Friday, October 7, 2016

Whats Wrong With SAMR?

Something has been bothering me.  I am bothered enough to awake from my self-imposed social media slumber.  I have been away from blogging and Twitter for quite some time.  Some of my inactivity on social media has been because it became professionally unsafe for me to write about my work for a few years.  But mostly it is because once you fall out of the habit of blogging it is hard to pick it back up.  Anyway, something has been bothering me enough lately to start writing again.

What is bothering me is how I see so many school systems using SAMR.  For those who are unfamiliar with SAMR, it is a framework that describes the adoption cycle of technology.  It stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition.  Basically, the theory goes that when a person or group is introduced to a new technology they first use the technology to substitute for something they did before. Then, after time they move to using technology to augment what they do.  Then, the technology works to modify what was previously done.  And finally, the technology allows for new things that could not be done before without it.  This final stage is referred to as Redefinition.  This observation is very similar to what David Warlick used to often say in lectures, "First you do old things the old way, then you do old things in new ways, and then you do new things in new ways."

What irritates me is so many schools have been using SAMR as a way to talk about technology integration in the same way we talk about Blooms Taxonomy. SAMR gets talked about as if the R is something to work toward.  As if Redefinition is a state of adoption that is better than the other stages.  I don't think SAMR should be viewed this way.  SAMR is not something we actively seek out, it is a way of describing what happens naturally.

This misuse of a perfectly good technology adoption theory is evident in the examples often given for school activities that fall along these four areas.  Here is a prime example:
LevelDefinitionExamples Functional Change 
Redefinition         Computer technology allows for new tasks that were previously inconceivable. A classroom is asked to create a documentary video answering an essential question related to important concepts. Teams of students take on different subtopics and collaborate to create one final product.  Teams are expected to contact outside sources for information.At this level, common classroom tasks and computer technology exist not as ends but as supports for student centered learning.  Students learn content and skills in support of important concepts as they pursue the challenge of creating a  professional quality video.  Collaboration becomes necessary and technology allows such communications to occur.  Questions and discussion are increasingly student generated.
The example given here for Redefinition is something I was asked to do in the 1990s as a high school student using a VHS camcorder. This clearly is an example of Substitution. Rarely have I seen anything in these examples that wouldn't actually fit into the Substitution, Augmentation, or Modification areas. Redefinition is just so hard for us to imagine that we don't usually notice it until it has already happened.

I think that the closer a teacher actually comes to Redefinition in their practice the more at risk they are of loosing their job.  This statement has always met with strange looks or with vehement argument whenever I have made it before.  However, I do believe strongly that this is true. To explain my reasoning let me offer an alternative example of the four stages in the SAMR model.  For this I am going to look at just one technology and how it has changed my learning.

In 2005 YouTube was introduced to the word.  I was teaching art at an alternative high school at the time.  My students and I quickly began using this tool in our classroom.  At first I started looking for videos on YouTube (and other Tube Sites) to replace the instructional videos I used to show in class.  This is clearly an example of Substitution. 

I then started having students use the search feature in YouTube to locate videos related to their own research topics.  This might be considered an augmentation since the immediacy of the search engine made this much more effective than taking a class to the library, searching through a card catalog, locating the video on the shelf, and then bringing it back to school. 

Then later, when we became more comfortable with this new tool, I had students make and publish videos giving critiques of their favorite artists.  One artist whose work was critiqued was still living in Australia.  This artist saw my student's video and responded with a video of their own directed toward my students.  This exchange led to a video pen-pal situation virtually bringing this professional artist into my classroom as a co-teacher for four months.  This would be a Modification. 

Now, since 2005 I have not spent a dime on a mechanic to work on my car.  I was never very much into automotive repair and was personally intimidated at the prospect of working on an engine.  However, I have found that I can fix my own car almost every time it breaks down by finding a video on YouTube showing me step-by-step how to do it.  This is Redefinition.  YouTube and Google have made many things unnecessary that were essential before.   

Prime example of Redefinition in student learning.

This is just one example. I can easily apply this example to other technologies with similar results.  The fact is, none of these stages was any more powerful or effective for teaching than the others.  They were just different.  SAMR describes what happens when you introduce a new technology, it is not a goal to achieve. 

This idea is not new and those who have let technology Redefine teaching and learning in their classrooms have often found that the school system has a way of not putting up with it.  Our school districts may say they want teachers to work toward Redefinition in their classrooms but teacher evaluation models don't show it.  One way the Internet-connected 1:1 devices allow is a type of learning that is student-driven and individualized in ways it was never possible to do before. If we were to allow our classrooms to be Redefined by these tools we might offer students a learning environment where we allow students to set their own goals and learning objectives and use these tools to help facilitate their own learning. Such an environment may be rich in resources but gone would be conventional ideas of what constitutes "instruction."  If a teacher allows students to set their own learning targets or pursue their own interests it falls short on most teacher evaluation models. Our evaluation models are meant to measure how good a teacher is at leading and guiding students through a teacher-driven curriculum. School policies often don't show room for Redefinition either. 

Seymour Papert wonderfully describes how teachers changed the way students learned math by using computer programming to make a kind of "Math Land." In this "Math Land" students learned advanced mathematical concepts in the same way one learns a new language through immersion.  These early pioneering teachers integrated computers into their classrooms.  Soon though, the school systems collected these devices and corralled them into a room ominously called the "computer lab" and gave computer science it's own "subject" to be taught.  This also allowed these machines to be utilized as testing centers to facilitate and streamline standardized testing. It isolated this disruptive innovation preventing further Redefinition. 

So, if you are truly letting technology Redefine your teaching and learning then you may soon find yourself out of a job.  The traditional school model will find a way to corral you or the Redefinition may actually be redefining what "teaching" needs are still relevant and necessary. I find myself more and more looking at my job as ensuring that I offer my students a learning environment where they have access to whatever resources they need to learn on their own and conditions with which to achieve their own goals and less "teaching."  Unfortunately, most school districts do not measure teacher performance with a tool that will measure this kind of work.  And, our continued need for students to perform on a standardized test will mean that our profession will continue to be limited to the SAM portion of this model.