Yesterday, I began a series of blog posts about the responsibility that comes along with the use of powerful technology tools in school. We cannot hand students the keys to the Internet without some discussion of the ethics and responsibilities of driving on the Superhighway.
But students aren’t the only ones in this discussion that have responsibilities. Teachers also must understand their role in the process—and I’m not just talking about their responsibility to teach responsibility to their students. Teachers have three main areas of responsibility of their own when using instructional tools in the classroom.
Learn the Tools
Long before a teacher can possibly use a tool to teach, she must first be a student. This has been true as long as there have been technological advances in education. When chalkboards were first introduced to schools, teachers responded much like they do now to modern tech tools.
The importance of the black board as an instrument of instruction…has been insisted on in every periodical on education which I have seen.… In many of our common schools, however, it has been but barely introduced. The teacher knows almost as little how to use it as his pupils. (Alcott, 1843, p. 170)
This is not true with more recent technology. Unlike the chalkboard, today’s teachers did not grow up in a culture where computers and the Internet were an integral part of daily life and school. Thus, we need to first become learners and understand the technology ourselves. This may mean taking workshops and seminars (more on this in my next post), reading books and articles, or just jumping in and fiddling, but it will not happen on its own, and it will not happen by osmosis.
I read a blog post yesterday which gives a great explanation of the importance of this mindset, and which also leads right into the next responsibility:
Use the Tools
Many times teachers attempt to leap directly from a basic familiarity with a new tool into using it in instruction. I’m certainly guilty of this myself, particularly if the tool is one that intrigues me and is full of possibilities. In my experience, though, this usually leads quickly to either miserable failure or at best a superficial layer awkwardly tacked on to existing instruction.
There is a crucial step missing: teachers must first use the tool themselves for their own learning, professional or otherwise. Until you integrate something this deep and powerful into your own learning process on some level, you can’t comprehend how a student will interact with it. This is not a new idea, but it is one that does not yet pervade the profession, and until it does, new technology will be thought of as a fad or an add-on—or worse, a substitute for “real” instruction.
We have to continue to remind ourselves that these are not new subjects to be taught, they are simply new tools. Would you trust a flying instructor who could pass a written test about piloting but had never flown an airplane? Why, then, do we think we can teach students about blogging if we aren’t bloggers ourselves?
Design Quality Learning Experiences
This is (and should be) the hardest part of teaching, and one which consumes the largest amount of energy and time. If done well, it will be like the Parthenon: the structure you and your students build together will hold up for a very long time. If done poorly, it will be more like a movie set: it looks great from one side, but has little substance and less endurance.
Yesterday I discussed the students’ responsibilities in using technology and the importance of teaching them. Many objections to technology use revolve around keeping the students from “fooling around” during class. Let them blog, and they might write about something inappropriate. Let them have cell phones and they might text the test answers to each other. Let them use a wiki and they might get outside help on their assignment. (All of this happened before there was technology, of course, but let’s just give the argument the benefit of the doubt for the moment.)
I suspect that beneath these objections is fear: fear of losing control of the classroom and fear that the lost control will reveal inadequate and ineffective teaching methods that are more easily hidden in a teacher-centered, traditional structure.
Thus, the problem isn’t the technology, it’s the teacher. Know the limitations and pitfalls inherent in the tools and plan for them. If they might get outside help because they can access the wiki any time, then build that into the assignment. Encourage it, even. Make it essential to the task. That’s more realistic anyway. Of course creating assignments like that is more complicated. It takes thought, energy, and time. But truthfully, it is thought energy and time that we should be putting into our instruction even if it does not involve new tools.
To paraphrase Haim Ginott, we must collectively recognize the frightening conclusion that we are the decisive element in our classrooms, and the responsibility is ours to see that the climate and the learning environment allow our students to thrive.
Barnard, H. (1839).First annual report of the Secretary of the Board. Connecticut Common School Journal, 1, 155–176.
Alcott, W. A. (1843). Slate and black board exercises. New York: Mark H. Newman.
I think that the most common reasons for teachers to give up on technology integration are those that you mentioned. I have seen teachers jump on the “blog bandwagon” without thinking through the purpose and expectations of using these tools, only to have problems & give up.
Teachers need the paradigm shift that it isn’t about the technology. It’s about the learning, and the technology is the vehicle for the learning. It takes time and effort to build deep understandings about technology tools and their potential. The effort is worthwhile, but cannot be skipped over lightly.
The problem in most schools is not technology, but the fact of compulsary student education. Students are in school that don’t want to be there. The Ford assembly line has been set up in schools. Kids are not machines that parts can just be added to. The United States is all about freedom — let the school bells ring with only freedom.
Thanks for your comment Ray. Firstly, I wasn’t suggesting that technology itself is a problem, more how teachers respond to it. There are certainly other issues affecting curriculum decisions and classroom management decisions that need to be addressed too. I have to disagree with you, though, about school being like an assembly line. Schools and teachers are working hard to develop curricula and methods that are centered on the needs of the children first, rather than plugging all kids into a one-size-fits-all program. Have we met that goal? Certainly not, but that does not mean there has been no progress at all.
I’m not sure I understand how you see compulsory education as causing our problems in education. What alternative do you propose? Only send students to school who wish to be there? How do you suggest society deal with other children who do not want to be in school? I do think there are some students for whom the traditional model of education doesn’t work, but I don’t think that means we must abandon education for them. I think it means we need to adapt the system to work better for them. I’d be interested in your thoughts, though, about how this could work differently.
I am just starting a new position this fall as a middle school gifted specialist and I have a ton of planning to do. Your thoughts in this post on how we need to use the tools ourselves before trying them in the classroom is very insightful. I am going to use Diigo this year with my students and I use it mainly for bookmarking purposes. However, there is much more to Diigo than simply bookmarking and I plan to utilize some of those other features with my students…so further investigation on my part is definitely in order before the school year starts…Great Post! It is cool to remember that at one point…Chalk boards were newfangled.
I am glad I found your blog…I will diigo it right now…and it made me realize how much work my own blog needs…
@Jeff — Welcome to gifted education: at once a joy and a challenge! There is no way we can fully appreciate the value of the tool until it has value for us personally. Once we “get it,” then we can teach with it.
@Pam — We can’t think of ourselves as “old”. As long as I’m alive, anyway, I’m going to continue to learn. Here’s another angle on it (which also has implications for the way we teach): if the new tool or technology has no impact on our own lives, if it is irrelevant to us, then we won’t put any effort into learning it. The challenge for teachers, and something that people outside the profession often don’t get, is when we must teach something that has had no impact on our own lives. We then have a choice: plod our way through, following someone else’s plan, or find (and if all else fails, create) a connection so that we can teach it well.
In my career I have fallen in love with topics and subjects I disliked in school, and most of the time it is because I’ve been required to teach it. There was no way I could get through a unit on a fake smile. I had to really care about it and find some way to really make it mine. Then the passion and joy of teaching can come through to my students.
Thanks for sharing this article. it does hit home. I plead guilty to wanting to use something that I am not very competent with using. The blackboard comparison holds true for other “gadgets” such as a calculator and the computer for word processing and email. I definitely agree that it is more difficult to learn all of the new technology. So much is coming so quickly!!
This is a thinking article. It is truly not just about the technology but the challenge to get us “old folks” rethinking teaching to reach today’s youth.