Posted by: shineonali | March 21, 2010

In Support of Dabbling

I just reread Marc Prensky’s Shaping Tech for the Classroom.  He refers to four steps of technology adoption in schools: dabbling, doing old things in old ways, doing old things in new ways, doing new things in new ways.  Once again, I’m left slightly annoyed by the way these steps portray doing new things in new ways as the summit–Edutopia.  It seems to me that you need some room for all of these steps to be occurring in schools, all the time.  The very nature of technology necessitates it–technology is continually changing–so we should expect schools and teaching to be in a continual process of adapting.

Dabbling in 2006, when the article was written, was having just a few computers here and there.  In my experience, most schools and teachers are well beyond that now.  I think I’d go nuts if I were back in a two (desktop) computer classroom again!

Looking at this from a classroom teacher perspective, I’m all for dabbling.  I would consider that dabbling is when you are using a new tool (a device, a program, or even a teaching strategy) mainly for the sake of trying it out.  It’s not necessarily going to transform your teaching, but you are giving something new (to you) a chance, because you think it has potential.  I think you are dabbling when you play around with a tool for personal use, or for use with other teachers.  I’m dabbling with Dropbox and Google Docs to manage my files this year.  You can also dabble in the classroom: I dabbled with Wallwisher when I had students put together walls to share their learning about social issues.  You might even say that last year, in creating a class blog, I was dabbling with blogging.  The blog ended up becoming a fundamental part of our classroom environment–but that was after we set it up and just “had a go”.

I might prefer to call this exploring or experimenting, instead of dabbling.  Isn’t this how people learn?  Isn’t it what we try to give students time to do whenever we introduce something different, be it pattern blocks or a program like imovie?  If I ever stop trying out new stuff, it might be time to stop teaching.

I think that dabbling with a tool gives you the freedom to find out whether it will allow your students to learn and share their learning in better, more powerful ways.  You find out what else the students are going to learn by using the tool, and what else they need to know in order for it to really be effective.  If it’s a good tool, hopefully you are inspired to keep using it in more and more transformational ways.

Of course, I do understand that dabbling also has the negative connotation of being superficial.  If you dabble at everything, you are in danger of not really mastering anything.  (The expression “Jack of all trades” is a compliment…until you tag “master of none” to the end.)  As educators, we have to be masters of teaching, so that ultimately, our dabbling is purposeful and reflective.  I’m thinking that the varying roles of the technology facilitator or coach described in the Collaboration Cycle lend themselves well.  Maybe this is also where the administrative, whole school perspective has to come into play.  At some point, we need to move beyond dabbling with a particular tool and decide if it’s going to become part of our standard practice.  For the full potential of some tools to be realized, the exploration needs to go beyond individual classrooms.

On another note: I know that people tend to talk about Educuation with an implied captital E, as though it were one uniform entity.  But the truth is, the definition of new and old is going to vary from teacher to teacher, school to school, district to district.  This applies to technology, curriculum, and models of  teaching.  (I hope) Marc Prensky is not suggesting that an old way is always less than a new one.  What’s new to one person might be the only way another has ever done things.  In some cases, what’s old to one person is new to another.  (Example: Where does reform math fall on the new/old spectrum?) Some people hear the word “new”, and immediately get excited–and others immediately get stressed!  Some people say “old” with derision, which makes others defensive.  Perhaps we need to avoid using the labels “new” and “old” in today’s rapidly changing world.  They are elusive, ever-shifting, and tend to be value-laden in unintended ways.  (By the way, Michael Smith’s hilarious post from last October makes you question what we mean by “change” in a funnier way than I ever could.)



  1. I agree….I like the words exploring or experimenting better and believe they capture what I want my classroom to look like. Classrooms should be a place to explore and experiment with everything from reading to science. How do we turn our classrooms into places of creativity rather than places where knowledge is gathered. Gathering knowledge is one thing, but being creative with that knowledge producing something for others is what I want my classroom to be.

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