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







Old ideas and new

For the past couple weeks I’ve been setting up school visits and looking into the literature on 21st century skills and competencies, digital technologies, and authentic learning in education.

Here’s a few choice quotes that feed into much of the thinking in those realms.

If students are to be prepared to cope with new and changing conditions, they must be exposed to more than current factual knowledge and occupational skills…They must learn, for example, how to think, communicate, organize, interact, make decisions, solve problems, and assign priorities, but most of all, they must learn how to learn.

By using the community as a classroom, we are in a position to use natural situational frames as a means for integrating learning and practice and fitting patterns of formal learning to local patterns of informal learning…we can use the natural setting and events of the community to bring students into the flow of real-life experiences where they can acquire more pervasive and useful process skills.

That’s from a 1981 paper by a researcher at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks making the argument for more project-centered forms of education rooted in local communities.

Now here’s the OECD, in its Education 2030 position paper:

Students will need to apply their knowledge in unknown and evolving circumstances. For this, they will need a broad range of skills, including cognitive and meta-cognitive skills…social and emotional skills…and practical and physical skills…

A concept underlying the learning framework is “co-agency” – the interactive, mutually supportive relationships that help learners to progress towards their valued goals. In this context, everyone should be considered a learner, not only students but also teachers, school managers, parents and communities.

Sound similar? It’s a good reminder to myself and others thinking about education futures that often plenty of effort has been undertaken to think through these things in the past.

For example, is this a venture-funded micro-school, or just an effort supported by the design-thinking innovation gurus of of the School District of Philadelphia in the 1960’s?

…facilities such as abandoned warehouses, offices and schools along the Parkway were used for meeting places and to store materials and resources. Students and teachers met on a flexible schedule for various learning activities, depending on outside involvements and individual or group needs. Teachers served as tutors and counselors, and supervised student activities with cooperating agencies and institutions in the community.

The answer, of course, is the latter.

Humbly acknowledging that much of the way that we talk about education and many of the solutions proposed have already been explored in the past, I’m going to keep plugging away on this literature review with a couple of questions in mind.

1. What resources do we now have available to improve learning?

2. What realities do we face that compel us to test out those resources?

These, of course, aren’t new questions. Some of the best questions never are.

Articulation, Feb 2018: We’re all cool with innovation here, right?

I read a lot, and without some kind of reflection, usually forget what I read. “Articulation” is an attempt to connect some of the dots.

How leaders can master persuasion as a skill and habit (First Round Review)
In which a Google engineer reads Daniel Kahnman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and goes on the lecture circuit; or, how to get everyone to agree without thinking too hard about it. Which leads us to…

How Betsy DeVos softened her message on school choice (Politico)
In which the beleaguered U.S. Secretary of Education learns that people are less testy about ideas that come packaged as “innovation.” Like school choice. And on that note…

New Zealand is a school choice utopia. But do students perform better? (PBS)
In which, much like a parent doing some school shopping, the “BBI Sports Cloud” distracts me from wondering what academic performance looks like, and systemic white flight from “low decile” schools is discussed.

Note: Several key features of the New Zealand education system mentioned in the PBS article, published for a U.S. audience, are now out of date, including (1) Though still widely known, decile levels are no longer publicly reported, replaced by an internal “Risk Index” that will drive school funding (2) Performance on National Standards is no longer reported annually in lower grade levels  (3) The entire 1989 Tomorrow’s Schools governance model and operating framework is under review as the new Labour government tries to put together a 30-year vision for education