Geoff Johnson: Technology opens up whole new world to curious readers

The significant changes that technology brings to teaching and learning were brought to mind one recent cool, smoky and sunless morning as I sat reading the Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny’s latest novel, All The Devils Are Here.

The novel set in Paris, my all-time favourite city, begins with a shadowy murder in the Marais district of that city.

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More out of curiosity than anything else, I touched the word “Marais” on my iPad screen and found a wealth of history about the fact that during the Second World War, the Jewish community in the Marais district was targeted by the Nazis, who were occupying France at that time.

Interesting and so easily accessible, the information added to my understanding of Penny’s plot line.

A little further into the novel, a character quotes English poet W.H. Auden: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.”

Again, I knew a little about Auden’s poetry, but I touched the word “Auden” on my iPad and was reminded that I had forgotten that the classic movie Four Weddings and a Funeral quoted Auden in its iconic funeral scene:

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone”.

That, in turn, led to more new knowledge about another of Auden’s poems, The Night Mail, which had been used as the spoken background to a 1936 BBC documentary about the mail train to Scotland.

The rhythm of the poem imitated the rhythm of the train. It’s best read aloud to understand the importance of cadence in a poem.

Again, interesting, but I was not moving very far ahead with Penny’s novel, so back to the novel’s plot. Several pages on, it’s revealed that the murder victim had travelled to Peru.

Why? As Penny’s lead detective, Armand Gamache, explained, many tourists visited Peru to see Machu Picchu and the Nazca lines.

I’d seen a recent PBS documentary about Machu Picchu, but the Nazca lines, what were they? Again, touching the word Nazca on my screen revealed a fascinating archeo- logical mystery, yet to be fully solved.

So I started thinking, if I had been teaching this novel using a paper textbook in a senior Lit class, with the usual plot/character development lessons, the limitations of a paper book would have precluded much of this exploration of related knowledge.

Even if I encouraged the students to exercise their own curiosity about the references to the Marais history, Auden or the Nazca lines, it would have meant a trip for them to the school library, where they may or may not have been able to explore the new knowledge emerging from a reading of the novel.

But by using the Kindle/iPad version of Penny’s novel, a tech-savvy teacher could have led students down pathways to recent history, a quick look at a remarkable English poet and some geographic and archeological mysteries in South America.

Teaching and learning is changing for the better as educators understand how much more easily kids can now relate existing information to new information — engaging in higher levels of thinking and learning, in other words.

Technology will also enable educators to become collaborators in learning, as they and their students are encouraged to use their own natural curiosity to seek new knowledge and acquire new information skills alongside their students.

Technology, more importantly, enables most kids to exercise their natural curiosity and to learn more about the world around them.

A recent article in The Atlantic by Scott Kaufman suggests that the power of curiosity to contribute not only to high achievement, but to a fulfilling existence, cannot be emphasized enough.

“Curiosity,” says Kauffman, “can be defined as the recognition, pursuit and intense desire to explore novel, challenging and uncertain events.

“Having a ‘hungry mind’ has been shown to be a core determinant of academic achievement, rivaling the prediction power of IQ.”

In other words, technology allows that “hungry mind” to revel in natural curiosity — perhaps the key component in keeping the learner engaged.

Susan Engel wrote in her book The Hungry Mind that “schools are missing what really matters about learning: The desire to learn in the first place.”

As she notes, “teachers rarely encourage curiosity in the classroom — even though we are all born with an abundance of curiosity, and this innate drive for exploration could be built upon in all students.”

As for me, maybe I’m just easily distractible as I read Louise Penny’s novel.

Or maybe I just can’t resist the luxury of finding out more just by touching a word on the screen of my iPad.

Either way, I think I’d like teaching alongside technology that would allow students in a Lit 12 class to be just as easily and productively curious about what they are reading and where that curiosity can lead as I was.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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