Technology Literacy and Sustained Tinkering Time

Yesterday I was reading a handout by Dr. Stephen Krashen called 88 Generalizations about Free Voluntary Reading. It summarizes the research and benefits to literacy of Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), also called Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). You give kids books, and time to read them, and they read.

Dr. Krashen is an activist for giving students more access to books, more time to read, and less coercion to do so. His credentials are impressive: professor emeritus at USC, a linguist and expert on literacy, language acquisition and reading. He’s in the International Reading Association’s Reading Hall of Fame.

I have no trouble admitting that his articulate positions and research resonate with me.

It struck me as I looked at this list that it’s a lot like what I believe about children and computers: that student choice, plus time for unstructured access to lots of different computing experiences is crucial to developing literacy and fluency with computers. My vision includes a teacher or mentor modeling passion, collaboration, interest in the subject, and offering experiences that challenge students without coercion, tricks, or rankings. If I had to come up with a catchy acronym, I’d call it Sustained Tinkering Time (STT).

Picking through his generalizations about reading, it occurred to me that some of them are very applicable to students using computers, and some seemed not to translate too well at all.

Hallmarks of Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) (adapted by me from Krashen’s list)

  • Free access to lots of different kinds of books
  • Comic books and magazines are OK, hard and easy books fine, minimum censorship
  • The teacher reads too
  • No tests, book reports, logs, comprehension quizzes
  • Comfortable space to read
  • More often and short is better than long, but rare
  • For all kids, not a reward or remediation
  • Supplement with interesting experiences about reading – trips to library, discuss literature, conferences, etc. (not skill building)
  • Good readers tend to be narrow readers (they stick to one genre)
  • Look for “home run” books

So, looking at this list, there are some things that seem really relevant to the kind of computer fluency I would like all students to have. Wouldn’t it be great if students had:

  • Free access to lots of different kinds of books software and hardware
  • The teacher reads works on computer projects too
  • No tests, book reports, logs, comprehension quizzes
  • Comfortable space to read work on computer projects
  • and that this was for all kids, not a reward or remediation?

I’ve skipped over some hard questions…
But not everything seems to perfectly translate. In FVR, the students are allowed to read pretty much anything (within reason). But for technology, I certainly would hope that aimless surfing or watching random YouTube videos isn’t what happens.

Is this being hypocritical? Is this just a way for me to pass judgement on applications that I like and think are “important” vs. ones I deem trivial and a waste of time? If I say, “no games” – am I just doing the same thing as a teacher demanding that kids only read “good” books for SSR, and thereby undermining the process?

I know in my head what I’d like to see – mindful interaction with the computer, making good things, focused collaboration, working on projects. Something that rises above drill and practice, clicking on stuff, or just watching. But what about chatting? Looking at email? What about playing “good” games? If you want technology literacy, does it matter if one student becomes fluent in making Wordles and another learns to program?

What’s the verb?
What is it that the student is doing that’s equivalent to reading? If you show language literacy by reading and writing, you show technology literacy by … what? Computing? Touching a mouse? Technologizing?

There’s something I’m trying to capture here that goes beyond the mere physical presence of a child sitting in front of a digital device. I really think this elusive concept is at the heart of what many have been struggling with as we all try to define “technology literacy.” Especially if we try to make the definition more than a checklist of skills.

You can smell collaboration in the air (especially in middle school)
There are other pieces of Sustained Silent Reading that really don’t work for technology, like the “silent” part. Sustained Silent Computing sounds terrifying. When I think about the kind of collaborative technology experience I’d hope to see, the kind I’ve seen in too few classrooms, it’s anything but silent. It’s purposeful, joyful noise, and you can tell the difference. But how do you articulate that?

It’s simply not good enough to say, “I know it when I see it.” But I’m not sure what to call it without tying myself up in semantic knots.

Pinning these experiences down with precise language deadens them like a pithed frog. (I was going to say a pinned butterfly, but when you can use pithed frog in a sentence, I believe it’s mandatory.)

What do you believe about learning?
And even if we got the words right, would it actually result in improved technology literacy? Would the lack of coercion raise the general level of technology literacy or lower it? In SSR, if one student is reading a comic book and another a chapter book, do they influence each other?

And is that part of the teacher’s job – to offer other activities that generate interest in more complex work? To model curiosity and trying new things? To facilitate collaboration and challenge students?

Without technology literacy skill tests, lessons on tools, and assigned projects, will students take more risks and try more complex things? Or will they do the least amount possible? I think this boils down to what you believe about learning – is it natural or does it have to be coerced.

Depth, not breadth
If you’ve stuck with me this long, do you see the technology corollaries to:

  • Good readers tend to be narrow readers (they stick to one genre) – is this about depth? Letting kids explore one application or theme deeply rather than the usual if-it’s-tuesday-it-must-be-spreadsheets overview of office products?
  • Look for “home run” books – is this about helping kids find the thing they really like to do? If a kid LOVES Comic Life, do you let them use it exclusively? Does the positive experience then open the door for that student to attempt other things? Or does it narrow the range of what that student will ever figure out how to do?

Yes, you…
So I’m throwing this out there to you, the dozens of folks who read this blog. Does looking at FVR help with defining technology literacy?

What would Sustained Tinkering Time look like to you?

So many questions…


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19 Replies to “Technology Literacy and Sustained Tinkering Time”

  1. Thank you for sharing the link to Krashen’s conclusions—it’s quite valuable, and I know others who will be appreciative as well. Ironically, I just spent a week focused on workshop and motivating reluctant readers. This is one of my greater passions, and this post has me nodding over and over again.

    I used SSR with my own students extensively, and while my experiences reflected much of what Krashen’s work revealed, I also found that allowing a lot of space for informal conversation and celebration was just as important as providing quiet time in terms of motivating kids to pick up books, connect with new titles, and figure out who they were and who they weren’t as readers. SSR was powerful, but I don’t know that it would have been without the conversation that happened before or after. There was an awful lot of “sustained joyful noise” going on around the SSR, and often, kids were happier to read aloud together or engage in reciprocal reading too.

    I’m inspired by your connections to collaborative technology…think it all makes perfect sense.

  2. I think it can be natural if it is started early. Teaching in a high school where only 22% go to college and not all will be successful, much needs to be coerced. I would argue that many parents or mentors do not show natural curiosity in reading for pleasure, wanting to learn, etc. Translate that to technology and you get the same. If you have a natural learner, they will approach reading and technology with equal enthusiasm. How can we get there? Or has this been a problem from the beginning of time and human nature to do just what we need?

  3. Sylvia, thanks for a very thought-provoking post. You triggered many things in my mind…

    First, in response to Angela – I agree totally that SSR becomes much more powerful when there is sharing. Marzano talks about the sharing piece as a key component in the power of SSR. In my school we have a building wide SSR time, which begins with a broadcast of one student’s book talk on something they have read recently. It’s a spark for all kinds of informal conversations on who is reading what.

    Sylvia, I really like how you are trying to draw connections between reading and technology. I haven’t crystallized what I’m thinking, but here goes…I’m not sure if there is (or should be) a verb for technology. Reading is a classic input format, and you can do that with technology. Writing is a classic output format, and you can do that with technology as well. Computers are literacy machines if used well – and that’s what makes them different – you can get the input and create the output in one place. If all you do is surf YouTube, then it’s a high tech couch potato device. If all you do is create a website with little or no truth behind it, then it’s a 21st century snake oil machine.

    I’m with you on the STT time – I can visualize the scenario where students are working. They will certainly spend time checking out the latest videos and news that interests them (so do adults…). They then may spend a little time in GarageBand, trying their hand at West Point Bridge Builder, programming in Scratch, or making a video. Given access to the right tools, and guidance to unlock their power, neat things will happen.

    To get to your question, “Does looking at FVR help with defining technology literacy?”, I think it puts the thinking on the right path. It is difficult to judge reading literacy just by seeing someone read. It is difficult to judge technology literacy just by watching someone use a computer. It is the products, interactions, and application that determine literacy.

  4. STT really resonates with me, but in a selfish way. I do agree that providing such to kids would be great, but in my present job I am teaching MLS students, and so I am looking at the idea from the standpoint of me as prof or from a K-12 teacher’s point of view. Your colleagues desperately need STT. One of the biggest things standing in the way of more technology integration into classrooms is lack of time. I don’t know how to provide it, but without time to tinker, explore, try out, and learn, professionals will never be able to grow. This along with lack of staff development are two huge deficiencies that have been problematical for as long I can remember (and that’s a looong time). I had the gift of a week’s break, which is just winding down, before classes start at my university. The first three days were consumed by email, scheduling issues, etc., but for the last two I have been tinkering. I have blogged, visited websites, tried out equipment, read, and done so many things. If only I could have one STT day/week! Even submitting this comment is something I likely would not take time to do in my usual rushed mode. Thanks for putting into words some ideas that resonate so much.

  5. Hi Sylvia,
    Your STT resonates with me as well. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking that was sparked by Disrupting Class, though my conclusions are quite different from those of Christensen and his group. I’ve been thinking about students who aren’t served well by the current model, and middle school really comes to mind.

    My “underserved” market would be kids who just aren’t ready for middle school in terms of maturity, organization, social skills, etc but who are aging into middle school anyway. The kids who are destined to lose papers in their lockers amidst the molding lunches their medication causes them to shun. While I’m not necessarily talking about students with serious academic gaps, I’d like to include them too.

    I’ve been playing around with what the curriculum might look like on Peter Gow’s Disrupted Academy wiki: and I’d invite anyone who was interested to contribute!

    I enjoy your blog and following you on twitter, thanks for all you’ve shared.

  6. Great comments here. They all hold some insight into these questions… and dilemmas. Limited time to tinker, yet dedicated time to read… reading being a key tool that unlocks the rest of the word for us. I feel that sharing is a natural part of both reading and tinkering… as long as what we are reading/tinkering is meaningful. I think too often we box in our students, telling them what they must read and what they must produce… hence the freedom that can be found in FVR, SSR, DEAR, or whatever you would like to call it, is extremely valuable. Like any literacy device, there is a required degree of skill necessary to gain entry, yet great power in the freedom to explore.

    So, I guess I would like to see a better balance between all media and tools that allow kids entry into self-directed, meaningful learning. But like Michael writes, the computer is so much more than a book and can be used in myriad of ways – some productive; others not. However, I think that looking at FVR does get the mind thinking in the right direction.

    I know one thing for sure though – we limit our students far too much by following rigid programs and narrow scope/sequence of curricula. This is one of the ideas that makes schools such as the Key School Key Learning Community) in Indiana so attractive to me with the component of the Flow Center, based on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

  7. I am a high school special education teacher who has a caseload and classrooms of students who are reluctant readers, learners, attenders. I find the internet and its components to be a huge key to these students attaining a high school diploma. They have an internet platform for classes that they can access for academics. This is usually most important during the freshman and sophomore years, when employment kicks in as the “credit-accrument of choice”.

    My students have what I would call I-STT, otherwise known as Intermittent-Sustained Tinkering Time. That is, they have 50 minute periods, and 35-40 minutes are spent on “academics” and the rest is “tinkering”. Teachers HATE this. It is true that they play games. But it is also true that I see them reading Rolling Stone blogs, doing Power Points (instead of writing papers), twittering, and using wiki spaces and forums. I find those 10-15 minutes to be an amazing conglomeration of “stuff” that I didn’t know about. And, they have really good interactions with their peers. Most of them come in JUST to go to online classes. Does it matter that they refuse to go to the other classes? I don’t know.

    And that is the “rub”. I am experiencing a high degree of reticence among teachers about this, however. No one views anything online as “reading” or “academics” or deserving of “credit”. I have students doing Power Points on the “History of Gaming”, the “Millenial Generation”, the “History of Virtual Programming”. They have to do a lot of I-STT to accomplish this. What is the problem?

    I remember years ago when my parents, in the 50’s, talked about how TV would ruin our country, families, education. It wasn’t too long before parents were limiting the amount of TV and what shows were watched. Sounds familiar. I worry about the inappropriate sites, too. I worry about kids “hooking up” with untoward individuals. But, this is their comfort zone. My 3 year old grand child can use a mouse to navigate all kinds of programming online.

    Bottom line . . . I don’t know exactly what I think. But I have probably 50 kids in the last 8 years that received a diploma because of a computer. If that includes STT, I-STT or whatever . . . I’ll use it.

  8. A great post! I have been thinking along these lines but have never connected it to SSR. I think it is so critical that learners “play” with technology in a comfortable way. Your connection to SSR makes so much sense!

  9. Thanks Sylvia for another great post!

    I’m wondering if one could apply this to a teachers digital fluency and literacy? Could programs be prepared that allowed teachers to do just what you speak of in your post during their professional learning activities? I’m not sure how this would all work out but I definitely think it would revolutionize current pd practices.

    I totally agree with you about the teachers tinkering alongside the students. Show them what you’ve learned and learn along with them. I’ll never know all the things that students know about a variety of topics and situations and they likely won’t know what I know already either. If we’re speaking of creating lifelong learners then we have to walk the talk as well. I do believe that the learning alongside the students will be far more enjoyable for both parties in the process. 😉

  10. John,
    Great point – good PD is something that sustains over time, and should include time for teachers to “do stuff”.

    It’s a tough thing to get schools to move past the 3 hour PD session and admit that lesson study and other longer, more involved collaborations are necessary.

    And still, do we always have to do PD away from students? Couldn’t a group of teachers and students work long term on projects that don’t have a due date or a grade attached?

    Maybe this is why some kids (and teachers) find solace in band, drama, and other extra-curricular activities.

  11. Pingback: Home School Online
  12. Sylvia, I don’t know if you’ve had time to explore the homeschooling approaches to education. A vast amount of Americans (perhaps 3%) have opted to take this approach for their children. And indeterminate percentage of them believe in UnSchooling.

    Much your post and Dr. Krashen’s writing on this topic sounds like a rationale for UnSchooling.

    I have no particular idea how this approach to giving space and time and the right environment fits into the context of large scale public schools. Do you? It’s easy however, if you restructure the institutions, to see how UnSchooling is successful in case after case after case.


  13. I think Dr Krashen has a very strong case and as John points out, it’s basically a case for unschooling. In the case of consumer electronics, there are some issues (as Sylvia points out).

    Many homeschoolers, when they start, go thru a “deschooling” phase. Again, you can check a homeschool glossary to get a real definition but essentially, it’s the time when students and parents try to shed the school mentality. Kids tend to veg out watching TV and playing video games. Most kids, after a few weeks, start showing interest in learning and then the family starts to layer in a homeschool education program.

    But, the electronic game world and the net in general is so durn full of so many interesting things, some kids start learning and immersing themselves in sort of a single narrow direction.

    Online, much more than books, requires more “help”. I’d say. Extremists would just say that I’m a wimp and scared of following my own principles.

  14. I wrote a post in my blog relating to this post and tried to trackback here.
    “Some members might want to find out what makes devices tick. This could generate some interest in what Sylvia Martinez calls Sustained Tinkering Time.”
    Click on the “name link” above to read more.

  15. The key to effective SSR is to properly match reading levels of the text to reading levels of the student, while maintaining some semblance of student choice.

    Learn how to match reading levels of texts to reading levels of your students without time-consuming assessments. Also, learn how much independent reading is needed to make grade to grade progress. Check out How to Choose the Right Book.

  16. The key to success for students is that they all have the opportunity to learn in various ways, whether it is with a book or computer. Technology today is very crucial within the society because it allows an individual to become adapted with what is going on around their surroundings. Technology in the classroom is important for students because as the years go by technology will be changing day to day.

  17. I believe that silent reading is an excellent way to provoke the mind when it comes to learning. This blog really made me think and I honestly do appreciate the interesting facts and examples

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