“The nouns change but the verbs remain the same”

EDIT: In the month since I first published this, I discovered that Marc Prensky has been using “nouns” and “verbs” to talk about educational technology for a lot longer than I have. You can read about how I discovered this here.

In keeping with my last post, I’ve been trying to make changes to how I spend some of my leisure time. Over the past few days, I’ve been bringing my Kindle to the breakfast/lunch table instead of my iPad so that I can spend some time reading instead of doodling around on the Internet while I eat. It’s a small step, but it still feels like a giant leap in leisurehacking.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Apollo, the story of the American journey to the moon and back, but from the point of view of the engineers, scientists, and managers instead of the usual focus on the astronauts. The title of this post was a favorite saying of Joe Shea, a brilliant engineer who came to NASA to make some big decisions about the Apollo program but who ultimately left after the Apollo 1 fire.

For Shea, the nouns were all of the different fields that he studied: “from engineering mechanics to electrical engineering to theoretical mathematics to physics to inertial guidance” according to Bly Cox and Murray, the authors of Apollo. I’m no engineer, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to come up with the right verbs, but when Shea explained that “the nouns change but the verbs remain the same,” it’s a modest way of explaining that he was brilliant enough that he could do good work regardless of the noun at hand.

The sentence stood out to me a little bit differently, though. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the history and theory of educational technology, which I find absolutely fascinating (as is fitting for someone pursuing a PhD in that field). Our nouns have changed a lot over the years, from blackboards to radios to televisions to computers to iPads. Are our verbs remaining the same?

A lot of what I’ve been reading suggests that they have and that, unlike for Shea, that’s not a good thing: For example, Punya Mishra, Matthew Koehler (my advisor), and Kristin Kereluik published an article a few years ago in which they reminded us that people have been promising educational revolutions because of new technologies since at least the 1930s and that these promises have largely failed in part because we’re so confident in the revolutionary power of the “nouns” that we don’t spend any time thinking about changing our “verbs.”

The thing that I’ve appreciated most about reading papers like these is that it’s helped me come to terms with what I felt was a deep skepticism that I harbored about educational technology. Although I’m obviously passionate enough about it to commit the next four years of my life (and very likely an entire career) to it, I’ve often felt slightly out of place because I’ve always resented the idea that I needed the latest and greatest technology in my classroom in order to be an effective teacher. Matt and Punya’s work (of which I’m barely scratching the surface) is a reminder that the real focus of the field and practice of educational technology is less about having the latest and greatest gadgets and more about effectively using the gadgets you do have.

So the next time you want your/your kid’s/your neighborhood’s school to undergo an educational revolution, remember that it’s nice if the nouns change, but critical that the verbs do.

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