The Cognitive ladder

It’s not enough that today’s students have technology. With it, they must also be given greater control over their education.

Scott McLeod, director of innovation with Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency, spoke with a group of Fort Dodge and region educators about the ideal future of education, of using technology to move students from low-level to high-level thinking.

“We’re not going to get where we need to go if we don’t start taking some risks and moving in some other directions,” McLeod said.

McLeod said students have to stop spending 80 to 85 percent of their school day doing low-level thinking work.

“They need to move up the cognitive ladder,” he said. “Whether you’re talking about college readiness, workforce preparation or getting them ready for life, there’s a big push right now to still have kids know stuff and be able to do stuff, but move up the cognitive ladder so they can do deeper thinking work.”

The ideal is to have students engaging in high-level thinking, McLeod said, but right now most instruction is based on low-level thinking.

“They’re still focused primarily on low-level mental work, factual recall, procedural knowledge, regurgitation,” he said. “We’re going to do it rote, and I can do 50 practice ones but if you ask me to do it in a different form or shape I’m stuck because I don’t know what to do. But I can spit facts for the next two weeks until the quiz is over, and then it’s gone out of my head forever.”

This is true even with one-to-one schools, where students are issued laptops for academic and personal use, but use it only as a substitute tool with no functional improvement.

“They’ve got technology in the hands of kids, so what they’re trying to do is figure out how to use that technology more often,” McLeod said. “But they’re having trouble figuring out how to give up control to kids over their own learning. The devices make that possible if we let them, but we’re struggling.”

When students leave school, they need to be empowered, self-directed learners, McLeod said.

“They can’t continue to be dependent for the next few decades, after they go, on somebody else telling them what to do,” he said. “The biggest complaint we hear from employers and colleges is ‘They come to us and say, just tell us what to do.’ Well, they spent 13 years in an environment that tells them what to do every second of their life.”

Three big shifts need to be made, according to McLeod, in cognitive complexity, technology integration and student agency of learning, as opposed to system agency.

Even though students have more technology, the trouble, McLeod said, is the system giving up control of learning to students. Content, process and evaluation are directed solely by teachers. An occasional exception is product, the form in which the work is being presented. And still, this is low-level work.

“These are creation devices, not just consumption devices,” he said. “The challenge here, that we have to start thinking about learning, is not consumption of knowledge, where somebody’s pushing stuff out to you, but instead you’re creating knowledge, you’re actively involved in creating that knowledge.”

He added, “Kids can be powerful, kids can be empowered.”

Technology in classrooms, such as laptops and tablets, though, are still being used mainly as consumption devices, according to McLeod.

“Watch this YouTube video I picked out for you. Go to this center of resources on the web that I curated for you. Go research something on this topic and report back. All of those are consumption devices,” he said. “If we’re talking about true technology literacy and proficiency, we have to recognize this is a read-write environment and not a read environment.”

McLeod said it is up to educators to be bold in moving forward.

“Many of us are holding back. We’re unwilling to give up control, we’re uncertain,” he said. “If you guys don’t get it, it’s not going to happen.”