Outside of the Box: How Technology Can Help Break Down “Subject” Barriers

Blog Post created by teachontario.team on Sep 1, 2015

Ben Babcock

Posted on Mar 24, 2015


One of the big news items in education this week is, of course, how Finland is phasing "subjects" out in favour of "topic" teaching. I find this interesting for a very personal reason: I am a math and English teacher—and not math or English, or math with a little bit of English (or vice versa). I love both subjects, love teaching both subjects, and want to teach both as often and as concurrently as possible. When people hear about my teachables, they typically comment on how the combination is unusual because these subjects are so different (which they are not, but that's a discussion for another day…). This perspective indicates how deeply embedded the idea of subject teaching is in our society. I find this unfortunate, because real life doesn't work that way. Something I'm realizing as I consider how best to make lessons more engaging and more relevant to 21st century learners is that, increasingly, we need to break out of that subject box. Otherwise the learning is too artificial to be meaningful in a world where knowledge is a click away but skills remain elusive.pentametron_example.png


The other thing I love is when I see someone doing something with technology that is creative or unexpected. Twitter is great for communication. But it has also spawned entire subcultures of phenomena, from serialized novels to choose your own adventure stories. And there are bots. Sooooo many bots. Most of them are just annoying spammers that follow you when you tweet a certain keyword. Some are clever creations of brilliant minds.


Yesterday I came across one of the latter: @Pentametron is a Twitter bot that retweets pairs of tweets that, together, make a couplet in iambic pentameter.


My first reaction was, “Oh, this is neat.” Another Internet curiosity in a world where we can see several such curiosities a day. I will share it, then I will probably forget about it.


Then it dawned on me what an actual feat this was, and how doing this required a knowledge both of computer science and English. (The creator is actually an artist for whom this type of "inadvertent" sound art is an interest.)


First and foremost, obviously, one has to understand what iambic pentameter is. Then one has to figure out how to express this in language a computer is going to understand. One has to create an algorithm that takes random tweets, counts their syllables, and then pairs tweets with the correct number of syllables in such a way that their last words rhyme in English. I don't know if there are any other checks (e.g., if it understands stresses on syllables).


This was just a reminder for me that I can't get too comfortable when using technology and things like Twitter in the classroom. Yes, Twitter is a communication tool and great when leveraged as such—but it's also a platform that can do so much more when you let loose with a little creativity. I'm not a computer science teacher, but I would love to be in a computer science class where a culminating activity was “create a Twitter bot that does a cool thing.” This fulfills the need for students to demonstrate they have skills and can meet expectations, but it also opens the door for them to express their own particular interests, whether that’s iambic pentameter, science, soccer, movies, etc. And because the project is open-ended, it means students have the potential to surprise with their creation. Why not give them an opportunity to dazzle, instead of just showing they know how to make an algorithm?


Going forward, when I'm designing activities that rely on using a particular technology, I'm going to try hard to think if I've considered emergent or unusual twists we can put on the technology. Is "create a Twitter account for a character" really the best I can do, or is there something more creative we can manage? Or can I open the task up a bit more to give students the space they need to surprise me? Can I create an environment in which students can Do New Things, things I don't necessarily expect? I know the idea of an open-ended task that encourages creativity is nothing new. However, it's vital that when we pair such tasks with technology, we don't get stuck "inside the box" in terms of what we expect a technology to do. Sometimes there are hidden layers, just waiting for a motivated or engaged student to discover when we—or they—least expect it.


I also want to use technology to break down those barriers we inadvertently erect between subjects. As with open-ended projects, this is not something inherently new with using technology. However, technology creates more opportunities to do so. A Twitter bot could be a computer science program that happens to allow students to express English, math, science skills. But we could turn it around, have students use Twitter or Tumblr or Wordpress in service of a specific English task, all the while letting their computer and art and design skills flourish as well. To some extent this happens already whenever we use these technologies in our lessons—but I think we need to consider these cross-curricular connections more explicitly. By doing so, we can make more conscious tweaks to our activities to emphasize certain cross-curricular connections that might be the most fruitful or beneficial for our learners.


This is, to me, the most potent and mind-blowing thing about using technology in 21st-century teaching—not all the exciting things I know technology can do (and I'm tech savvy, so I have a lot of pre-conceptions); it's discovering, often through students, all the things I never knew technology could do. And hopefully along the way, we can help encourage and empower them to continue such discoveries when they leave school.


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