What Were They Thinking?

What Were They Thinking?

By Paul Lindgren and Matt Lee

When Marty McFly first shows up on the 1950’s Doc Brown’s doorstep in the 1985 classic Back to the Future, the eccentric inventor immediately launches into a mind-reading session wearing an elaborate electronic and pneumatic contraption. After several failed attempts Doc exclaims: “Do you know what this means? It means that this #$&$@ thing doesn’t work at all!”

Wouldn’t we, along with all other educators, love to peer directly into the minds of our learners during instruction? We could see what they understand and what they don’t understand. We could see both their flashes of intuition and their stumbling, naive misconceptions. With that ability we could immediately diagnose problems and formulate remedies when needed—greatly streamlining the instructional process.

This ability still eludes us (and we imagine the FERPA parental permission forms for this would truly be a pain). Unfortunately, we still must rely on other means.

Observed non-verbals may may give us an indication of what is going on in the minds of our students…

"It looked like smoke was ready to come out of his ears.”

"I could just see the gears turning."

"All of a sudden, it seemed like the lights went on."

But nonverbal cues just don’t provide us with enough information. Very few concepts or products are simple or come into existence fully developed. They are nearly always the result of a complex, messy, human process of combination, evaluation, and repeated modification. This process is what we want to capture in an evident way so that we (educators) can become a positive influence in this iterative learning loop; providing corrective and affirmative feedback.

Technology to make thinking visible

Fortunately, there are technological tools that can go beyond aiding students in research, review, writing, and product creation. These tools can also can provide a detailed view into the progress of our students’ thinking. Let’s take a look at a few of these that might help take us closer to our goals.

Traditional written exercises are common instructional staples. When antiquity’s first mathematics student used her angled stylus to mark her cuneiform answer in that tablet’s wet clay, we imagine that her teacher’s immediate response was: “You need to show your work!” With technology today, that’s especially easy! Tools such as ExplainEverything on iPad and Chromebook devices allow students to create richly detailed recordings of their process as they solve math problems. This allows a teacher to retrace their students’ steps and enables them to offer corrective feedback on the process as needed.

Screen recording software such as what is built into iPads, Camtasia on Macs or PCs, or the Screencastify Chrome plug-in, can be used by students to capture their learning process and showcase their ability to use a variety of tools. These recordings can then be used to create tutorials that students can share with others. The learning process is exposed for the benefit of all students.

Physical education and music may not be the first disciplines that come to mind when you think about technology integration. However, these fields can benefit tremendously from tools that help capture evidence of students’ thinking. Nearly every device now has a webcam that can be used to document and evaluate the evolution of a student’s performance over time. Instead of only viewing the final performance at a band concert, the teacher now can see how the student progressed in her mastery of that particularly difficult section of music. Using a camera with tools like Hudl and ExplainEverything, physical education students can document and critique their weight lifting techniques. Documenting in this way allows students to focus on refining their technique, rather than simply trying to lift more.

The thinking involved in the design and creation of physical objects can also be captured with digital tools. Technologies such as relatively low-cost 3D printing allow for rapid prototyping. Bytes can be transformed quickly into atoms for real-world analysis at multiple stages of the design process. These models can be examined by peers and by teachers with the student quickly making modifications based on feedback.

Until a real-life Emmett Brown develops a working brain-wave analyzer for us to use we will be forced to utilize our more mundane technological means to help our students learn. Ironically, the 1950’s Doc would likely be astounded by what our students can develop and put on display today through the cognitive tools available on their PC’s, Surfaces, iPads, Androids, Chromebooks, or Macbooks.

Along with the time-tested “Show your work!” we now have many more avenues for our students to leverage when we challenge them with “Show your thinking!”