Educational Kung Fu

Bill Ferriter (Twitter @Plugusin) over at The Tempered Radical has asked me in comments on this post to write a piece explaining what I mean by the theory of “Educational Kung Fu” … and he’s welcome to duplicate this piece on his blog, if he feels it’s worthy of a guest post.

He gives his own great example (some grammatical cleanup by me because I’m fussy. :-)):

I’m planning on a post describing how a teacher on my team who isn’t particularly tech-savvy is using my Livescribe pen to create tutorials for her students. The pen is an approachable tool for her because its a pen and a notebook: nothing revolutionary there. But the fact that the pen can capture all of the audio and text content created, and then post that content to the web is definitely revolutionary — simply because the teacher can now create a library of tutorials that can be used for enrichment and remediation.

Science-fiction author Charles Stross has a similar reminder in one of his books, Halting State.  Two characters walk down a street in Edinburgh, Scotland. One speculates to the other on how in 1970, had they walked down the same street, everything around them would have looked the same.  The cars would have newer exterior styles, the buildings had the same old shapes, the folks on the street were wearing slightly more modern clothes, and so on.  But they’d be recognizable as cars, clothes, buildings, and more.  Yet here they are, walking down the street in 2012, and everything — from the clothes to the cars to the buildings — run with embedded computers.  The phones are ‘recognizable as phones,’ as one character notices, but they actually use completely different technology.

These computers are largely invisible to the two characters, and yet a great many of them are tied together into a single invisible network, which may in fact be watching their every move as they walk down the street.  Given that the network is currently being used to search for them, it’s entirely possible that this computer network will destroy them.  The only thing that’s protecting them as they walk down the street is that they aren’t wearing the clothes the police expect, and they’ve ditched their GPS-equipped cellphones and other identifiers.

The world Charles Stross describes is in fact coming into being.  One of my students has a sweatshirt which has hoodie-strings hanging out of it.  It just happens to be the case that the hoodie strings are also headphones.  So if he’s wearing this sweatshirt in class, I need to be conscious that he’s not playing with his hoodie strings, and that the hoodie strings aren’t in his ears.  If they are, he’s listening to music.  Another kid has a wallet with a built-in flash drive. He’s carrying his digital identity with him at the same time he’s carrying his analog identity and his cash.  A new Frank Gehry building in Brooklyn is loaded with technology, while looking just like an ordinary new building.

Educational Kung Fu

This is where the concept of “Educational Kung Fu” comes in.  In Chinese martial arts, such as t’ai chi chuan (which I practice) the goal is to move slowly in practice, in order to build the long muscles that build both speed and strength in the arms, legs and core.

The thing is, no one goes from being a beginner to being a kung fu master overnight.  You can’t expect to start today, and become an expert tomorrow.  It takes time.  And to expect a teacher who’s taught the same way for 10 or 20 years, without technology, to suddenly abandon that Way (道 or Tao, as in Tao Te Ching in Chinese) in favor of tech-based solutions, is asking a miracle.  You’re asking them to become a beginner again, to give up all their habits both good and bad, and start anew.

Not going to happen.

One of the concepts in Tai Chi Chuan is to move slowly from one posture to another, carrying all of one’s body weight, committing to each position in stages, before winding up in the right place and right posture.  In “Educational Kung Fu” one moves slowly from one (wholly analog) posture in education to another (partially digital) posture, picking up techniques and skills along the way, before shifting to another (more thoroughly digital) posture, and so on, and so on.

Talking with students, I find that they recognize that digital skills in their teachers can be divided into four categories:  Presentation, Lesson Development, Responsiveness, and Remediation.  They don’t necessarily call them these things, but that’s what we can call them, and we’ll define them this way:

  • Presentation: the teacher uses an interactive white board of some kind, shows digital (or analog) slides, or presents material in some sort of dynamic form other than by writing on the board.
  • Lesson Development: the teacher uses technology to teach new concepts, and provides students with the opportunity to use technology in how they learn new material.
  • Responsiveness: a teacher uses technology to answer student questions or respond to student issues.
  • Remediation: a teacher uses technology to provide review materials or reinforcement of skills or content knowledge.

If you think about these as four types of postures or stances, you can imagine what one does in an analog way, and imagine possibilities for other ranges of partially digital and fully digital experiences.

An analog Presentation position is simply using whiteboard markers or chalk to create notes, or even using an analog slide projector.  A partially digital posture would be creating the notes in an IWB program, and presenting those; or making a PowerPoint or Keynote slideshow and presenting that.  Thanks to tools like, a fully digital teacher can post these presentations online, and make them available to students by embedding them in a wiki or a webpage.

In a Lesson Development posture, there might be a “guided practice worksheet” in an analog setting.  In a partially digital setting, these worksheets could be available for download in .PDF format from the school website.  In a fully digital setting, the teacher would make these guided practices as Google Forms, perhaps.

In a Responsiveness posture, an analog teacher has office hours.  In a partially digital model, a teacher provides an e-mail address, and expects students to contact her with questions.  In a fully digital model, the teacher begins to maintain a wiki with an FAQ for her subject.

In a Remediation posture, an analog teacher offers worksheets or additional assignments, and reteaches material through direct instruction.  In a partially digital posture, the teacher uses search techniques to find alternate explanations of his curriculum, and presents students with multiple explanations by other teachers.  In a fully digital posture, the teacher includes in homework or classwork an assignment on searching out alternate explanations of common material, and encourages students to build a library of remedial resources for the class’s (and world’s) use.

I don’t think these are the only possible examples, but this entry is now well over a thousand words, and I think I need to start thinking about how to wrap it up.

It comes to this:  We tell teachers that they have to “use more technology.”  But in practice, we have to tell teachers to do things which are much more concrete than that:

  1. Presentation: “We have a spare digital projector, and I know you love art.  Do you think you could learn to use slideshow software and present more art history in your history class?”
  2. Presentation: “We have money for an Interactive White Board, and your lessons on geometry are fascinating in chalk. Do you think you could learn how to present them on an IWB, and save them as digital files?”
  3. Lesson Development: “Your students have Google Apps for Education accounts, and you require your students to do a lot of drafts of writing.  Do you think you could learn to use the Google Apps platform to get students to read and comment on one another’s work?  No? How about setting up a blog for your students to write?”
  4. Lesson Development: “You teach in a very modular way. Do you think you could teach using a wiki, with a lot of modules assembled by your students?”
  5. Responsiveness: “Could you maintain a blog in which you disguised the originators of the questions, but in which you responded to e-mailed questions about the material in your course?”
  6. “Please give out your e-mail address to students, and respond to student e-mails about your course content within 24 hours.”
  7. Remediation: “Some of your students say it’s hard to understand what you’re talking about on this particular subject.  Would you let the tech department film you explaining this subject, slowly, so that we can post it to the school website and students can review the explanation multiple times?”
  8. “Can you learn create a podcast that explains the main point of each daily lesson, or which gives an overview of the week’s lessons?”

I hope that my examples make clear that I’m suggesting that rather than say, “use more technology”, that we be clear as teacher-leaders and administrators about which technologies we want analog teachers to become aware of, and ask them to develop their digital skills along a particular set of themes, based on what we think their strengths or weaknesses are as instructors in each of the four postures.  A great speaker or storyteller might do wonderfully as a podcaster, though they have trouble as a writer.  Someone who does great mindmaps could learn to master some graphics software to create .jpegs or .pdfs that provide parallel notes.  Another teacher might turn out to be excellent at videos.  The whole point is to ask teachers to develop specific competencies that complement their existing teaching.

The most important part of this is to recognize that a school is an ecosystem, and that an ecosystem thrives not on monoculture but on diversity.  If you have one video-maker, six white-board users, a podcaster, and someone who’s great at slide-show presentations, your students are going to become much more well-rounded individuals because they are being exposed to multiple paths to being a digital citize, than if they only see one such kind of technology.

Educational Kung Fu thrives when there is a degree of ‘competition’ between the ‘rival schools’ of digital mastery, not when there is only One True Way to the summit of the Mountain.

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  1. Hi Andrew,
    I too like your breakdowns – however, I found myself wondering if you are making the distinction between teaching and learning clear enough. Technology can be placed within the act of teaching, and teachers can also ask students to use technology as they complete assignments, projects, etc. Most of your examples and classifications focus exclusively on teaching. When you ask a teacher to use a presentation tool or make a podcast of a lecture, for example, it’s about teaching, not learning.

    When you talk to teachers about having students use a blog in writing projects, you are typically talking about changing teaching AND learning, since the teaching style needs to evolve with a process that is more dynamic and individual (if the teacher can be persuaded to allow that), and the student may learn in new and different ways as afforded by more flexible tools.

    I know you are trying to simplify the ways technology can be used in teaching, so that more people can try new things, but I think this is a limited set of examples.

    • Dear Sylvia,

      Thanks so much for commenting. I think you’re so very right — I’m not making the distinction between teaching and learning clear enough. And a colleague of mine commented over dinner last night that there’s a fifth area, Curriculum, which I have not touched on at all. As your Generation Yes! program emphasizes, sometimes it’s about encouraging students to develop a specific technological skill or facility with a tool, regardless of the teacher’s familiarity with that skill or tool.

      In this case, Bill had asked me to develop some strategies for teaching teachers to use technology more effectively in the classroom, though. And I think the basics of my suggestion boil down to the idea that just as we need to break down skills and abilities into smaller units for students to grasp and understand, so do we need to break down teacher skills and abilities into smaller units.

      And when we break down the concept of “teaching” into these five areas:

      1. Presentation
      2. Lesson Development
      3. Responsiveness
      4. Remediation
      5. and the new one, Curriculum,

      We’re saying that a teacher doesn’t need to adopt technology in all five areas, all at once. We’re saying that making progress in one area will help open a teacher up to shifting from an analog Educatinal Kung Fu posture to a digital one.

      So in other words, these are examples, rather than the only way to do things. I like this idea of Educational Kung Fu enough that I’m going to elaborate on it in further posts.

  2. Terrific post. Really useful breakdown for those of us in the corporate training sector, where we deal with these issues as well. Thanks.

    • I’m glad this was useful. How are you, Tony? I miss the Worcester gang, but I find that my life is pulling me in exactly the opposite directions these days, and I can’t ever get there.

      Having to be up at 5am on Monday mornings tends to rule out a 2-hour drive to poetry, and a 2 hour drive home again, too.

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