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Connective Transactions: technology and thinking skills for the 21st century

Originally published in the International Journal of Instructional Media, Vol 19, No.3, Fall 1996, updated in 2009

by

Dr. Bob Kizlik

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour
falls from the sky a meteoric shower of facts;
They lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
is daily spun,
But there exists no loom
to weave it into fabric.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

"Huntsman, What Quarry?" 1939

In the Fall of 1962, I was a 20 year old soldier who had returned to the United States in June of that year from a 16-month tour of duty in Korea. I had nine months to go before my three-year enlistment would be completed. But it would not be so simple. In the Fall of 1962, there was an uneasy peace. All that was about to change. The Berlin Wall, built the year before, foreshadowed an escalation of geopolitical tensions that would culminate in the Cuban missile crisis. John Kennedy was President, and the Cold War never seemed hotter.

During that September, my monotonous duty at Fort Gordon, Georgia, was interrupted by a temporary assignment to a small Army base located near Petersburg Virginia. When I received my orders, the purpose of this temporary duty at Fort Lee was not given. Since I had never been to Virginia, I was eager to go, and the secrecy only heightened my sense of anticipation.

My specialty in the Army was radio electronics, and, in addition, I had a top-secret security clearance. Perhaps, I thought, that had something to do with this assignment. That September, I found myself at Fort Lee as part of a group composed of soldiers from Army bases scattered throughout the United States. We were assigned to Fort Lee for an exercise that we were told nothing about in advance. It was an exciting and heady time, because we all felt we were special, and were sure that whatever it was that we were there for must be important.

Finally, we received some information. In briefings by somber-faced officers, we were told that NATO was going to conduct an exercise in which a simulated attack by Warsaw Pact nations quickly overran West Germany. The ensuing conflict was quickly to become a limited thermonuclear war between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and its allies. My job was to process information. The simulation began slowly at first, but within a day, large quantities of data and information flowed across Teletype terminals, and many scenarios were taken to their ultimate conclusions.

For me, as a young soldier, it was a new experience. I saw how quickly cultures, and even civilization itself could be destroyed. It was all on paper -- the death tolls, the casualty counts, the probabilities of one thing or another taking place. Given the name operation Spadefork, it was a simulation of a possible Armageddon that to this day affects how I think.

Granted, the technology of 1962 was primitive by today's standards. Now, personal computers available off-the-shelf can do more, and are far more powerful than anything available in 1962. Although the speed at which we can now sort and retrieve information has vastly increased, the fundamental nature of information has not changed since man first arranged symbols and drew on the wall of caves. In Operation Spadefork, the information, and especially the thinking and processes that went into creating it, that now, upon reflection, was valuable.

Today, anyone with a personal computer could simulate that 1962 exercise in a matter of a few hours at most. Present technology reduces the need for thinking about how to simulate or to create simulations. The parts and their processes are already in place. Simulations now let the user concentrate more on the results. One in effect no longer needs to be concerned with building the blocks, or even understanding their structure, but only with assembling them.

In a real sense, technology has diminished our need to think about what is happening or to understand the connections between the parts. The processes of technology are becoming rapidly invisible and therefore unimportant to the user. People just want the technology to work. Results are what matter. Appearances have become as important as substance, and form favors the quantity of outcomes. Some might argue that this is not necessarily a good thing.

The connection between Operation Spadefork more than a quarter of a century ago and technology and thinking skills for the 21st century may not be readily apparent. The passage by Edna St. Vincent Millay provides a way. We, as citizens of an increasingly interdependent global community, do not suffer from any discernable shortage of information. From on-line computer search and information services such as Google, Yahoo and America On Line, to vast electronic networks of computers, exemplified by the Internet, to library information search and retrieval systems, to personally held CD ROMs, DVDs, flash drives, and iPods, information, as St. Vincent Millay says, "...falls [as] a meteoric shower of facts." The question, of course, is how do we deal with it, and how do we use it? Perhaps, in a metaphorical sense, we do not recognize that all along we as individuals have the "loom" to weave this information into fabric. The loom is our mind and its attributes of reason and the ability to think.

Thinking implies purpose, and perhaps nowhere is the sense of societal purpose expressed more concretely than in the idea of curriculum. Although many definitions of curriculum have been published, studied, and researched, perhaps none is as short and powerful as that of Johnson (1967) who defined curriculum as "...a structured series of intended learning outcomes." That definition has proven to be a catalyst for thinking about curriculum as a reflection of the values a particular culture places on what should be learned. The definition also provides a catalyst and a structure for thinking about and defining thinking. Using the form provided by Johnson, thinking may be defined as a structured series of connective transactions. Such a definition undergirds the notion that thinking involves, at the very least, making connections between items of information. Thinking is purposeful, thinking must be connective, and thinking is necessary for learning. The role of technology in this process is in facilitating the identification and development of information. In this role, technology in all its manifestations, is unsurpassed.

Unfortunately, in many instances, the mere possession of technology is thought to be enough. We are perhaps too easily satisfied and too impressed with technology. Without a realistic view of technology, without thinking about the processes required to create information, we overlook the obvious. Technology is not an end, but a means. Technology is not the answer to our questions, but rather gives us a tool to help develop criteria to know whether our answers make sense. Technology does not guarantee success, but rather helps us see whether our definitions of success are in line with our goals.

Technology is taken for granted, but without sophisticated technology, many modern surgical procedures would be impossible, the Gulf War could not have been won in 100 hours, there would be no Internet, and the space program would still be a speculation of science fiction writers. Technology has improved our lives by providing a means to attain goals not able to be met in any other way. Sometimes, however, our faith in technology is shaken, not because the technology is faulty, but because we fail to believe or understand it and its implications. For example, the failure of a relatively inexpensive O-ring negated the technology used to design, build and launch the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. Sometimes smart bombs don't function as planned, and computers occasionally fail, especially in those instances when important data is not back up. The possession of technology is not a substitute for thinking and planning, and the effort those tasks require, but to assume that it is a substitute diminishes us as human beings and weakens the fabric of our culture.

Thinking

Good thinkers invariably share a common trait. Regardless of the context in which they find themselves, good thinkers possess a rich mix of content. Content provides the "raw material" for thinking. We do not think in a vacuum. Thinking requires making connections, organizing and reorganizing information and solving problems. Each of these dimensions of thinking is unique. The consequences of problems related to lack of thinking skills surround us. Falling test scores, loss of productivity in the workplace, quick-fix solutions to complex problems, and a loss of wonderment about knowledge itself are all symptomatic of our individual and collective lack of thinking skills.

Many would argue that if thinking skills are important, then the schools must teach thinking skills. Such reasoning is simply another "quick fix" which is doomed to fail. The assumption is made here that thinking skills cannot be taught, but that they certainly can be learned. We have only to look back on some of the so-called "quick fixes" of the past thirty years to realize that it is the learner who is responsible for learning. The acquisition of thinking skills will become the primary goal of education within a few short years. It will transcend all other goals. Thinking skills are the key to the future and a bridge to understanding the past. Thinking skills provide a mechanism for each individual to gain the most from his environment. That is the potential. Thinking is required for learning. Learning, at the very least, involves making connections and using those connections to create personal knowledge.

We use knowledge in a number of ways -- to solve problems, to understand, to control our environments, and to predict more accurately. Without a doubt, the 21st century will be an era in which the ability to think, to create personal knowledge, and predict outcomes, becomes central to the improvement of our culture, and our individual sense of freedom and security. Prediction is always a risky task, and yet there is an almost insatiable interest in forecasting the future. That there will be change is not questioned; what is uncertain are the changes themselves, and whether or not the changes will be improvements.

There have been numerous predicted transitions from present models that describe current practices in technology, education, and the culture and likely changes that will take place in the 21st century. Pinnell (1984) Included the following potential future changes in the concepts of educational technology:

From an Emphasis on
Closed systems
Inefficient information transfer
Mass education
Fragmentation of knowledge
"Cells and Bells" learning
Memorization/Regurgitation

To an Emphasis on
Open systems
Educational technology
Individual education
Unity of knowledge
Home learning, independent study
Learning to learn

Although these changes were anticipated more than ten years ago, the infusion of technology in education has yet to reach its full potential. All have vast implications for restructuring education and for developing new frameworks for thinking about and acting upon these changes. In part, such thinking becomes the precursor of a self fulfilling prophecy. The future will be what we think it will be, if we act accordingly.

Technology and the 21st Century

Alan Kay is an Apple Fellow. Regarded as a visionary in the field of computers and their educational applications, Kay pioneered the concept of notebook computers, developed a language called Smalltalk, and developed prototypes for integrating educational technology and computers into learning systems. Twenty-one years after I participated in Operation Spadefork, I read an interview with Alan Kay that appeared in the Instructor. Kohl (1983) interviewed Alan Kay to learn his views on the educational uses of computers. In the interview, Alan Kay lamented the limited vision of both hardware and software held my most educationists. According to Kay, we limit our potential for personal growth when we conceive of the educational use of computers and computer literacy (as but one form of technology) as "... a short course in becoming familiar with what a computer is, seeing it and typing in a few programs. That's roughly equivalent to taking a kid who is partway through school and saying to him, 'Here is a book. Now, let's open the page...those are words, let's copy a couple of them'." Kay proposes that the real benefit of computers lies in their ability to allow the user to create mini-worlds and experiment with them. It was simulation that Kay was describing, and he foresaw the obvious benefits of computers for this process.

Although simulations can never fully replicate their real-life counterparts, they do provide a way of testing out ideas or vicariously experiencing interactions that would otherwise be dangerous or prohibitively expensive. Simulations can help us see linkages and outcomes in a "safe" environment. They provide a context for rehearsal and practice, but they have limitations.

Anyone who has served in the military has experienced simulations. Real battlefield sounds and experiences are not the same as crawling under barbed-wire as a machine-gun fires live ammunition overhead, but it gives one a feel for what it may be like. Similarly, being exposed to chlorine and tear gas in a confined space under controlled conditions to understand the operation of a gas-mask is not like being in an actual poison gas attack, but it does give one a sense of what an actual poison gas attack may be like. Simulations such as these are not possible in a computer setting. To begin to understand how to crawl and keep your head low while bullets fly overhead, it's best to actually do it under safe conditions. To understand how dangerous gas can be, it's best to learn proper emergency procedures in an environment in which gas is used under controlled conditions. One could read descriptions or watch films that depict these processes, or see them simulated in a computer generated virtual reality setting, but these techniques are far less effective than real-time, real-life controlled simulations.

There are countless simulations available for computers. From the early work of such pioneers as Chris Crawford, who in 1980 created an acclaimed consumer oriented simulation entitled "Eastern Front 1941," a limited graphics program, to current simulations such as Sim City, Sim Farm, and Sim Life, anyone with a computer can experience a sense of the processes, decisions, and their consequences that occur in similar, real-world settings. Simulations such as these are not practice for becoming a general, a city manager, a farmer, or a biologist, but they can add to one's store of information in a general way that may be useful in creating personal knowledge.

Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s is reputed to have said, "Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."

Simulations do not afford the opportunity for perfect practice. This is analogous to a football team playing a video football game to prepare for an opponent. It might be a lot of fun, but hardly a way of preparing for a game. In almost every endeavor practice is required, and thinking about the outcomes and connections between events that take place in practice helps to ensure favorable performance, whether in the classroom or on the day of the game.

Today, technology, mainly in the form of computers and computer software, is present in most schools. Nearly fifteen years after the introduction of personal computers into schools and classrooms, the most prevalent use of this tool is drill, word processing, and electronic communications. Standardized test scores show little improvement, and most independent assessments of student ability in such areas as science, writing, mathematics, and social studies indicate that unacceptable numbers of students have not mastered even basic skills, let alone higher order thinking skills. During the past decade, even scores in reading proficiency have remained relatively stable among 17 year olds (NAEP, 1995). Technology did not cause this to happen.

As a tool to improve and extend human understanding, the concepts inherent in technology must be interconnected with a concomitant ability to think deeply and productively. Programs such as Mindtools, (Jonassen, 1996) demonstrate important linkages between thinking skills , collaboration, and technology. In the Mindtools model, present paradigms are shifted from those which view knowledge as static to new conceptualizations that integrate the use of technology, mainly in the form of computers, as knowledge representation tools. While such conceptualizations show promise, serious problems remain.

Relatively lackluster performance of students on standardized measures is a phenomenon that has roots in our changing cultural paradigms. No amount of computers, or other educational technology, will make significant differences in student performance until the educational system itself is not just reformed, but transformed into a new system. The effort required is analogous to trying to improve the speed of a propeller-driven airplane. At a certain point, no matter how much the design of the engine is modified, no matter how smooth the surfaces of the airframe are made, the upper limits of the performance of a propeller airplane have been reached. Exceedingly small improvements can be made, but only at prohibitive costs. The jet is an entirely different system, and the upper limits of performance of jets is rapidly being approached. Jets can be made safer, more fuel-efficient, and more reliable, but the speed limit of jets is within sight.

The educational system has also rapidly approached the limits to which it can be improved by tinkering with the components. The failure of many "reform" movements is a symptom of the problem. A new system is needed; a system that changes the focus from teaching to learning, a system that integrates technology as a means of both freeing and empowering students and teachers, a system in which thinking skills are used to create individual, personal knowledge that can be shared instantaneously with anyone in the world who is connected and who has an interest.

Efforts to teach the interconnectedness of traditional content across grade levels and subject areas provides a way of thinking about, and eventually developing criteria

by which the shape of the new system can be visualized. Technology and the ability to think critically, creatively, and productively are the physical and cognitive tools that will permeate and make possible the development and implementation of such a system.

Thinking skills needed for the 21st century will be no different than the thinking skills prehistoric man used to communicate and survive in a hostile world -- only the context will be different. The 21st century will be a volatile world that will prize the thinkers. Ultimately, as we individually and collectively come to understand the intrinsic benefits of the interconnectedness of learning and technology, we will create personal knowledge from seeing the connections inherent in the vast sea of information in which we swim. In creating that personal knowledge, we become individually more free and more human. Thinking skills, technology, and the creation of knowledge are surely parts of the weave and threads of the fabric of which Edna St. Vincent Millay spoke. The loom has always been our minds.

Comments? E-Mail Dr. Robert Kizlik

References

Johnson Jr., M. (1967, April). Definitions and models in curriculum theory. Educational Theory. (17) 127-140.

Jonassen, D. H. (1996). Computers in the classroom: Mindtools for critical thinking. Englewood Cliffs. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Kohl, H. (1983, March). The computer as palette and model builder. Learning. 46- 50.

Pinnell, C. (1984). Preparing for the future. In D. N. Apsy, C. B. Aspy, & F. N. Roebuck (Eds.), The Third Century in American Education (pp. 27-36). Amherst, MA. Human Resource Development Press, Inc.

US Department of Education. (1995). National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Pocket Condition of Education 1995. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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