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The Not-So-Magical Rock Shoes: A Parable of Instructional Technologies

July 8, 2012

The Magical Rock Shoes, or A Lesson in Gear-Hype

My husband and I are avid rock climbers.  We started out climbing at a gym in South Carolina, but when we moved to Salt Lake City, we went out onto the real rock that is so abundant in the canyons and mountains of this area.  As part of the transition, we joined a (much larger) gym here, where future champions train and where people who climb five days a week come on rainy days.  During training sessions, we would overhear–and later, as we got to know people, we would initiate–conversations about the best kinds of rock shoes to buy for “performance.”

Now, rock shoes are not meant to be comfortable, particularly; they are meant to conform to the feet so that climbers can make the utmost use of the sticky rubber soles.  Good, fitted rock shoes (worn without socks) can provide a stiff sole so that feet don’t slip or bend, while providing rubber-clad purchase on sheer rock and in tiny pockets.

The problem–at least for relative newbies like ourselves–was that there were so many options and so many disagreements about which were the best shoes to buy.  And unlike some climbers, we had limited funds and time: we couldn’t justify buying “slipper” shoes and “crack” shoes and “aggressive” shoes and “all-day” shoes.  So we listened to a lot of good climbers, and what we heard most was an emphasis on size.  Many top-level climbers will tell you that when they bought smaller shoes (shoes as much as four whole sizes smaller than their normal “street” shoes!), they climbed better.  Their toes fit on smaller holds.  They moved up a grade level to harder routes.  They could make moves they hadn’t ever managed before.

Won over by the proselytizing of these small-shoe converts, we went to our local climbing store and purchased the smallest shoes we could smash our feet into.  The fact that we could see our toe knuckles straining against the leather and couldn’t walk from one end of the tiny store to the other weren’t signs that our shoes were too small.  No, we were going to be climbing a grade higher!

Impatient to try them out, we rushed to our gym, pulled on the terrible shoes with painful moans, limped to the wall, and . . .

Well, and proceeded to climb as if we’d had nails driven into our feet.  Because that’s how it felt.

As we writhed up routes a grade lower than our normal level, praying the leather would stretch WAY more than the half-size we’d been promised, we got another lesson, the kicker, as it were.  A few feet down from us, one of the best climbers in the gym was demonstrating to a friend how to do one of the hardest climbs on the wall–in his tennis shoes.  He flowed smoothly up the fake rock, setting each toe in its flimsy, too-big, soft-soled sneaker with precision and accuracy, then moving a long arm to catch the next handhold at is perfect balance point.  We looked down at our throbbing feet and realized we had been taken in by gear hype.

Gear Hype and Learning

Gear hype is rife in any technology-dependent sport (just look at the “shark-skin” suits on the swimmers at the last Olympics).  But it’s also rife in teaching, where the newest social networking site or tablet or other technology always seems to take over lesson plans across campus for the proverbial fifteen minutes.  Class wikis, student blogs, iPads and iPhones for class participation, “smart” whiteboards, and a hundred other technologies that are or were going to revolutionize teaching–they come and go, with a few teachers really making great use of them and most others going on to search for the next, and the next, and the next.

While instructional technologies–like tight climbing shoes–can certainly make the best even better, they can’t take you to the next level magically and without significant extra effort.  Like the tennis-shoe climber, the best teachers can get great results with what they have, with “obsolete” technologies (pen and paper, even!), and with whatever their schools and students can afford.  New technologies only work in the context of precisely the same amount of effort, the same kinds of learner-centered approaches, and the same level of caring about student success that made good chalkboard-based teaching effective.

Like gear-heads swooning over the new “Top Gear 2012” issue of Climbing or Sailing or Runner’s World (name your obsession!), teachers are too often drawn into the hype about new information technologies and the role they can play in learning.  Given the limited time and money most of us have available, though, as well as the limited attention and effort our students can expend on a single class or lesson and the constraints on learning that are based in human capacity and cannot be easily overcome by converting class discussion onto the Facebook platform, we need to flip our technology use to be driven by content, rather than the driver of it.

The key is to first identify the goals of the lesson or meeting or other teaching event, then decide on activities, discussions, and assessments that will ensure that you meet those goals, and then–and only then–decide whether some technology or other might be useful in meeting the goals already determined upon.  If we had done that with our shoes, we would have realized that in fact the shoes were secondary.  If our goal was to climb at the next level of difficulty, we should have been doing more cardio workouts, climbing more times per week, and practicing technique.  We could have saved ourselves nearly 300 dollars . . . and a lot of pain.

Instructional technologies, like the fancy gear available for almost every sport, can take top performers to the next level.  What it can’t do is substitute for planning, training, practice, effort, or time.  When appropriate, in the context of learner-centered teaching, these technologies can let us do things teachers and managers could never do before.  But just because technologies change, that doesn’t mean the human brain changes.  Learning, as a process, is still a human endeavor; technologies must be used to complement that human process, not to attempt to magically render it unnecessary.

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that new technology should not drive content. I’ve employed technology to enhance or make accessible activities that could otherwise be done without it (and unlimited funding). But even if the instructor addresses specific learning objectives driven by “human learning” in the planning process, how do we know if students are not distracted by the hype of the technology?

  2. That’s a great question. In order to make the classroom “compete” with online learning that is often more accessible or, as you say, may have more hype associated with it (although not all online learning–some is of course very well done), I think we have to make it clear what we believe the in-person experience has to offer. I talk a lot with my students about the value of reading on paper and one-on-one or small group activities, and I generally back up these talks with research about the differences in learning from people and books as opposed to learning from a screen. Both can be valuable; we need to “sell” them on the specific value we bring to the classroom–and we need to do it early in the semester or year! That said, I think we’re all a bit distracted by the hype of technology: I blog and am on Twitter and Facebook, after all! It’s convincing them we need to do both that I think is valuable.
    Thanks for reading!

  3. ChristinaS. permalink

    Kevin asks great questions! I too find myself at times walking the tightrope of introducing new technologies into my classrooms. Like you say – the hype makes the tech look sexy! Wouldn’t my students benefit from this awesome presentation application! Wouldn’t my teaching be more effective if I used this awesome platform! Simplicity in the form of ereaders, smart note pads, podcasts, blogs, white board recorders…

    But then I always ask myself two very important questions:

    1. Does this really improve my overall teaching or does it merely complicate it? These technologies can be beneficial, but you have to know your own teaching style. I am a firm believer in physical interaction — and my instruction is most interesting and engaging when I stick to that. The more “stuff” between me and my students, the harder it is for me as their teacher to reach them. This in turn makes my job harder.

    2. What do I want my students to gain? Often, our departments and the overarching system of the academy want our students to “gain” the knowledge of the course and good grades. But as their instructor, my goal is broader. I want my students to leave my classroom knowing *more* than just the course objectives. We often forget — we are encouraged to! — that books, paper, pens and pencils, and the such *are* technologies. These are technologies that, as you point out, offer many advantages over the new standard of “technology” — the cell phone voice recorder, the textbook ereader, etc. But students are often unaware of these benefits and must be “sold” them. As their instructor, I know they will at some point enter situations where they cannot use the popular technologies they are used to, and it is my responsibility to help them prepare for that eventuality.

    Still, it is difficult to hold that position when I come into class and see a sea of laptops, cell phones, and tablets (I’m sure I’m missing some new cool technology here) with all their notes, books, and PDFs, and I’m the uncool one loaded down with the backbreaking physical items.

    • Ha! Yes–it can feel, when you look at students with their gadgets, that you are the one who needs instruction, or that you’re behind the times. I think, though, that your point #2 is key and is something we don’t always have time to think through enough in the midst of our teaching: what do we want their final learning gain to be from this activity, technology, lecture, etc.? That, to me, should drive everything.

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