Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Substitution is Not a Bad Thing: Thoughts on the SAMR Model

Let me start by saying that I am a fan of the SAMR model. I think SAMR can help teachers think about ways to use technology to provide engaging and meaningful learning experiences for students. (If SAMR is new to you, you may want to read this and this.)

Although I see value in SAMR as a framework, I think we are heading down a dangerous path by placing too much emphasis on the levels. Lately, I have heard many educators profess that teachers should not use technology as a substitute. They say that all teachers should be working toward redefinition, all the time, and that there's no place for substitution in the classroom. I argue that there is a time and place for all levels of SAMR in the classroom, and that great teachers know when and why.

The truly great teachers move fluidly among all levels of the SAMR model, making choices about technology use after making choices about students' learning needs. These teachers understand that the use of a tool is not what determines student engagement and learning. They also understand that technology is not always effective/appropriate for all learning outcomes.

I frequently use my iPad as a calculator, my iPhone to listen to music, and my computer to take notes. Similarly, students often use tools in these ways, substituting the tool for another way of doing the task. Is that a bad thing?

If students use an iPad as a calculator, does that mean they aren't thinking about math in complex ways? Absolutely not. These students could be using the calculator app to solve relevant and complicated math problems.

If students use a computer to take notes, does that mean they aren't thinking about the content in deep and personally meaning ways? Absolutely not. These students could be responding to thoughtful and complex questions posed by the teacher or their peers.

Case in point:

A former colleague and friend of mine, Brooke Simpson, is the most exceptional math teacher I have ever observed. While Brooke is adept at technology use in the classroom, her exceptionality lies not in her use of technology but in the ways she gets students to think and talk about math. In Brooke's classroom, her students do not just do math, they understand math. From the first day of school, Brooke has her students thinking and talking about math in ways that are more complex than many adults understand.

On numerous occasions, Brooke's students would use the Magnetic Alphabet app as a substitution for number tiles. Brooke would select a secret number and provide clues to help students figure out the secret number. Early in the year, these clues may be simple, such as "My number is between the number of days in a weekend and the number of days in a week." Later in the year, her clues would be more complex, such as "My number is a factor of 12 and a multiple of 3." Although Brooke's students used the Magnetic Alphabet app as a direct substitute for number tiles, they were thinking about mathematics in sophisticated ways.

If you were to remove all technology from Brooke's classroom, she would remain a master teacher. I could give many more examples (as I'm sure you could) of master teachers who cultivate a love of learning in their students and impact student growth in profound ways with or without technology.

If technology is not what makes the difference, then what is it? It's the teacher. It's always been the teacher. Master teachers are those we remember years later, the ones who instilled in us a passion to learn, the ones who gave us skills that opened new doors in our lives, the ones who knew us and helped us know ourselves.

Let's stop guilting teachers into feeling bad for using technology as a substitute for traditional tasks. Master teachers engage their students and foster a depth of thinking with whatever tools they have available, and what often sets these teachers apart is their understanding of when technology is appropriate/effective and when it is not.

As we continue to engage in conversations about technology, let's keep our focus on what's really important. We need to find ways to build capacity in all teachers so that they can all be Brooke Simpsons and the other exceptional teachers we have known. Sure, technology professional development can be a good thing. But let's not forget about professional learning experiences that can help teachers learn to ask thoughtful questions, design relevant and authentic assessments, and be responsive to their students' needs.

And please, can we stop bashing teachers for using technology as a substitute? Focus on the learning instead of the tool, and then you'll finally be able to see what redefined student learning looks like.

1 comment:

  1. I struggle with this idea and I go back and forth on the merits of substitution. You have made the case for it, and I think it holds. And yet, the point of looking beyond substitution is so that we might reimagine the classroom and the student and teacher roles within it. Can we still do this, if we are looking at substitution as our entry point each time?

    I believe you are absolutely right. We need to stop vilifying teachers for their instructional decisions to use technology as a substitute for a more traditional tool. It doesn't help us to support ALL TEACHERS if we continue to make folks think that technology needs to redefine every task all of the time. The issue for me, though, is that when we do "focus on the learning" as you propose, it is difficult to imagine the case for simple substitution as the best approach much of the time. I like your example of using an app for the Magnetic Alphabet as a typical substitution task. However, I keep on thinking about how much more powerful it would be to have the students take screenshots of their apps as they went or project them via airplay to have a mini-lesson on a specific example. It isn't that those extensions are required all of the time, but by having the conversation about those possibilities, it means that the teacher (master or not) is able to think about the ways in which these tools can transform the learning environment and make capturing learning (by students) so much easier.

    So, I guess it boils down to this for me: "When is substitution a strong instructional choice, and when is it holding us back from reaching further?" I think that teachers should be asking that question and the same questions about whether technology (in some cases) is holding learning back? I believe there are opportunities for a low-tech/no-tech solutions work beautifully. However, the more that we encourage folks to think about the learning tasks in new ways, the more ownership students will have of the learning environment and the more engaged they will become.

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here: