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Verbs and Nouns

“Verbs and Nouns” is a useful concept that Marc offers to help educators better understand the role of technology in education, as well as to help them balance the past and the future in their teaching.

Verbs & Nouns

Brief Description

When most people think about technology they think of specific tools, or what Prensky calls “nouns.” But it is important to remember that these are really tools to DO something, i.e. perform a skill, or “verb.”

The verbs, or skills, we want our kids to learn—from thinking critically, to presenting logically, to communicating, to persuading, to being rigorous, to understanding context (there are many others)—do not change, either at all or very much.

But today the “nouns” change rapidly.

It is very important that teachers focus their teaching on the verbs, and not the nouns. In fact, Prensky recommends assigning only verbs, and letting the students choose whatever noun they think is most appropriate.

More Detailed Explanation

Here follows a more detailed explanation of Verbs and Nouns, adapted from Prensky’s book Teaching Digital Natives–Partnering for Real Learning (p. 45):

Two important pedagogical questions are:

1. How do you use whatever types of technology are (and are not) available in your school and classroom?

2. How do you prevent technology from taking over the essentials that you are trying to teach?

The best way to answer both of these questions is to think in terms of verbs and nouns for learning.

Verbs are the skills that students need to learn, practice, and master. They include all the traditional things we want students to be able to do in the context of the content. Whatever subject we teach, we want students to be proficient at such verbs as thinking critically, presenting logically, communicating, making decisions, being rigorous, understanding content and context, and persuading. Verbs are, in a sense, the “underlying” learning, and pedagogy is typically about verbs, i.e., how to provide students with the subject-specific and general skills they need.

What is extremely important to note that the verbs important for learning do not change (or change very little) over time.

Nouns, on the other hand, are the tools students use to learn to do, or practice, the verbs. Nouns include such traditional tools as books and essays as well as more 21st century tools such as the Internet. Nouns are the way people generally think of technology: computers, PowerPoint, Wikipedia, etc. Nouns include both hardware and software—the actual technologies available to your students. Most books on using technology in the classroom begin with the particular technologies (i.e., nouns) currently available, such as podcasts, wikis, or blogs, and explain how each one can be used for teaching different subjects. But nouns are only a means to an end.

And unlike learning verbs, learning nouns change increasingly frequently.

PowerPoint, for example, is a tool (noun) for presenting (verb). But it will likely be replaced in our students’ lifetimes (and is already being replaced in many places) by Flash and other, better, presentation tools. E-mail is a tool for communicating. But it has already been replaced, among many students, by texting and even Twitter. (“E-mail is for old people,” say many students.) Wikipedia is a tool for learning. But it is being supplanted (or supplemented) by tools like YouTube and advanced search.

Focus on the Verbs!

Focusing the partnering and learning process on the verbs (skills), and not on the nouns (tools), is the way to avoid letting technology for its own sake take over students’ learning. For a teacher who is looking to replace the pedagogy of telling with that of partnering, it is far better to begin by considering the various verbs through which students can learn material, and not get too attached to any particular nouns. There are a great many learning verbs that we would like students to be proficient in, representing skills that most educators (and people outside of education, such as employers) want students to know. In modern pedagogy, verbs get blended with the content we teach.

One great benefit of focusing on the verbs is that doing so makes it a lot easier for teachers to answer students’ frequent “Why should I learn this?” questions. Typically the “this” students are referring to is a topic, or piece of content. But if you can show them that they are really learning and practicing skills that they realize they can use right away or will need in the future, they are often more willing to listen.

The Learning Verbs and Associated Nouns

There are nearly 50 learning verbs that we use and want students to master, and over 100 nouns available to students to use in their efforts (see Table 2.1). Notice that all of the verbs have been around since long before digital technology came on the scene. Notice, too, that for each verb there are many tools and technologies available to help learn and practice it. To plan effective partnering instruction, rather than rush to figuring out which specific technologies or tools (i.e., nouns) to use, teachers should choose from the list the appropriate verbs that are key for the material and the group of students they are working with, and focus the lesson around blending those verbs with the content and technology.

As you browse through the list, think of which verbs might be most useful to you and your students for various things you teach. The verbs you choose will, in turn, suggest the roles for each of the partners (i.e., students and teacher) in learning the material.

Obviously, not all the nouns will be available to all students, and the answer to the question “How do you partner using whatever types of technology are (and are not) available in your school and classroom?” is that you start with the verbs and have students work with whatever nouns are available in your classroom or school at that time.

List of Verbs and Associated Nouns (not exhaustive)

1. Verbs for Researching and Managing Information and Associated Nouns

Reading: Internet, online readers, speech-to-text programs, rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP), cell phone novels, graphic novels
Watching and Listening: podcasts, YouTube, Big Think, TED Talks, video search engines, Speed-Ups for audio and video clips, text-to-speech programs
Searching and Finding: search engines, reading tools, RSVP, speed-ups, mapping tools, really simple syndication (RSS), Listservs
Exploring: using search engines, following hyperlinks
Analyzing: spreadsheets, textual analyzers, parsers, spelling and grammar checkers, salience analyzers, factor analyzers, best fit, statistics, critiques
Verifying: research tools, fact checkers

2. Verbs for Thinking Effectively and Associated Nouns

Observing: cameras, video, video cameras, games
Modeling and Using Models: three-dimensional printers, simulations, spreadsheets
Thinking Critically outliners, brainstorming tools, intuition
Thinking Logically: outliners
Comparing: comparison tools, artificial intelligence tools
Evaluating: logic tools, comparative shopping web sites, assessments tools, self-assessment tools, rubrics
Predicting: simulations, forecasting tools, scenarios
Reflecting: writing activities, after-action reviews, debriefing activities, wikis, blogs, Intuition
Calculating: calculators, cell phones, spreadsheets, programming tools
Experimenting: data collection tools, cameras, probes, virtual labs, simulations
Problem Solving: decision trees, scientific method, data analysis
Socratic Questioning: logic trees, question generators, artificial intelligence
Deciding (Frequent Decision Making): decision-making tools, games, question generators, comparison generators
Ethical Questioning: scenarios, case studies, videos

3. Verbs for Communicating and Presenting and Associated Nouns

Briefing: PowerPoint, Flash, multimedia, video, podcasts
Collaborating: collaboration tools, Google Docs, teleconferencing tools
Combining: mashups, video editing tools, multimedia creation tools
Connecting: social networking tools, genealogy tools, logic tools, cell phones
Cooperating: wikis, blogs, games, collaboration tools
Debating: research tools, online debating tools, blogs, YouTube, negotiating tools
Dialoging: e-mail, text messages, blogs, cell phones, wikis, YouTube
Finding Your Voice: design tools, computer-aided design (CAD) tools, cameras, video, critiques, e-mail
Listening: podcasts, video, Skype
Negotiating: negotiation tools, research tools, historical videos
Networking: Internet, social networking tools, cell phones
Sharing: Listservs, YouTube, special interest blogs, cell phones
Writing: outlining tools, script writing tools, dictionaries and thesauri, blogs, games

Practical Tip for Using Verbs and Nouns in Your Teaching

Discuss with your students the concept of verbs and nouns. Be sure they understand the difference and where to put their focus (i.e., on the verbs).
Begin each year or semester by having students take an inventory of all the nouns that are available for their use (including hardware, software, Internet) in the classroom and in labs. You or they should then post that list (say, on a wall chart) for easy reference, adding more tools to the list as they become available. You and they can then list and discuss the various verbs for which each of the tools is helpful.
As students partner to answer your guiding questions, they should choose tools from the list to use, depending on the verb they are doing. Ensure that over the course of the semester or year, all students get to try all the tools.