Transform Learning with Great Questions

We often hear others describe 1-to-1 computing in schools as simply an access model.  We hear it rationalised as a way to give students access to information, to the vast riches of the World Wide Web while learning to deter its evils.  Why, then, are there so many examples out there of schools expecting 1-to-1 to transform their schools?  Technology does not transform schools, but it is nearly impossible to transform a school without it.  As we near the end of an era in our 19th century schools, where a culture of work and rote learning prevailed while thinking was avoided, where talent was admired and creativity shunned, and where collaboration was confused with group work, schools everywhere are finally beginning to accept without question that access to information technology for learning is not optional.

Too often, however, I’m reminded how many of these schools are still aiming way off the mark.  It’s easy to tell if you are working in or leading one of these schools.  If you ever find yourself saying or confronted with the following phrase “transform learning with technology” then you are at one of these schools.  You are on the wrong path and you need to break out the map.  In the schools I’ve worked at that were moving from good to great, I can attest that it didn’t happen because of technology or tech integration, nor did it happen in spite of it.  Schools are transformed by great teachers sharing great ideas that inspire kids to learn.  This can be achieved in any number of ways, but without useful technologies in both students’ and teachers’ hands it will likely be incredibly painful.

One of my favorite insights is from Sugata Mitra in his TED Talk titled “Build a School in the Cloud” in which he ponders what makes the best teachers in the digital age.  He concludes that the best teachers are like grandmothers, who ask great questions and offer plenty of encouragement.   He talks about learning as a self-organising phenomenon where its not about making learning happen but rather letting learning happen with the simple formula of great questions+broadband+collaboration+encouragement.

Ultimately,  you will transform a school by getting back to the big questions and inspiring a sense of wonder, not by buying more shiny, sleek tablets.  Layering a 1-to-1 program on a school without inquiry may lead merely to digitisation of traditional practices.  I am reminded of the SAMR model, which though I support in its objectives, seems to muddy things a bit.  The apex of the model is ‘redefention’, but it starts out with ‘substitution’. Though it’s intentions are anything but, it supports the misguided approach many leaders take to slather a school with technology and watch as the innovation bubbles up from substitution all the way to redefinition.

SAMR Model

The hazy line in the middle between augmentation and modification is what worries me as it seems to suggest some sort of mystical crossing, over  which there is no clear path.  Indeed there is not.  In most industries we have seen the transformation happen within competitors who redefine the field and push the established players into radical do-or-die overhauls. Schools are no different.

In fact, adherence to the the model can actually undermine the very sort of visionary, begin-with-the-end-in-mind principles that  guide most successful reform efforts. Surely we’re not leaving transformation to chance are we? Augmenting a classroom with tablets or laptops may make sense in many ways but it is not transformation and should not be counted on to cause it.

I submit a revised version of the model that looks more like this.

A different view showing how the levels of the SAMR model actually represent different objectives.

A different view showing how the levels of the SAMR model actually represent different objectives. Creative Commons License
Modified SAMR by Kevin Crouch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Clearly,  the modification must come from the mission, the curriculum and the people, not the technology.  It must have student in mind first and foremost.  In fact, I believe it is possible to modify and redefine a classroom without digital technologies, but that would be silly and irresponsible with the embarrassment of riches out there for networked learners.

As this school in Singapore can attest,  significantly improving learning at an already high-performing school can be done with little more than smartphones and an inquiry program.  So, as Mitra’s Himalayan inspiration might say, Get on with it then!

Do you have examples of this from your own classroom or school?


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