Thinking Smarter

I want to think smarter.

I don’t want to know more facts or spout more trivia. I don’t want to just work smarter, either. I want to actually think smarter. It’s a much harder goal to accomplish because I’m constantly evaluating not only what I’m doing, but how I’m doing it.

I used to use an app called Any.do to manage a to-do list. Like most productivity apps, it synced across all platforms and I really thought my productivity was going to jump because I would always have access to that list. I would end up ignoring notifications because I had either completed the task or I was being notified during I time when I couldn’t recommit my energy. I was using technology to try and work smarter, but I was actually working harder. I went back to a mix of pen and paper and strategically sending myself text messages, which has worked much better. Because I can now take the time to target - on my calendar - when to be notified to do something, I’m able to work smarter and more effectively.

Working smarter doesn’t always involve an app doing something for us. What really matters is how we can use an app - or a hacked system of tools - to make it easier to work smarter.

In his book Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson explores this idea through the development of computer-aided chess. The question is simple: how does chess change when you play with your computer as a resource alongside? The results are interesting and I’ll let you pick up the book to read the whole story, but the short answer is that people played better. Not because they could research every possible solution or find a computer-suggested move with an algorithm, but because they could play more informed. Ideas and hunches could be tested and iterated quickly which would, in turn, inform their final decision. The ability to test ideas and make an informed play is an example of thinking smarter using technology.

The same should be true in education. Technology is exploding in schools and districts, but often with strings attached. Rather than opening the doors to information and pushing students to make smarter decisions about what they’re learning, we’re canning information and delivering it in the traditional way with non-traditional tools. Technology affords us the opportunity to think smarter, but we’re packaging information and removing the thinking process altogether.

To work smarter, you have to be able to articulate why you do what you do the way you do it. What is the goal you’re trying to achieve? Audrey Watters has a fascinating history of the development of the multiple choice test. It boils down to two main reasons: objectivity (presumably) and scalability. Scoring a test is simple: it’s a binary decision - you get each item correct or incorrect. Machines can do the scoring for us, which should help us think smarter because we can free up cognitive processes to analyze results rather than tally. Unfortunately, instruction is rarely informed and the students’ score, rather than a diagnostic, is now a report.

Working smarter means making difficult decisions about the actual practice of teaching and learning. It means gathering information and taking action on that insight. It also means being critical about the technology you’re using to accomplish goals through action. I wanted to be more productive, but the technology I chose to do that wasn’t helpful, so I dropped it for something more effective. Working smarter is working critically and with an open mind, ready to shift if goals aren’t being met.

When you’re working with students, think about the resources available and what goals you’d like to achieve. Just because you can use an app to do something in class doesn’t mean you should. Don’t allow the push to “integrate technology” obfuscate the real reason for being in school - learning to think.

One thought on “Thinking Smarter

  1. Doug Ragan says:

    Well said Brian. I love that last quote. Don’t allow the push to “integrate technology” obfuscate the real reason for being in school – learning to think.
    Technology has exploded! One must think critically about it and question always the reason for its use.

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