SOLO your roll: A critique of the SAMR model

Working in edtech, I was exposed to the SAMR model many years ago. It’s widely used here in New Zealand, as in the United States. And it’s a handy acronym used to help teacher conceptualize new possibilities for the integration of technology into the classroom.

For that purpose, it works just fine.

It’s when movement up the SAMR ladder is assumed to lead to more complex and critical thinking that I have questions.

SAMR stands for the following:

Substitution – tech acts as direct tool substitute with no functional change
Augmentation – tech acts as a direct tool substitute with functional improvement
Modification – tech allows for significant task redesign
Redefinition – tech allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable

It was conceived by a chemistry PhD who is now on what looks like a lecture and consulting circuit in education circles, with some interesting content online for free.  Well done on his part developing a tool that has resonated with education audiences around the world – we need all the creative thinking we can get in education.

But we also need all the critical thinking we can get. And it’s how the SAMR model is derived in practice that demands more critical thought than what it receives.

Consider this example, the first one in the top hit from a Google search for “SAMR model:”

Original Assignment: A hand written paper
Substitution: A Word Processor replaces a Pen/Pencil in a writing assignment.
Augmentation: A Word Processor and text-to-speech function are used to improve the writing process.
Modification: The document created using the Word Processor and text-to-speech function is shared on a blog where feedback can be received and incorporated to help improve the quality of writing.
Redefinition: Instead of a written assignment, students convey analytic thought using multimedia tools.

SAMR examples often look like this – the original assignment is bland, without any description of the type of thinking required, and then two things happen by the time you’ve hit “Redefinition”:

(1) The activity now requires more complex thinking
(2) The activity now has a technology focus

In the example above you can see how this plays out – the original assignment is literally a sentence fragment, “a hand-written paper.” The “redefined” assignment is certainly that, now describing what students will do (“convey analytic thought”) and how they will do it (“using multimedia tools”).

This separation is critical – multimedia tools might “redefine” the means of expression, but they don’t, by themselves, lead to deeper thinking.  Take it from someone who has watched students flick between tabs on a Google image search for 20 minutes, then copy and paste text into a slide straight from Wikipedia to finish up a “multimedia presentation.”

We hear so often in edtech that “it’s not about the tech” or “technology is just a tool.” And that’s why I’d be very cautious in leading learning conversations with the SAMR model.

If technology is truly secondary, then lead with something  like Bloom’s Taxonomy, or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, or the SOLO Taxonomy, or whatever it is that you use to anchor learning design for students. Then ask, “Given the type of thinking and depth of learning we’d like to see at this stage, how can technology help us meet our objective?”

Tech may or may not be the best tool for the job. If it is, use it for all of the awesome potential that it has to meet your learning goals. And then maybe compare the exercise you’re undertaking against the SAMR model to see how significant a shift in practice you’re asking teachers and students to make.

But if you’re leading with the SAMR model as a framework for deepening critical thinking, just be aware that the construct can be used “redefine” a task right back to really powerful pencil and paper output if you just set things up right:

Original Assignment: A multimedia presentation
Substitution:  Pen/Pencil draft replaces a Powerpoint slide template
Augmentation: Reading work aloud to a classmate is used to improve the writing process.
Modification: Students swap draft outlines so that feedback can be received and incorporated to help improve the quality of writing.
Redefinition: Instead of a multimedia presentation, students convey analytic thought using a hand-written assignment