Indiana Jones and the Project Based Learning

Reflections and Connections after Climbing Trees

Some thoughts on PBL after a day of team building activities with my colleagues.

This is a 6-8 minute read.



In my mind I was Indiana Jones (in The Last Crusade) standing on the ledge, waiting to take the step onto the invisible bridge – a deep breath, one step (looking at the steps!), a wobble and then onwards…


..or maybe I should have been the climber (in Everest) fighting the elements to cross a gaping crevasse by crawling across two aluminium ladders lashed together. And, as we shall see later, he required the efforts of his climbing team to save his skin.



In reality I was faced with a disaster movie style bridge – no handholds, missing floor boards, distinctly wobbly and suspended ten metres in the air between two trees. My goal was to get to the middle where I would meet a team mate at which point we had to swap sides across a seemingly massive gap. Although it felt like I was challenging the Grim Reaper, or at least my health insurance limits, a plunge to my immediate death, or even mild injury, was not on the cards due to the extensive safety equipment and procedures.

This was the final task of a day of team building activities I undertook with my wonderful colleagues last week. The team running the training were explicit in the fact that we were engaged in experiential learning and that each activity followed a clear cycle of experience, reflection and connection with real-life. I thought it would be fruitful for me to follow this cycle by applying my experience and reflection of experiential learning and connect it to our practice of experiential learning – PBL.




So here are some of my reflections and connections:

Reflect and Connect

I liked the clear link between reflection and connection. Our PBL reflection includes and encourages learners to make connections to real-life personal, educational and professional situations. However, this separation of reflection and connection unpacks and simplifies the process.




Modelling Reflection & Connection

The activities we did were physical, immediate and different from our everyday life. It was not difficult to reflect on what we did, the skills we developed and needed and how these could be transferred to our personal and professional lives.

Our learners do not naturally appear to find it easy to reflect. When we ask them to reflect in PBL it is on the experiences they have had during the project. However, although we encourage them to experience new areas of learning our project is placed within an academic context – a context with which they are extremely familiar. In this context recognising the development or learning of knowledge, skills, attitudes or language may not be so easy.

Maybe we need to give them a context which provides a clear examples to model reflection and connection. At the start of the project we do team building activities, the marshmallow challenge is popular, but maybe we could take greater advantage of these to encourage and encourage reflection and connection. Although we may not be equipped for tree-top exploits we could spend time at the start of a project on some immediate, physical activities which will enable straightforward reflection.




Planning & Safety

The day and activities were well planned and thought through before we arrived. This meant that once we arrived all that was required from the facilitators was that we understood our goals and we were safe in achieving them.

Our PBL context is similar. The overall project is staged through four phases, each with an overall goal. Once the learners have understood the aim of each phase, and any specific input has been given, it is then up to them, as teams, to achieve the aim. There is no physical danger involved in our PBL project. It is important that as teachers monitor each group’s progress and certainly provide guidance when necessary but do not interve unless there is a real problem.




Who does the Work? How?

I personally learned and developed through the day and the tasks we undertook. I think the key reason is that as mentioned above we, as teams, did all the work to achieve our goals. We were allowed moments of confusion and discussion in the knowledge that these were creative and important moments. We were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. In the end our achievement was our own.

This raises issues for how we treat our learners as they undertake PBL. The more we allow them to find their own solutions and do their own work the greater their sense of achievement will be. Also learners should be allowed to make mistakes without fear of punishment, or lower grades, as long as they achieve their overall aim. They and we should also remember that the creation of order from confusion can be an important and creative activity.




Belief, Support & Challenge

All of the activities were underpinned by the facilitators’ often stated belief in our ability to complete the challenges. The challenges were not necessarily easy, in fact for us they were challenging challenges. Crucially, however, they were challenging, yet achievable, challenges.

There was a lot of discussion of comfort zones during the day and extending our own personal comfort zones. This was important an important point of recognition – what may not be a challenge to one person was to another. The facilitators recognised each achievement as equally valid, as it seems did we as teams.

Once again it is important that in PBL we set and frequently express our belief in our learners’ abilities to meet challenging targets with high quality work. Whilst we have standards and expectations we must recognise that these exist in relation to the learner’s current context. The challenge and expectation is related to personal work, development and growth. This is why the Quality of Work rubric refers to work of “a personally high standard”.




Comfort Zones

Comfort Zones expand. In a morning activities blindfolded teams of fifteen or so were required to navigate en masse around the grounds. Our first task was to locate a helmet and return with it to a specified rock – which we all had to touch. (There is an awful lot to say about teamwork here but for the moment I will not.)

The really interesting thing for me was how much easier the return journey was than the outward trip. I think that one of the reasons is that we had stepped out initial comfort zones into a new normal. This involved walking around together holding a long rope and cooperating to achieve the goal. Not to say that it was a cakewalk but it was much easier I feel we would not now shirk from being tasked with a more demanding trek.

In the afternoon I was in the third pair to undertake the tree death plunge activity and I am sure that it was easier for me, having seen four colleagues successfully undertake the task – my comfort zone had shifted a little. Also now I have experienced cheating death in this way I would feel more confident to undertake more challenging versions of the task – with safety equipment please!

Once again it is important for us as teachers to have to allow our learners have the opportunity to extend their comfort zones, in a psychologically safe and encouraging environment. In the case of PBL this is within an academic, not arboreal, environment – in a nice piece of research by my colleagues, learners who completed our first PBL course report the confidence it has given them in their undergraduate studies.

It was certainly the case that the first time we, as teachers, delivered PBL it was a step outside our comfort zones. And as with the team building activities what used to lay outside our comfort zone is the new normal and within our comfort zones. The next step is to find another challenge to extend our comfort zones.





All the activities relied on teamwork, in fact they could not have been conducted without the team. I could not have traversed the bridge of death had it not been for my team mates diligence in holding and manipulating my safety rope and shouting encouragement.

In PBL we like to emphasise the team based nature of the achievement and encourage each of the team members to recognise the key roles they can play in overall success. This should never be underestimated.

Teamwork also means doing your job as well as you can for your team mates no matter what your role. If the first person holding my rope had not been so diligent and alert to my needs high above I could not have achieved my aim. In the end my crossing of the bridge was a team achievement.

Our PBL component is assessed and each participant receives an individual grade rather than a group grade. This reflects the fact that no matter what roles you play in the achievement of your group your individual commitment and efforts to that role are key components of overall success and will be recognised.

Also, the success of our PBL project so far has been built on the teamwork of the teachers who have been involved in its delivery and support from our colleagues.





PBL Season 1 – What did they Learn?

This is a 5-6 minute read.

This post focuses on some of the learning that took place during the project.


It is all very well and nice to have a component such as PBL as part of the curriculum. However, if the learners do not learn as a result then there is little point in putting time and effort into implementing and developing PBL.

So the question we need to ask is what did PBL bring to the learners? The following comments are based on data from many sources including feedback from learners in the more formal tutorial meetings and less formal chats, feedback from colleagues who also delivered PBL, observations of the learners as they completed the component…etc

This page focuses on learning English with following pages being devoted to the development of hard & soft skills and attitudes.

In order to keep this as brief as possible I will not mention all the linguistic and skill areas developed but will exemplify a few to give  a general idea of the learning that took place.



As learners on an English language preparation course, developing their English in an academic context the first question to ask is “Did the learners improve their English?”

Well, I think the answer overall is yes. As with other parts of our content based syllabus, the daily use of English for a communicative purpose led to an improvement in their overall levels of English. I would suggest that PBL brought an increased need and motivation to communicate whether it be within the team; with the teacher or with the wider audiences of peers (for practice presentations); with members of the university as a whole during the conference presentations; or through the creation of blogs and websites to record their progress and reflections.

But let’s be more specific….


Speaking and Listening

Many learners reported increased confidence in speaking in public and presentations as well as in private conversations.

The practice presentations delivered to their peers in other classes proved challenging and led to a great sense of achievement. This provided a nice foundation for the poster presentations during which the learners not only presented their information but responded to questions from their audience.

The learner’s perception of increased confidence is nice because it was the realistic and motivating need to communicate that provided the learners with the opportunity to use the language and skills they possessed, demonstrating to themselves and others the extent of their knowledge.

One learner, during her end of course feedback, also reported how the experience had given her confidence in delivering presentations in Turkish Language and Literature classes.

Several learners perceived connection between the development of the speaking and listening skills through PBL and increased confidence (and score) in their oral exams.

Whilst much of the work was conducted in groups, and the conversations may have been conducted in Turkish, we did ask for a part teams to record one conversation in English. During which they discussed their research sources, synthesising their information to identify the best ideas to answer their research question.

This was an interesting feature of the project as the learners almost universally took this element very seriously. They approached i t in a variety of ways – some recorded a spontaneous discussion whilst others prepared in detail before the recording. Whilst we can argue that those who prepared and even semi-scripted the conversation were not speaking naturally or spontaneously what was clear is that they had spent a considerable time and effort in thinking about what they wished to say, how to express it and how to structure the conversation – a lot of time thinking about using English.

Several learners chose to interview experts at the university as primary sources to help answer their research question. Again, a challenging experience and one that when completed provided a great deal of confidence when speaking in English.



The project required each learner to identify, summarise 3 or 4 articles on their specific topics and synthesize this information with that of their team members. There are many reading skills here that were developed that I won’t even get into, in order to keep this as brief as possible.

Many learners identified an improvement in their ability to skim and scan the texts in order to identify the information relevant to their topics. These are skills they are familiar with, and one reason they were able to identify it during reflection, but PBL gave them an opportunity to use and develop these skills in realistic and purposeful situation with longer, ungraded texts.

Interestingly, several learners reported that they chose specific articles after reading abstracts or skimming several texts before choosing the most appropriate ones to address their question. Another useful and important academic skill developed through linguistic skills.

The process of summarising the texts also required careful reading of specific passages and note-taking and paraphrasing, another genuine purpose with motivating outcome.

Additionally, the project was complex with many components and stages. The learners needed to read and follow the documentation on the PBL website to complete the project. By the end of the 14 weeks the website had over 10.000 web page visits which indicated that it was used fairly extensively.




The culmination of the project was the communication of the answer to the research question with the poster. The process of arriving at this stage required a variety of writing skills from note-taking to academic reverencing.

Another skill which was developed, yet not explicitly recognised by the learners, came in the synthesising of information from the texts they had read and identifying the best ideas and information to answer their research question. This process of identifying main ideas supported with explanations and examples was appropriate to the selection of information for the presentation but also mirrors the planning stages of an academic essay.

We did not ask the learners to produce and essay or report based on their research (this could be a possible future development but would need to be presented as a meaningful outcome such as a conference proceedings) yet their work paralleled this process and the also the process they undertake as part of their Long Writing Assignment in which they answer a question based on information taken from a variety of texts.

This was the part of the project that we asked the teams to record. Listening to the recordings was fantastic – not just because it was nice to hear the learners speaking in English for an

Sabancı University Book. Learner Development.


learner development


I am extremely proud to be involved in the latest book in the Sabancı University, School of Languages publication

Learner Development. A Practical Guide to English Language Learner Development in an Academic Context: Practices and Processes.

Amongst a host of wonderful chapters are two I have co-written:

  • Developing Language and Skills. Written with my colleague Sharon Çeltek.
  • Promoting Learner Development Through Project Based Learning. Written with my colleague Cameron Dean.

PBL in Action. We have lift off!

This is a 1 to 2 minute read.


A little over a year ago a I  was a member of a small team that started working on a Project Based Learning module at Sabancı University School of Languages. The project is now live with over  around 160 students in about 40 teams. A team of 10 teachers are facilitating the project.

Much of the literature and experience of PBL is based in K12 schools. The context of our PBL project is a university English language program in which we prepare learners for their English language medium undergraduate studies . Our aim is firstly to develop our learners’ language skills. Secondly, through PBL we wish to develop skills and attributes that will equip our learners for their academic life and future careers.

We also wished to try something different, interesting and challenging both for our learners and for ourselves. It has involved pushing us, again teachers and learners, outside our comfort zones.  In the spirit of PBL we, as a teaching team are embarked on a parallel project to enhance and develop our teaching skills, knowledge and attitudes through the creation, delivery and reflection on the PBL module. This can only lead to interesting outcomes.

The Project has clear goals and outcomes for the learners. However the only thing we can be sure of it that we can’t predict what will ultimately arise from the PBL experience and this is exciting.

A blog, aimed at both teachers and learners, to support the project can be found here. Please be aware that parts of the blog still need a bit of work before they are finished.

In this section … well let’s see what happens.

Affordances, Normalisation & Disruptive Innovation – A Principled Approach to Using Technology in ELT

This is a 16-20  minute read. There is a summary towards the bottom of the page.

In this post I look at the concepts of Technology, Affordance, Naturalisation and Disruptive Innovation in looking at how digital technologies can be innovatively integrated into ELT teaching. First of all we begin the journey considering Google glass and SMS Messaging.


Technology & Innovation

Would you spend $1,500 on a device to guide you to the nearest fast food restaurant? Of course it may depend on how hungry you are and how much you crave junk food!

According to a BBC story describing how Google Glasses are being made available to software developers, finding take-away restaurants is one of Google’s suggestions for possible uses of the project. If this is one of the most imaginative uses the people at Google can conceive of for their $1,500 gadget it is a good job they they are giving developers the opportunity to create applications to push the limits of the technology. I’m being disingenuous here as Google understand that people will innovate given a product – and this was their plan all along (and they did have other ideas too!).

The Google people are obviously smart and have learned the lessons of innovation – the developers of a technology are not necessarily the ones to recognise its true potential.

Here are two examples worthy of The Book of Heroic Failures:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876

And here are some more.


Teenagers as Innovators

The first SMS message was sent on 3rd December 1992. However the creators of the SMS messaging system didn’t foresee the phenomenon that SMS messaging would it become. It was only in 1996 when newly introduced pay-as-you-go packages made mobile phone technology affordable to teenagers that SMS messaging started to take off in a big way. Teenagers recognised and adopted a new way to communicate. They made it their own to the point of creatively adapting the  language to meet their communicative needs.

(Before anyone mentions digital natives here let’s remember that teenagers and young people have always been innovators – this may actually be the true digital native message. SMS was another way to communicate, teenagers always had always found ways to communicate with each other in the past, and now it was cheaper than a phone call.)

John Naughton, in this Observer article celebrating 20 years of  SMS, identifies an important truth

“the story of SMS shows that the people who effectively invent a technology – in the sense of determining its use and making it viable – are not so much the engineers who design it as the consumers who discover what it’s really for. The telephone was originally conceived as a broadcast medium, whereas radio was conceived as a point-to-point medium. Exactly the opposite turned out to be true in both cases. And it was teenagers who “invented” SMS.


So what about Teaching & Learning

In the remainder of this post I will suggest an approach to encourage innovative uses of technology in ELT through the investigation of four concepts – Technology, Normalisation, Affordance and Disruptive Innovation (these concepts explain the success of SMS & will determine the future success [or not] of Google Glass). I have chosen these concepts as they suggest, to me, the considerations to keep in mind when deciding If, when and how to integrate a technology into the teaching and learning process.


So let’s start with technology.

The Oxford Dictionary defines technology as

“The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry”


“Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge”

When we talk of using technology in a teaching and learning context we usually assume that technology to be synonymous with the latest available technology, currently digital technology. Google Glass is the latest (for now) in a line of Information Technology (IT) tools stretching back to paints and BRUSHES used to record information on cave walls. But perhaps the most familiar form of IT the book. A book is a form of technology that was developed to store and disseminate information.


Technology in ELT

In the history of language learning many technologies have been employed whether they be chalk and slate, language laboratories, course books, pen and paper, video-conferencing, videos…etc. At one time or another each was considered (by some people at least) to be the latest best technology.

We could have a great debate about which technologies have been the most successful and enduring – if not which are the most useful. But it is undoubted that most have fallen by the wayside and I would suggest that this is because we did not really consider the concepts of affordance and normalisation of technology. This led to the adoption of technology as novelty rather than innovation – which will never have lasting appeal or application (just consider novelty songs – does anyone still listen to this number 1 song for pleasure!)

The instruction manual (in the form of the modern course-book) is perhaps the most enduring technology for teachers and learners in many contexts (certainly mine). In these contexts it is ubiquitous and an accepted part of language learning for teachers and learners – unfortunately to the point that many people equate language learning with learning the book rather than viewing it as an aid to teaching and learning.


What can account for the endurance of the course book?

Let’s consider some of the advantages of the course-book in ELT. For teachers it provides a ready-made syllabus, it provides guidance on delivery for new teachers without easy access to support, it often provides supplementary materials reducing preparation time, it is easily portable, it is reusable, it is relatively cheap, it provides a reference tool for learners, learners can use it to gauge progress and anticipate future learning, it can be used as a paperweight…etc. It also allows for excuses -“we’ve covered it in the book – why haven’t you learned it?” (A negative affordance). Another way of thinking of these reasons for the use of these course-books is to consider them as affordances – the benefits that the book/technology brings to the users.


What are affordances?

North American psychologist, James Gibson’s conceived of an affordance as a property of the environment that has an effect, positive or negative, on another organism in that environment (Van Lier, 2000, pp.252-253) . He gives the example of a leaf in the Amazon rainforest. Leaves exist solely to produce sugars for its plant by absorbing sunlight. However, a leaf has affordance for other organisms

“lt can offer crawling on for a treefrog, cutting for an ant, food for a caterpillar, shade for a spider, medicine for a shaman, and so. In all cases, the leaf is the same: its properties do not change; it is just that different properties are perceived and acted upon by different organisms.”

In a classroom context a Smartphone could be used by a learner to whatsapp  with friends in another class, as a dictionary or to play games – its fundamental nature does not change, just the purpose it is used for. In other words, with reference to technology,

“an affordance is a “can do” statement that does not have to be predefined by a particular functionality, and refers to an application that enables a user to undertake tasks in their environment, whether known or unknown to him / her.” (McLouglin & Lee 2007,p.666)

In many ELT contexts there is an obvious push towards, and excitement around, e-technology including plenty of specifically designed educational apps and websites. As teachers when we are looking at a particular technology we should consider the affordances it can bring to the learning situation:

  • Does it actually add to or extend learning possibilities?
  • Does it allow us to do things we couldn’t do before?
  • Does it do the things we currently do – but more effectively?


Encouraging Learners to recognise the affordances of technologies

Perhaps we should also take a lesson from the story of SMS. Teenagers recognised the affordance it offered to communicate instantly, cheaply and silently with their friends. As teachers we are usually the ones who determine the technology that our learners will use – and more often than not the technologies they cannot use. Just think of all that creativity, imagination and innovation we are missing out on.

A more learner-centred approach would be to set the context and allow learners to use a technology they believe would help them complete a task or activity. For example, we could reframe homework from an activity which is often a solitary reinforcement of classroom learning to active and collaborative learning. We could even try and move away from homework  and it negative connotations to  broaden the boundaries of active learning beyond the classroom.

Classroom based activities may well benefit from technology if we involve learners in the choice of tools to complete activities. Later I will explore how Project Based Learning provides a great context for just this sort of freedom.


What is Normalisation?

As I mentioned earlier, in my experience, the course-book is the most enduring learning technology in ELT. Both teachers and learners, generally, perceive them as a natural, useful and pedagogically sound tool in language learning. It is not a big event or a novelty when they are used in the classroom. This is not to say that they are perfect tools – I am an admirer of the Teaching Unplugged approach – but it is the perception of the course-book’s usefulness, longevity and its pervasiveness that makes them a normalised technology.

In this sense the course-book is at a stage of normalisation where

“the technology is invisible, hardly even recognised as technology, taken for granted in everyday life.” (Bax, 2003, p.23)

For those interested, I recommend a quick read of Bax’s 2003 article “CALL – Past, Present & Future” . Clearly dated by the reference to CALL, it is prescient in predicting that true integration of computers into the classroom will involve computers “probably very different in shape and size from their current manifestation” (2003, p.23).In my teaching context learners, who all have laptops, do not appear to view them as key tools for learning and prefer their smartphones.

He recognised that CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) had not reached a stage of normalisation by the very nature of it having an acronym CALL. He points out that we do not refer to PALL (Pen Assisted Language Learning) or BALL (Book Assisted Language Learning) because they are normalised. For this reason he argued that “CALL practitioners should be aiming at their own extinction.” (2003, p.239).

11 years later we have yet to reach, or even get within touching-distance of, normalisation when it comes to Digital Technology in teaching and learning – It seems we can’t even reach a consensus on the use of online dictionaries. We may not use the CALL acronym but we still talk of “Teaching with Technology” rather than just “Teaching”.

This reminds me of a scene from the TV show Friends when Joey and Chandler are offering Ross some relationship advice

Joey: He’s right, man. Please. Move on. Go to China. Eat Chinese food.

Chandler: Course there, they just call it food.


In a previous post I discussed how, in my experience, digital technology is frequently used as a novelty to enagage learners rather than as a tool to support learning. We have yet to reach the stage where

“CALL will be normalised when computers are treated as secondary to learning itself, when the needs of the learners will be carefully analysed first of all, and then computers used to serve those needs.” (Bax 2003, p.24).

Or to put it another way – what learning do we wish to take place? What are the affordances of the technologies (digital or otherwise) to promote this learning? Who has the knowledge of the technologies and makes decisions on which to use to promote learning?


Disruptive Innovation, PBL and Normalised Uses of Technology

I believe that Project Based Learning provides a wonderful, naturalised context for the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning. This relationship is symbiotic as it is also the affordances of the technologies that provide deep opportunities for PBL and other Inquiry Based Learning methods to take place.

Of course other learning situations and contexts can benefit from a principled and innovative use of technology and to develop this point I will talk about the concept of “Disruptive Innovation”.

In his article ‘Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education’, Randy Bass applies the economic concept of Disruptive Innovation to learning in Higher Education. The process of disruptive innovation seems to nicely incorporate the concepts of affordances and normalisation.

Clayton Christensen’s concept of Disruptive Innovation in business refers to

“ a process “by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market,’ eventually displacing established competitors” (Bass 2012, p.24)

The story of SMS is a perfect example of disruptive innovation in the business sense – an existing (relatively unused) technology was embraced and became a dominant form of communication. This happened once a genuine affordance was identified by teenagers – cheap, instant (and silent) communication. Its affordances were recognised by teenagers and it is now a completely normalised technology used by all.

Bass applies the concept of disruptive innovation to learning in Higher Education. Echoing Prensky’s acknowledgement that current technologies allow us to undertake Inquiry Based techniques previously considered impractical (Prensky 2010, p.xv), Bass argues that innovation in Higher Education will come from within – with the growing use and influence of experiential learning made possible by the affordances current technology.

“new digital, learning, and analytics tools now make it possible to replicate some features of high‑impact activity inside classrooms, whether through the design of inquiry-based learning or through the ability to access and manipulate data, mount simulations, leverage “the crowd” for collaboration and social learning, or redesign when and how students can engage course content. Indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of today’s technologies is that many of the high-impact features that used to be possible only in small classes can now be experienced not only at a larger scale but, in some cases, to better effect at larger scale” (Bass 2012, p.26)

 And when Bass refers to disruption with reference to technology he does not mean the disruption caused by learners using Facebook or Angry Birds in class (that dates me!). Rather, disruption in this sense is a positive force for motivation and is driven by the affordances of technology. Technologies whose affordances for learning are recognised and used in this way become a normalized part of the learning process

“we are compelled to imagine ways to ask students, early and often, to engage in the practice of thinking in a given domain, often in the context of messy problems. This is perhaps one way to rethink the role of technologies and social media tools—often the cause of that other type of teaching disruption— and re-imagine the ways that discussion boards, wikis, blogs, Twitter, and collaborative writing tools and spaces might facilitate activities that help students learn” (Bass 2012, p.28)

Bass indicates, and I concur, that Inquiry Based Learning (such as PBL) lends itself to complex, constructive, meaningful and challenging learning situations preparing learners for real life situations. He also recognizes the importance of allowing the learners the access to the tools to help them achieve these learning goals. It is also clear that a normalized used of technology enables this.

In this normalized context we as teachers are not the gate-keepers of digital technology. Rather we can set the learning contexts and trust and encourage learners to be the innovative users of technology – finding the affordances of technologies to enhance learning.


So a principled, normalised approach to the use of technology can only be achieved through Project Based Learning?

Certainly not! There are many ways and contexts in which technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning which can, should and have nearly become normalised.

In an upcoming post I will look at current digital technologies identifying their affordances and assessing the extent to which they can, or have, become naturalised within teaching and learning contexts.


In Summary

  • The developers of technology are not necessarily those who find the most innovative uses for it.
  • SMS is an example where a group of people, teenagers, found the innovative use for the technology.
  • If we want to use Digital Technologies innovatively to enhance teaching and learning the concepts of Technology, Affordance, Normalisation and Disruptive Innovation are useful to consider.
  • The concept of technology, the way technologies have been and are used in English Language Teaching.
  • Affordances are the possibilities a technology offers beyond its initial design. I consider the affordances of a common technology – the course book. We should encourage learners to recognise the affordances of technologies to enhance their learning.
  • Normalisation is the process where a technology becomes a natural part of the environment. In the classroom pens and course books are naturalised. A naturalised use of digital technology will potentially redefine the boundaries of learning.
  • Disruptive Innovation is the process where a product or service becomes a market leader (and therefore naturalised) thanks to the recognition of its affordances by innovators. Randy Bass claims Inquiry Based Learning methods (such as PBL) are gaining ground in higher education through their relevance to real-world learning and their facilitation through Digital Technology.
  • Once again, remembering the lesson of SMS we should encourage our learners to be innovators, finding the affordances of digital technologies to enhance their learning.
  • PBL provides a context for a principled and naturalised use of Digital Technology but not the only context.



Bass, R 2012, ‘Disrupting Ourselves. The Problem of Learning in Higher Education’, Educase review, March / April 2012, pp.23-33

Bax, S 2003b, ‘CALL—past, present and future.’, System, vol.31, p.13-28.

Prensky, M 2010, Teaching Digital Natives. Partnering for Real Learning, Corwin, California

Van Lier, L 2000, “From input to affordance” in Lantolf J P (ed), Sociocultural theory and second language learning, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.245-259.


Related Posts

Affordances and Normalisation of Current Digital Technologies in ELT – Coming Soon

Technology as a Cognitive Aid – Coming Soon

PBL & the Affordances of Web 2.0 Technology – Coming Soon

PBL & English Language Teaching

“It was good enough for us, it should be good enough for them.” – Coming Soon

Digital-Media Literacy – Coming Soon

Creative Commons License
Affordances, Normalisation & Disruptive Innovation – A Principled Approach to Using Technology in ELT by Andrew Bosson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Of Digital Natives and God Particles

This is a 16-19 minute read. (There is a summary towards the bottom of the page.)

In this post I use the concept of the ‘Digital Native’ to explore some of my opinions regarding the way we should consider the use of technology in ELT teaching. These are my opinions (at the moment) and although intended to be provocative –  they are stated to promote debate to help us enhance teaching and learning. If you have a different opinion or other ideas I would love to hear them.


So let’s go….

Higgs Bosons

In July 2012 CERN announced it had found the ‘God Particle’. Well actually they didn’t they announced they had found something that had the characteristics of the long-sought Higgs Boson. Many particle physicists don’t really like the moniker ‘God Particle’ as they feel it misrepresents the Higgs Boson. Peter Higgs , after whom the boson is named, dislikes it because he thinks it is misleading and also, as an atheist, he does not wish to offend people with religious views. The ‘God Particle’ has now become an unstoppable meme in popular culture – after the publisher of Leon Lederman’s 1993 book on the Higgs Boson refused to allow him to refer to it as the ‘Goddam Particle’. Lederman it believed to be more appropriate name for a particle that took 50 year to find after its existence was posited.


Digitial Natives

As an ELT teacher I sometimes feel that the term ‘Digital Native’ is our ‘God Particle’. Marc Prensky, largely referring to North American school children (not in an ELT context) coined  ‘Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants’ to describe modern learners and their teachers. Whilst I am sure he doesn’t regret his terminology, it seems to me that in ELT discourse these phrases have become shorthand for concepts that Prensky did not intend.

‘Digital Natives’ like the ‘God Particle’ has a nice ring to it and hints at an easy understanding of the people who are digitally native. The message often boils down to a simple and misleading message – modern learners like technology – they are ‘tech savvy’ so we, as teachers, should use technology in our teaching. This path leads to novelty in teaching and learning – whilst novelty is fun and can be interesting it is different from innovation. The other message is that as a generation they are fundamentally different, to the point of having different brain structures to previous generations.


Novelty, Innovation & Normalisation

I am not opposed to novelty, I use Socrative, an online student response system in my teaching.  I think I am using it in a principled way and have found one way to use it that is somewhat innovative. The learners’ enjoy using it and I think it brings value to the learning process. But in some ways it is a novelty in the way wheeling the video player and TV was in the 1990s. Innovation is something more fundamental and is only likely to come about in technological terms when normalisation occurs. Books and pens are normalised technologies. For Bax

“Normalisation is therefore the stage when a technology is invisible, hardly even recognised as a technology, taken for granted in everyday life.” (2003,p.23)

Normalisation means that we focus on the affordances (Conole & Dyke, 2004, p.116) of the technology – the additional benefits it brings rather than the technology itself. And if there is any message for teachers to come from ‘Digital Nativism’ it is the importance of principled innovation. Prensky comes to the same conclusion, as have many other educators, that it is time to reassess teaching methods promoted in the past that are now made possible through the affordances of technology. This does not require teachers to be ‘Tech Savvy’.


The evolution of Prensky’s Digital Native

Although he is not the only voice in the debate, as the father of the ‘Digital Native’ it is worth looking at what he said.

2001 – Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, pt.I & Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, pt.II, Do They Really Think differently?

In his first two articles addressing the issue of ‘Digital Natives’, Prensky speculates that young people’s brains have been changed as a result of growing up in Digital World. Indeed he starts his article with this startling and somewhat worrying pronouncement

“Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.”(2001a,p.1)

Their brains are fundamentally different from learners from previous generations with the result of the complaints that teachers have about their ability to learn. He cites Neuroplasticity and Social Psychology to explain how this brain change has come about. The argument is superficially attractive but extremely speculative and the figures he uses to support his argument are somewhat, to use the technical term, iffy (1). Nonetheless he argues that as educators we need to change the way we promote and encourage learning. In these articles he promoted learning through well designed computer games.

I find this argument for brain transformation to be spurious on two counts. Firstly, I suspect the scientific foundations are not so solid – Neuroplasticity is not in doubt but Prensky’s arguments are built on speculative connections to the science. As Bennet notes

“He relies on anecdotes, conjecture and speculation” (2012, p.3)

Secondly, I suspect that there isn’t really a generational difference. Rather the truth is closer to the fact that one generation always finds fault with following generations – probably in exactly the same way that preceding generations found fault with them. Did teachers only start complaining about their learner’s abilities, in comparison to their own, in the late 1990s?

This also leads to the reactionary “If It was okay for me, it should be ok for them” view of education. Ken Robinson’ wry observation (9mins 34 secs) that the function of public education appears to be to produce university professors, would seem to be in this vein . Teachers are former learners who were able to succeed in their educational system – so what is there to change? “It was okay for us” ignores the fact that it was probably not okay for a lot of other learners – who are not now in the business of education.

Research reported by Bennet (2012) and Helsper & Enyon (2009) casts doubts on generational  differences . They indicate that gender, breadth and experience of use of technology, educational background were more likely predictors of nativism. Bennet also states that there are larger discrepancies within generations than across them.

Helsper & Enyon also suggest that ‘Digital Native’ is a term being used as an overgeneralization, concluding that their

“data indicates is that the opposite is true – that contemporary society is a continuation of the past and technology, while important, is not the only determining factor in our lives.” (2009, p.18)


Don’t forget your salt.

If you are writing a paper, giving a conference presentation, delivering staff training, talking to colleagues, listening to others…on the concept of ‘Digital Natives’ please take these articles with a BIG pinch of salt.

That’s not the end of the story Prensky’s 2010 book ‘Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning’ displays a marked shift in his emphasis.

2010 – Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning (2)

In this book Prensky does not speculate on a mechanism for Digital Nativism – rather he just seems to focus on learners as young people who exist in the latest version of the modern world and are not brain-mutated versions of previous generations. In fact, the really nice thing about his book (the first chapter is available here) is its relentlessly positive approach to young people as learners. According to Prensky in this modern world

“More and more young people are now deeply and permanently technologically enhanced, connected to their peers and the world in ways no generation has ever been before. Streams of information come at them 24/7. More and more of what they want and need is available in their pocket on demand. “If I lose my cell phone, I lose half my brain,” comments one student.” (2005)

Whilst many educators may view this student’s comment with horror, it is reality, and isn’t this a perfect example of Gardner’s distributed intelligence. When she says that she has lost half her brain this does not mean she was using less of her brain originally – rather it could be an acknowledgement of the power of connection to information acting as a cognitive aid to enhance her skills and knowledge (Thomas, 2000, p.26). It is interesting and relevant that in losing the phone the learner is not so much upset about the phone itself but the information it can access (although I’m sure her parents are not too happy about this). This is the point that we as teachers need to understand. Digital Nativism (if it exists) is not about having a detailed knowledge of technology being ‘tech savvy’, it is rather about a relationship to information – this is what I understand Prensky to means by ‘attitude’ in the following quote

“Obviously, no student knows everything there is to know about technology. Some know a lot, and some know surprisingly little. (That doesn’t, by the way, make them any less digital natives, a distinction which is more about attitude than knowledge.) Many teachers, of course, are extremely technology savvy.” (2005)

Young people, with access to the technology, expect to be able to communicate with their friends instantly, to find out the latest news, to find answers immediately… I think this point is key and often missed – therefore as teachers we focus on the technology itself not what the technology can do. Apps and web tools (notice we no longer really talk of CALL) of course have a place in the classroom but when we are considering a pedagogy (or androgogy) we should look deeper.


Web 2.0 (Natives!)

An interesting thing that happened during the period between Prensky’s first article and his 2010 book (although the first chapter available on his website is dated 2005) is the advent of Web 2.0 technology.

Dating from around 2003 Web 2.0 refers, very generally, to technologies where users can play an active part in the creation and use of web content. This co-creation of knowledge and content is constructivism in action and as Prensky indicates points to ideas espoused be (socio)-constructivist educators from the past.


You are going to go on about PBL aren’t you?

Well yes. If you remember Prensky (in 2001) argued

“Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach” (2001a, p.1)

As I have discussed, it is my contention that the education systems that we have (and had) were never designed to adequately educate all then of the learners in the system. Prensky suggests that turning to pedagogy from a pre-digital age is a potential solution to meeting our learners needs. This would seem to be a tacit admission that young people, as learners, have remained essentially the same over the passage of time.

“Ironically, it’s the generation based on the expectation of interactivity that is ripe for the skill-based and ‘doing-based’ teaching methods that past experts have always suggested are the best for learning, but that were largely rejected by the education establishment as being too hard to implement.” (Prensky 2010, p.xv)

Prensky uses the umbrella term Partnering  to describe a range of learning techniques that include Project and Problem Based Learning.

My own experience of Problem Based Learning benefitted from the technologies now available. A criticism of Problem Based Learning is its staff intensive nature (Hmelo-Silver 2004, p. 261) – however by basing projects around a wiki I, as a single teacher, was able to monitor the progress of several groups and take action as necessary.

Wikis are the epitome of Web 2.0 software design and philosophy and offer great opportunities to promote learning.  With their ease of use, interactivity, democratic conceptions of access and contribution, wikis posses great collaborative potential (Mclaughlin &  Lee 2007, p.669, Parker & Chao 2007, p.57) that can be harnessed for socially constructivist learning (Notari as cited in Parker & Chao, 2007, p.59).


A Question for You Dear Reader!

This has been a relatively long post – but it isn’t a New Yorker length article. Have you made it so far without: checking your email/messaging software, checking the news, sending a text message…?

My guess is probably not. But then I don’t think there is anything wrong with that – the fact that you are reading this blog means that this is the world you inhabit.

Okay – maybe you made it through without some other digital distraction but if you read it online (rather than printing it to read) I bet you clicked the odd link or checked a reference. This is the nature of reading online – each reader creates their own text through as they navigate the text, links and the links from those links (Coiro 2003).

You do not have to be a ‘Digital Native’ to read this way – it is normal and something we should be embracing as teachers. (We should be helping our learners to understand this form of reading rather than solely focussing on the printed text. We can also deal with study skills for the modern information age – to deal with the problems caused by an overload of information when multitasking.)

So, do you consider yourself a ‘Digital Native’? Perhaps were all just Digital Inhabitants (3).


In Summary

Just in case all the multi-tasking has distracted you from the post here is a summary of my thoughts:

  • The term ‘Digital Natives’ when used as shorthand to describe a generation of learners as fundamentally different from previous generations is misleading. So is the implication that they are ‘tech savvy’. This often leads to the conclusion that “technology is the answer”. This is novelty rather than innovation (and considered use of technology) in Teaching and Learning. It threatens to lead us down a pedagogical rabbit hole.
  • This shorthand version is different from Prensky’s later conception of the ‘Digital Native’. Someone who has an expectation of instant (and universal) access to information afforded by the current technology.
  • There isn’t really a generational difference between learners – just rose tinted glasses and the fact that those in the business of the education system are those that benefitted from it themselves. The “well it was ok for me” effect.
  • The original conception of the ‘Digital Native’ does not really stand up to the subsequent research.
  • The affordances of technology, specifically constructivist Web 2.0 technologies, make experiential, enquiry based learning a practical reality. These are sort of educational experiences advocated by constructivist educators such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget.
  • PBL embraces technology as a cognitive aid that is used in a naturalised context and not as a novelty.
  • As these forms of learning are a practical reality, for internet accessible learners, it is only us as teachers that are holding this back. We can, and do, put up many ifs and buts in the way – however these are just excuses for inaction.
  • Any user of Digital media displays signs of ‘Digital Nativism’ – as demonstrated by the way you read this text (especially if you just skipped to this summary!)


A Final Thought About Digital Immigrants

A final thought, the shorthand version of the “Digital Native / Digital Immigrants” message is a hindrance to educators who are, according to the message, ‘Digital Immigrants’. It can appear daunting, discourage professional development, innovation and experimentation in teaching if you are told you are a fundamentally different from the learners you are teaching.  So it is nice to end with Prensky’s suggestion of Partnering for Learning as a symbiotic relationship which lets

“students focus on the part of the learning process that they can do best, and letting teachers focus on the part of the learning process that they can do best.” (2005)
We have to build a pedagogy that embraces the affordances of technology to enhance learning for all our learners.



(1)   To support his claim of brain transformation Prensky makes the following statement

“Our children today are being socialized in a way that is vastly different from their parents. The numbers are overwhelming: over 10,000 hours playing videogames, over 200,000 emails and instant messages sent and received; over 10,000 hours talking on digital cell phones; over 20,000 hours watching TV (a high percentage fast speed MTV), over 500,000 commercials seen—all before the kids leave college. And, maybe, at the very most, 5,000 hours of book reading. These are today’s ―Digital Native‖ students(2001b)

In his footnotes he explains his calculation of these figures. They are based on a young (North American) person doing / being exposed to the activity every day for 15 years. Prensky’s article was published in October 2001. A 15 year old in 2001 would have been born in 1986 – how many of these technologies were available then – leaving aside their proficiency as newborn instant messagers! So he cannot be talking about school age youngsters in this scenario. I could go on to talk about the research he cites but the point is that this argument is pretty speculative.

(2)    The first chapter of the book is available online and I fully recommend it, not necessarily as a guide to teaching ‘Digitial Natives’ but, as an example of a wonderful way to view our learners.

(3)   Neuroplasticity is an established fact in adults as well as young people. Remarkable results have been seen in adults with brain injuries – it is also true that our brain changes every time we learn something new. So, in this article claiming brain changes, when novice web-surfers are guided in web-searching, what really seems to be being reported is not brain-mutation but just changes that occur from learning or doing something new. These people undergoing ‘brain change’ are actually adults so really the ‘Digital Native’ in this case is someone who learns to use the technology.

The article is interesting in the discussion of reading. However, online reading is not going away so we should focus on helping our learners to work in the world of unlimited and instant access to information. Just as in the pre-digital age learners were introduced to media literacy so modern learners need to learn digital-media literacy (but that’s a topic for another post).



These references exclude those that are hyperlinked in the text.

Bennett, S 2012, “Digital natives”,  In Z Yan (Eds), Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior: Volume 1, pp. 212-219, viewed 1st June 2014,

Helsper, E  & Eynon, R 2009, ‘Digital natives: where is the evidence?’ British Educational Research Journal, viewed 1st June 2014

Conole, G & Dyke, M 2004, ‘What are the affordances of Information and communication technologies?’, ALT-J, Vol. 12, no.2, pp.111–123.

Hmelo-Silver, C E 2004, ‘Problem based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?’, Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 16 No. 3, pp.253-266.

Coiro, J 2003, ‘Reading Comprehension on the Internet: Expanding Our Understanding of Reading Comprehension to Encompass New Literacies, Reading Online, viewed 10th June 2014,

McLoughlin, C & Lee, M 2007, ‘Social software and participatory learning: Pedagogical choices with technology affordances in the Web 2.0 era.’, ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ascilite Singapore 2007, viewed 3 April 2011, via

Parker, K R & Chao, J T 2007, ‘Wiki as a teaching tool’, Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, vol.3, pp.57–72.

Prenksy, M 2001a, ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.’, On the Horizon, vol.9, no.5, viewed 1st June 2014,,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Prenksy, M 2001b, ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II Do they really think differently?’, On the Horizon, vol.9, no.6. viewed 1st June 2014,,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part2.pdf

Prensky, M 2005, Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning. Introduction:

Our changing world, Technology and Global Society, viewed 1st June 2014,

Prensky, M 2010, Teaching Digital Natives. Partnering for Real Learning, Corwin, California

Thomas, J W 2000, ‘A review of research on project-based learning.’, viewed, 18 July 2005 from


Related Posts

The Affordances of Technology  – Coming Soon

The Normalisation of Technology in Teaching and Learning – Coming Soon

Technology as a Cognitive Aid – Coming Soon

PBL & the Affordances of Web 2.0 Technology – Coming Soon

Applying PBL to English Language Teaching

“It was good enough for us, it should be good enough for them.” – Coming Soon

Digital-Media Literacy – Coming Soon
Creative Commons License
Of Digital Natives and God Particles by Andrew Bosson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Motivation to Produce Outcomes of High Quality.

This is a 5-6 minute read.

“PBL must be designed around a process of excellence, using drafts, prototypes, peer protocols, thinking and brainstorming exercises, and clear performance standards.” (Markham 2012, p.xii)


This blog is still in its early stages, about a week old, and it is taking its character and shape along the way. Inevitably things will change – layouts, my writing styles, organisation of posts and pages, revising and editing pages, correcting typos…etc.

I have been working on the “What is PBL?” pages as a starting point and thought I had those pages nailed down. Yesterday I realised that actually they could be reorganised. This involved some rewriting, reorganising of text and three pages becoming four. And this started me thinking about how I value the work I do – and naturally how this relates to PBL.

I could have left the pages as they were – they were fine – but I knew they could be better. They would be easier to read and expressed my thoughts more clearly and concisely. I knew that it would take an hour or so – time I could spend writing the other things I want to add to the blog but I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I addressed these issues.

This is a common occurrence. Many is the time I have completed work on an activity, resource or worksheet for my learners only to realise that, although it is fine as it is,  it is not the best piece of work I could do at the time. It may only be a case of the layout or formatting of a document (not the content) yet I feel it is worth the extra time it takes. Naturally this also applied to my MA work and presentations I have given. It also happens with non-teaching administration too.



So why is this? When did I start to value the quality of my work? When did it stop being sufficient for my work to be good enough?

Looking back I don’t think I was that great a student. I think my higher education studies were good enough but not the best they could be – I was happy with that at the time. I had the same attitude we complain about our learners having to their studies.

The difference is I am doing a job I love doing. I love working with the learners and colleagues. I enjoy the challenge of finding the most effective way to teach English to my learners. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of my own professional development – this blog included. I could go on…


Sometime in the last 20 years of teaching – probably when I realised this was something I was good at, I enjoyed and could make a career out of.




The short answer would be intrinsic motivation – but where does that come from. Well from what I have said about my job – I obviously value what I do and place a great importance on the quality of the work I do. I have audiences:

  • my learners – I wish to give the best experience I can.
  • my colleagues – again I feel it is important to respect them with a high standard of work.
  • myself  – well, this blog may not read by anyone else but I still want to produce something I feel good about. Also I completed my MA two years ago with a Distinction. It was a distance course and I completed it in two rather than three years. I started the course just after relocating to Turkey and had started working in a new environment. I’m not trying to blow my own horn here but once again it would have been easy* to settle for passes in my modules rather than trying my absolute best – I would still have passed the MA.


In that last sentence I mentioned that it would be easy to settle – except it wouldn’t. I would have  found it very hard. In these situations, which matter to me, l feel good when I produce work I consider of high quality. Of course what I consider high quality may not be up to other people’s standards!

I have talked here about what happens outside the classroom (and in a professional context) – these comments could also apply to what happens in the classroom. They also apply to other parts of my life. That said there are parts of my life where good enough is OK. My office mates would probably think the organisation of my desk is not good enough but it’s good enough for me – it will only get messy again.



And what about PBL?

Well the point, of what was going to be a short post, is that it seems PBL is an opportunity to encourage learners to think about producing high quality work they can take pride in and that good enough is not actually good enough or satisfying. Of course there are many facets of PBL that can encourage this outlook and this is why, it seems, PBL should not be implemented half-heartedly.

Essential factors include need for an expectation of quality as well as help in guiding the learners to the creation of a quality outcome. It is also clear that the outcome should be one that is valued by the learners – learner choice and voices are important here. The outcome should also have a clear audience who will recognise and value the outcome.



Markham, T 2012, Project Based Learning. Design and Coaching Guide, viewed 1st May 2014,