As part of the process of designing and developing new Labs, I visit math content sites all the time to help me think about the kinds of questions to ask and the way to explain or represent a concept. I am constantly struck by how talkative these sites are. As teachers, words are our currency, and with few exceptions they are the main way we have always communicated skills and ideas. We come from a very long “stand and deliver” tradition. We seek to replicate Socrates talking to his disciples. When that oral tradition was turned into a printed one, teachers used words, even more words, to communicate ideas. Surely, in some cases, we draw pictures, knowing a picture is worth a thousand words, particularly in mathematics. But we rarely let images stand alone, but embed them in a sea of words, for words have remained our currency and our tradition for 2500 years.
Today, as we turn into the digital age using screens instead of dead trees, we continue to find it so very difficult to get past our tradition. We make videos, draw and animate images on screens, but still we fill them with words. Even when we create content with dynamic, interactive images, we still embed them in a sea of words to either be read or listened to. We, it seems, cannot leave our long tradition of making words our learning currency. Even when our visionaries preach teaching in the tradition of the great Socrates by asking questions, having conversations, seeking roots of concepts, we continue to apply his words based pedagogy to build 21st century skills.
We have yet to learn the lessons of this new digital medium, the lessons of PowerPoint slide shows, Twitter and Facebook, emails and especially messaging. We have not applied the “less is more” use of words to digital learning. It is not easy to make lessons with just few words that do not have to tell, show, or direct. It is not easy to ask simple questions that suggest. It is not easy to picture concepts in visual representations as tables or graphs or animations. It is not easy to change tradition. But just as in Fiddler, we must!