Put Simply, It’s About Purpose

This post started as an answer to the #ITA17 Week 7 Question: What strategies have you used (or plan on using) to implement technology with purpose?  Then just got away from me…

When I first began using technology in the classroom about 11 years ago, I made the error of planning a series of lessons around a technology tool (rather than the English content and skills that my students needed). Between our brand new 2006 Macbooks and our newly minted Tech Coach doing an awesome job exposing us to everything from Blogspot to Glogster to Wikispaces, I got caught in the shiny new toys trap.  All of the sudden I was a Web 2.0 Technology tools teacher who was using English Language Arts content to teach these tech tools (but come on….the Things Fall Apart African Proverb Comic Life projects were cool!). For more on one of my greatest technology integration failures, check out this post on Writer’s Notebooks; for more on the learning outcome from this failure and a strong attempt at purposeful use, check this post out comparing a traditional Multi-genre project to a digital one.

Luckily, this digression only lasted about a semester.  Once I got together with the group of other Classrooms for the Future (CFF) Teachers to reflect on the first marking period, I/we realized that to purposefully integrate and use technology in the classroom, we had to take a step back from the tool(s) and do 2 things:

  1. we had to decide on the learning goals and type of transfer we were looking for out of our students..then
  2. we had to figure out if there was a tool that would support and/or amplify that learning goal.  Once I started approaching technology use and integration in this manner, how and when I used it became purposeful.

Let’s start with Transfer…

Long Term Transfer

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their Understanding by Design (UbD) 2.0 Template, outline this concept of [Long Term] Transfer as articulating what Students will be able to independently use their learning to… do in a sense.  

Traditionally, from my experience the idea of transfer was focused primarily on the acquisition of Content first, skill second if at all.  For a funny take on this let’s consider the 5 Minute University



While we were using UbD and the Backwards Design process during our CFF days, the concept of Transfer was not yet clearly fleshed out like in the new 2.0 Template.  However, with where we were going as a district we began to dive into the trend that seemed to be making its way into high school curricula, which was move from Content Based Transfer focused units to more ThematicBased Transfer ones.  So while Content still had a place in our curricula and classrooms, Themes took a more important role in how we curated, structured and facilitated resources and learning.  Now the Skills were still there, however still ‘embedded’ in the Themes and Content.  

Fast forward a few years and more time with integrating technology, learning more and more about brain research, learning styles, and the changing nature of student development in an interconnected world, and we once again found ourselves shifting…this time to a more Skills Based Transfer model.  Again, the Content and Themes were still present, but the overall focus in some cases made somewhat of a shift to the Transfer of Hard Skills as primary frame for curriculum units, assessments, and learning/teaching.  The conversation changed from Students will be able to independently use their learning to KNOW X Content to Students will be able to independently use their learning to DO Y with X Content.

Let’s be clear, when students engage in learning in any subject, there is usually some level of each of the ‘types’ of transfer they internalize.  They will learn some Content, they will learn some Soft Skill(s) or Thematic type of lesson, and they will learn some level of Hard Skill. What I am suggesting, especially when it comes to purposeful use of technology, is that breaking out the learning goals almost by ‘Type of Transfer’ has helped me to really choose which tool I want my students to use and when I want them to use it for that purpose.

This is important because when working with UbD and Backwards design, whatever the overall ‘focus’ is for the unit you are building happens to be, that frame literally drives EVERYTHING you do.  This purposeful and deliberate focus (pun intended ‘By Design’) literally drives the resources you choose, the types of questions you develop, the assessments and learning strategies you pull in for students….TO the type of technology I want my students to consider for purposeful use.

To get to this 2nd point, purposefully choosing technology, let’s take a minute and break Long Term Transfer down a little further…

Content Transfer

Content Transfer focuses on, well content…the nuts and bolts of the subject area students are studying.  This includes but is not limited to everything from historical facts and figures, wars, important figures, societal movements, ideas, and primary source documents to science related content such as body systems, life cycles, the structure and state of matter, and thermodynamics, to English focused content such as author names, book titles, literary/historical time periods and movements, major characters, and the structure and function of our Language, to mathematical content such as the elements and structures Algebra, to the lines and angles and properties of Geometry.  The list could go on, but basically this really focuses on the WHAT of student learning outcomes. Image: CC BY-SA 3.0


Soft Skill/Thematic Transfer

Soft Skill or Thematic Transfer focuses on those sets of skills that, today, seem to have taken on such an aura of highest importance (rightfully so!) that the more you read about them the more you hear folks shifting the branding from ‘soft’ skills to things like ‘essential’ skills, ‘21st century skills’, ‘Globally focused skills’, and the like.  These in essence, are those ‘life lesson’ type of take aways from studying certain content areas or subjects.  These are what students learn about life, love, friendship, environmental sustainability, implications of repeating the past, being responsible citizens, and the like.  

This element of transfer builds relevance and meaning for students.  Think about the power and relevance of having students simultaneously study the history of Africa, read, analyze and compare Yeats’ The Second Coming, Achebe’s Language and the Destiny of Man, Shakur’s The Rose That Grew from Concrete, Paton’s A Drink in the Passage & Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck…all under the umbrella and through the lens of asking students to consider the essential question, ‘How do I inhabit and embrace the global community?Image: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

It provides a vehicle not only for immediate learning but for life-long critical thinking, empathy, and self/world awareness. It allows students to understand the WHY of their learning.

Hard Skill Transfer

Hard Skill Transfer focuses on the skills and strategies that are the HOW of learning. These, often, come from places like the different standards we use to frame learning.  The transferable hard skills can include, but are not limited to: comprehension, synthesis, evaluation, analysis, interpreting symbols, recognizing patterns, creating, presenting to an audience, organizing an argument or essay, picking out bias/propaganda, reflection, vocabulary acquisition skills, computational thinking, etc.  Basically the skills outlined in the Common Core Standards for ELA/Literacy and Mathematics, Standards for Mathematical Practice, NextGen Science Standards, and ISTE Standards. *Note- many of these standards also have components that lend themselves to Content & Thematic/Soft Skill Transfer as well! Image: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

This element of transfer builds strategies and competencies for thinking and doing for students.  Let’s revisit the study the history of Africa, read, analyze and compare Yeats’ The Second Coming, Achebe’s Language and the Destiny of Man, Shakur’s The Rose That Grew from Concrete, Paton’s A Drink in the Passage & Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck…but this time approach it through the lens of analyzing the role of language and rhetoric in relation to (Mis)Communication: How Conflict is Developed, is Conveyed and is Resolved.  Different angle, equally powerful.  Again, this is the HOW of the learning for the students.

Like any good analysis, breaking a whole into parts, studying those parts, then putting them back together again helps us understand that a lesson, unit, curriculum should have varied combinations of all three of these types of transfer.  It would be hard to have a student reflect on inhabiting and embracing the global community without studying the language and rhetoric of conflict, point of view and miscommunication in comparing Achebe to Conrad without learning the content of Africa’s history as well as the culture, history and contexts for the texts.  

However, clearly articulating all three outcomes accomplishes, in my mind, 2 goals (by Design):

  1. Makes sure we open opportunities to go beyond just knowing…to thinking, reflecting, analyzing, and connecting/building relevance and meaning.
  2. Opens up the opportunity for effective, meaningful, and purposeful technology integration (wait…wasn’t that what started this entire rant???)

Purposeful Use of Technology

I’m going to keep this part brief, mostly because there are literally 101+ tools to use.  One may do some things well and others not so much, and another may work in the complete opposite manner.  Again, what you choose to use (if it amplifies and enhances the learning) depends on your learning goals and transfer for your students, the actual technologies you have available to use (access), the culture in your district (especially how open or closed you may be allowed to go), ease of use, and quite simply student preference and/or choice.

However, from a strategy standpoint, my planning conversations (with a colleague or myself) would be something around:

For this unit/lesson, the CONTENT I want my students to work with is X.  Let me see what resources are out there that are credible, viable, and more relevant than the textbook I have.  I may look to something like the National Archives, MIT Open Courseware Online Textbooks, the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Google Cultural Institute and/or OER Commons.

For this unit/lesson, the THEMATIC/SOFT SKILL I want my students to walk away with is X.  Let me see what resources are out there for students to connect with others across the globe (maybe the Flat Connections project, Digital Flat Stanley, Global Read Aloud or Global Cardboard Challenge), take on a social cause and work to make a difference (maybe Project Global Inform), or simply engage with, explore and create based off their passions (maybe a Genius Hour push).

For this unit/lesson, the HARD SKILL I want my students to walk away with is X.  Let me see what resources are out there for students to analyze & synthesize through collaborative note-making tools (Google Docs, Padlet, or Timeglider), conduct research (maybe Diigo as a shared note-making & collection tool), write (any number of blog platforms- Blogger or WordPress), and/or create (see Slideshare, Animoto, Wikispaces, Pixton, or Weebly).

Again, you are probably sitting there saying, there are SO MANY OTHER Web/Wiki/Blog/Digital Storytelling tools out there that are better!  And, again, you are probably right.  But it’s less about the tool you choose and making sure that you match that tool to your WHY….to your Goal, Transfer, Learning Outcome…your purpose for your students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *