Sunday, January 22, 2012

Form Follows Function

In the early days of the PYP, before it had been bought by the IBO and when it was still the ISCP, the teachers and administrators who were involved in developing the curriculum met to come up with a consensus about the key concepts that would have universal significance, regardless of time or place.  The idea was to agree on a set of transdisciplinary concepts around which the new curriculum could be structured.  Two of these concepts are form and function.

Form asks the question:  What is is like?  When we look at the form of something we are able to observe, identify, describe and categorize it.  Function asks the question: How does it work?  When we look at function we are looking at the purpose of something.  When we look at what something is, we often think in terms of nouns.  When we think of how something works we often think in terms of verbs.

A shift between nouns and verbs has occurred in Bloom's taxonomy.  The original Bloom's taxonomy was a way of moving from lower to higher order thinking and the terms were all nouns.  Knowledge was at the bottom, evaluation was at the top. The new version of Bloom's taxonomy describes what students can do so is written in verbs.  Below I have reproduced a graphic from Mary Forehand at the University of Georgia, who herself based this graphic on Dr Richard Overbaugh's website from Old Dominion University.

As a technology teacher/facilitator/coach I've thought a lot about how this applies to technology.  My aim is always that the focus is NOT on the technology, that it fades into the background.  That we are not focused on the tool (noun), but on what the students are doing (verb).  My emphasis is on function/purpose rather than form/tool.

This is where I think many schools are still going wrong.  They insist on making statements like "students will use technology as a tool to support what is being done in the classroom."  This leads to discussion focusing on what tools need to be bought and it leads to a fixed mind-set when the school buys-in.  For example I first went to visit a Dutch school using a SMARTboard almost 13 years ago.  I could immediately see how having the teacher and students touch the board in order to demonstrate what to do on the computer would be much better for our younger students who couldn't often relate to the teachers moving a mouse on a computer that was on a trolley at the back of the room,  while they were looking at what was projected onto a screen at the front of the room and listening to the teacher giving instructions at the same time.  We decided to try out one SMARTboard and installed it in the lab being used by our youngest children.  It was a great success because I think we were focused on the function of the board and how that was better than the technology we already had (computer and beamer on a trolley).  We certainly didn't propose a roll out of boards to every classroom in the school, regardless of their needs.

But in some of the schools I've been in since, the focus has been on the tool.  On equipping all classrooms with the same tools and then training the teachers how to use them regardless of the needs of the teachers or students.  These ideas don't come from the teachers or the students, but from some misguided one-size-fits-all policy.  Indeed, in the years since I first used a SMARTboard I've seen many better options, for example connecting a computer to a projector and controlling it wirelessly with an iPad which apart from being cheaper is also much more flexible as teachers can use it for many more tasks, and in addition it has more potential to impact students.  It's a shame that some schools get locked into a 3 or 5 year purchasing programme to equip each class with X, Y or Z.  Halfway through this programme something new and better invariably comes along.  Considering the amount of money that has been invested in half-equipping a school with the "old" technology, it's a brave school that switches to the new.

What functions are our students requesting?  They are asking to be able to communicate and collaborate, to access information and in particular their own documents anytime and anywhere, and to be able to create using a variety of media.  They are less focused on the tool, than on access.  When I'm teaching students I always focus on the function - this of course is helped by the new document from the IBO "The Role of ICT in the PYP" which defines the 6 strands:  investigate, organize, communicate, collaborate, create and be responsible digital citizens.  During any one unit of inquiry I will be showing them different functions of the tools for investigating and organizing, for example, so that they can choose the best tools for themselves in the finding out and sorting out phases of the inquiry cycle.  I will be showing them other functions of other tools when they are wanting to present their understanding.  

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey write:  
Humans need to communicate, share, store and create.  As a species we've engaged in these functions for centuries.  There's really nothing new about them.  What is new are the forms, or tools, that students use to meet these needs ... we're excited to learn alongside students as they teach us tools and we help them understand functions.
Our Grade 4s are in the last week of their unit of inquiry about belief systems.  For the whole of next week they will be presenting using Prezi, Spicy Nodes, GoAnimate and Animoto and - I hope - any number of other tools that I have not shown them directly how to use but that they have investigated for themselves.  The function is presenting.  The form could be anything at all.

Photo Credit:  Form Follows Function by Luca Barcellona AttributionNoncommercial 

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