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education, technology & chat

I seem to recall some inquiry about education and technology a while back 
using a chat theoretical framework, so i'll use this as an excuse to post 
some cooking field notes from last week.  Offhand however, i'd just like to 
add that if wartofsky's categories are included in the element of artifacts 
in engestroms formulation as mike has suggested, then technology is pretty 
broad category (as i think anthropologists think also)  and digital 
technology is just one subset of that category, although a pretty interesting 

We're in the computer lab and Jane has just finished showing her first graders 
how to run the software they'll be using for today's math activity.  It's 
called "making shapes and building blocks" which many of the children have 
used before in kindergarten.  The software addresses the same topics as 
Jane's children are learning in their math curriculum, "investigations" by 
TERC.  Her school is field testing TERC's new revisions, so there is ample 
interest in how things are going.

The children log in to their computers, using their full names and also a 
password.  What i find surprising, given what i've observed of their reading 
levels, is that no one needs help from me or Jane while doing this task.  
It's a different story when they're trying to run the math software however. 
4 of the children near me cannot run it.  they get an error message.  I ask 
one child to repeat her attempt and it fails.  I abandon the principle of 
keeping my hands off in order to troubleshoot quickly and with the child's 
mouse I verify that it's a computer problem.  The software is not there.  I 
inform Jane of the problem with the computers.

She says "yeah, its the old computers".  I'm surprised because I'm looking at 
mac G3s, which, while they are about 6 years old, run quite well.  Jane asks 
the children to raise hands if they are having trouble.  She has the troubled 
ones buddy up with others who are being successfull, and according to what 
she has told me in prior conversations, she does this according to how well 
she knows the partners will work together. She then comes over to me and, 
closely, with a quiet voice, mentions her frustration with the computer lab.  
The programs on the older computers have been removed to make room for 
software for the older grades.  Focus is being placed on 3rd and 4th grades 
to make sure those kids will pass the state standardized tests.

I think this could be a great example of how large scale (state) mandates 
(fits in the "rules" element of chat) can cause schools to eat their young.  
Efforts to meet mandated standards in the near term affect outcomes in the 
long term, i.e. these first graders will be fourth graders in a few years and 
they too will have to pass the state tests.  Yet it is arguable whether 
Jane's kids have been adversely affected today.  As I watch the buddied-up 
children, I see them taking turns often and the one not at the keyboard is 
often keenly observing the one who is.  The buddies are talking math shapes 
to each other more often than the ones who are working individually, although 
when one child noisily discovers something new, he draws the attention of 
many others in his vicinity.   If indeed there are zopeds to be found here, 
they seem more likely to be found where there are buddies, in part because a 
buddy can offer assistance when needed and this math software is highly 
limited in offering assistance.

But if this activity is still successful for the 4 displaced  children, it's 
in large part due to Jane's savvy with picking partners who can work 
together.  One might think that Jane is a good teacher because she knows how 
to pick partners, but it goes even deeper than that.  What Jane knows is that 
she has to figure out who will be good partners at the beginning of the year, 
and she spends a good part of the year working at this task, noting the 
results each time she or her children choose partners.  And here is the 
insight that focussing on Jane's learning offers.  When she picks partners 
she is thinking in an integrated way of the children's social and cognitive 
development and what sort of mutual zoped will emerge between the two 
partners.  The zoped is highly multidimensional as well as bidrectional. 

Given that first graders are making a big ecological transition when entering 
first grade, they are also making rapid developments in memory and attention 
(refs) as well as in reading and writing abilities (refs), but some much more 
rapidly and more coherently than others.  Cole and Cole (refs) term this 
general pattern in youngs childrens development as "Islands of competance".  
Jane wants there to be optimal learning with both partners, so sometimes 
finding a matching partner for one childs reading level must be traded off 
for who can stay stay focussed with that child .  At least one partner has to 
remember what the steps of the task are, or where to look up what the tasks 
are, and at least one child has to maintain attention to the task at hand.