Friction

For years, I used the same company to buy most of my technology supplies. If I needed printers or cables or memory or consumables, I would always go there. The company had pre-negotiated contracts with several different agencies and consortia, so their pricing was reasonable. They had a fantastic database of products that allowed me to easily compare products and prices and options. Ordering was simple and could be done online. And shipping was always free.

The company didn’t have the best sales support. They didn’t have the lowest prices. They didn’t have the best selection. But I used them all the time anyway. Why? Because it was easy.

The installers are coming on Friday to put up this wall-mount display for digital signage, and I need a mount for it. I go to the web site, quickly look at the options to meet my needs, and order it. Two or three days later, it’s here. I don’t have to call someone to get a quote. I don’t have to compare products on manufacturers’ sites to find the best one to meet my needs. I don’t have to worry about shipping costs and tax-exempt certificates and when the product will be in stock. I filter by availability and buy something they actually have.

Most people, given the option, will take the path of least resistance. We’ll do the thing that’s easier. I could probably get a better or cheaper TV mount if I shopped around a bit more, reached out to some other suppliers, and got authorization to make a credit card purchase. But I wanted to spend 10 minutes instead of 3 hours, so I took the easy path.

In schools, we encourage the things we want to see by making it easier to do them. Do you want students to work collaboratively in small groups? Create spaces and time for them to do that. Do you want to foster a love of reading among your primary students? Give them lots of choices of books to read and the freedom to select and explore those books.

I’m increasingly realizing that technology is not neutral. It fosters and encourages some practices by making them easier, and it discourages others by making them harder. In physics, we call that adding or removing friction. We add friction to things that we want to be harder, and we remove friction from things we want to be easier. Scantron machines made it easier for teachers to give multiple choice tests that measure recall of information. That discouraged them from using assessments that required students to analyze, reflect on, and apply their learning. So when we introduced Scantron machines, we got more multiple choice tests that measured what students remember.

When we introduced interactive whiteboards 15 years ago, teachers embraced them who had never used technology before. One veteran teacher in my school famously quipped, “if you put that thing in my room, I’ll quit.” A year later, she revised her statement. “If you take that thing out of my room, I’ll quit.” The interactive whiteboard fostered the idea that the teacher is there to deliver instructional content. She stands at the front of the room, and uses her finger (or a fancy pointer) to interact with this magic board. Everything she writes can be saved. She can pull up slides and interactive lessons and lead students through the content. She can bring up other digital resources (or, using a document camera, printed resources) and annotate them on the board.

But the interactive whiteboard cemented the teacher at the front of the room, and it reinforced the idea that her primary role is to deliver instruction. Using the board made it harder for her to move around the room and easier for whole-class, rote instruction. So we got more of that.

We talk a lot about fostering the characteristics that we want to see in next generation students. We want our students to be creative problem solvers. We want them to follow their curiosity with a learner’s mindset. We want them to embody confidence and empathy, to engage with purpose, and to be resilient and adaptable. To do these things, we need to change what is happening in the classroom. We need inquiry. We need project based learning. We need student agency. Our students need to be active participants in their learning. And the technology that we put in their learning spaces has to reflect that. If we want students to write more, they need devices with keyboards. If we want them to share their work with the class, we need tech that makes it easy for them to do that. If we want the teacher to differentiate instruction, with different groups of students working on different tasks, we have to foster that with the tools we employ.

The places where we add or reduce friction show where our priorities lie as a school. Let’s make the things we want to do easier, and the things we don’t want to do harder.

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