-but-vapid platitudes for the thoughtless to copy ad infinitum on Twitter or elsewhere.