Monday, March 19, 2018

Have Educators Outgrown Ed Tech?

Amy Mayer, founder friEdTechnology
Have Educators Outgrown Ed Tech? 

by Amy Mayer

Several years ago, I heard a prominent superintendent of a large Texas school district say, “Our teachers know how to use classroom technology now, so we don’t really need Instructional Technology anymore.” This wasn’t spoken as a jest; he really believed it, and no one contradicted him.  (The instructional technology staff of this same district has grown several fold since then.) Last week, I heard the same sentiment reiterated by a retired educator. This time, I swiftly corrected the speaker, but both of these apparently educated statements left me wondering where this profoundly mistaken idea is coming from and noticing signs that it is a common perception among administrative professionals in the education field.

Along with this mistaken perception lies another profoundly wrong belief that teacher “training” is a bad word. This idea is best friends with the belief that not already knowing exactly how to do something after you’ve been exposed to the idea that it needs to be done means that either there is something wrong with you or you’re just not trying.

For example, your district brings in a keynote speaker whose main point is that the world is changing much faster than the education system. The common practices teachers have been using for a hundred years based on the factory model are woefully out of date. We can’t hold onto the past, educators! It’s our duty to move forward with the times. The educational staff of the school district all hears this message, and it’s definitely got the ring of truth. There’s a swell of belief that he’s  right and we’ve got to do something, STAT! This hour long, rousing keynote speech is followed by a day of professional development where teachers are funneled into classroom groups of 35 where they’ll sit and take notes, usually on paper, perhaps participating peripherally for an hour at a time, after which they’ll move to another session and do the same. Some of them will wonder, “Is this an example of the change my district is looking for? And if not this, then what is?”

The message of change is reiterated any time large groups assemble. Meanwhile school begins, the
schedule is the same, the resources are identical to last year (or less), teachers have access to an extra cart of devices this year, but there is still nowhere near enough technology to go around. The paper budget has been slashed since the perception is the more devices we purchase, the less paper we should need. “Stop doing worksheets!” educators are told, but most still wonder, “With unreliable and scarce access to devices, a declining paper budget, and one outdated and dilapidated textbook per 5 students, what is it, exactly, you’d like us to have students doing?”

This isn’t an uncommon question to ask, and it shows how much more work we have to do in constructivist learning strategies. However, the point of this article is to address the technology aspect of the larger issue. I, and the education professionals with whom I work, actually teach educators how to do things on the computer with their students to promote learning. The “things” we teach many of the central office and campus level administrators think teachers already know how to do. When administrators call us to schedule professional development for their teaching staff, we often hear these phrases . . .

“Don’t waste time going over ‘basics’ or doing anything step by step because my teachers are really sharp.”

After ten years providing PD, what I hear instead is . . .

“Personally, I don’t need anyone to teach me the basics and I’m out of touch with what the average teacher actually knows how to put into action in his or her classroom, and my staff is probably not going to feel comfortable asking questions because I’ve indicated I think they already know things they don’t actually know.”

This sounds harsh, and truth be told, I’m a little nervous to publish this. But now that I’ve visited literally hundreds of schools and worked with thousands of educators, it’s time to be honest about this looming problem that I see every day.

YES administrators, you’re right. There are a scant handful of teachers in every group at every school I’ve ever been to who really get instructional technology. They have found a way to get access for their students, most likely by borrowing technology from their peers who are uncomfortable using it themselves, and they’ve taught themselves, sometimes to an amazing and creative degree, how to effectively use technology in their own classrooms.

Strangely, this handful of tech-loving professionals is blinding districts to the growing need for professional development and training. We all want to look at pockets of success and think, “there, we fixed it!” but that is just a lie we tell ourselves when the real problem is so big we don’t know even know where to start, and readers, it is so big, none of us really knows what to do about it, at least not with the resources we have to expend. As we continue purchasing more and more devices, the access problem is barely touched. Like a black hole, it sucks in resources in a never-ending cycle. Devices age out, we get more students, things are broken and misplaced, we can’t use those because there are no power cords to charge them, and Mrs. Jones is hogging the computer lab again.

One to one programs also make us think we’re solving the Instructional Technology problem. When administrators go into classrooms and see students working away on devices, there’s another opportunity to think, “there, we fixed it!” but not so fast. If we observe more closely, we will almost certainly see a similar ratio as before where a handful of classrooms are doing meaningful work that takes advantage of the capabilities of the devices we’ve purchased. Unfortunately, even though every student has access to a device, every student does NOT have access to a teacher who really understands how to take advantage of that device as a tool for learning. What we see instead are the same worksheet-type assignments we tried to ban the xeroxing of happening in a paperless format. (Dear readers: you do not need to tell me that worksheets have a place in education or that banning all of any practice is nonsense; I agree with you, but stick with me on the point . . .). If we look critically and objectively, it will become clear that in the vast majority of classrooms, what students are doing could have more cheaply been accomplished with a pen, a piece of paper, and a textbook.

It sounds like I’m arguing against 1:1 programs or buying technology; that is far from the case. If your school has embarked on the 1:1 journey, I wholeheartedly believe you’re on the path to improving education in your school or district. You cannot integrate technology unless you increase access, and that’s what you’ve managed to do. My message is instead that your mission is far from complete when you pass out that last mobile device; in fact, it’s just beginning.

A few administrators reach out to us before they get to the point in our story we have reached, but most do not. Most of the time, schools are on their second massive technology implementation before they reach out for help in the field of Technology Professional Development. Sometimes a school board member has questioned what’s really improved or why test scores haven’t gone up as was anticipated. (To keep it short, the reason your test scores didn’t improve is because standardized tests are better at measuring poverty than anything else, so unless the affluence of your student population changed, your test scores probably didn’t change either, but that’s a different article.)

This time, administrators think, we’re going to get this right and provide a little professional development for our teachers. And this statement is not written without a great deal of thought.  Firstly, “a little” is all most teachers ever get. When we work with a district to provide professional development, we usually see less than 5% of the staff, sometimes for less than one hour. The rest of the work is supposed to be done through other undefined methods. Many times there is no extra time or money associated with this anticipated dissemination of knowledge and skill, therefore it largely doesn’t happen.

Secondly, we almost always work exclusively with teachers. Teachers are extremely important, arguably the most important people for us to see to make an impact in the classroom; however, the administrators, some of whom have planned these sessions for teachers, have almost no knowledge of how to support teachers who have been asked to make massive shifts in every area of their profession. It is not infrequent for teachers to ask us, “Have you told our principals and APs this because they evaluate us, and I’m afraid they don’t really understand what this is supposed to look like.”

Unless I offer some solutions, this long article will be nothing more than a rant, but there are solutions and we are at a point in our evolution toward technology-rich environments in schools when it’s time to start enacting them and stop expecting change without the hard work and expense that always accompanies major improvements.

Suggestions for Education Administrators:

  1. Stop telling yourself that everyone knows what only a few unusual people actually know. As tempting as it is to cling to this assumption, I assure you, it’s not the truth. In the hundreds of schools we’ve worked with, there have never been a majority of teachers who were experts at instructional technology. The average teacher knows you want her to do things in a more “modern” or “advanced” way but has NO IDEA what that actually means or even how to get started. 
  2. Stop thinking teachers know things they don’t know about how to use software or hardware. To find out what people actually know, observe their work or ask extremely specific questions. For example, don’t ask, “On a scale of 1 to 5 how proficient are you with Google Docs?” (Those who are highly proficient know how much they DON’T know and those who are deficient think might they are experts.) Instead ask questions like, “What are the steps to share a Google Doc with your class?”
  3. Stop devaluing "training". Training is where the rubber meets the road. We can talk about change and get fired up to do it, but without practical information and examples we interact with in a hands-on environment, the change we’re enamored of will never, ever actually happen. Use every professional development opportunity to show teachers through your example what you expect to see in the classrooms in your school or district. 
  4. Start modeling instructional use of technology, and make sure it’s exactly what you want to see in classrooms. If your faculty meeting is meant to teach teachers something, why not use the strategies so that teachers can see them in action. If you don’t feel you personally have the expertise to pull this off, find your pioneer teachers and ask for their help. 
  5. Stop buying technology without planning attached professional development. If your device costs $300, spend a percentage of that cost on accompanying PD. For example, if you are purchasing a cart of 30 Chromebooks for $300 each, that’s $9000. For 17% of that cost, you can spend $1500 on one day of professional development for 35 teachers. That breaks down to about $42.00 per person for a day of quality, targeted PD and/or training that teachers will need to make those devices more than worksheet generators, encyclopedias or worse. 
  6. Stop expecting teachers who have been to professional development themselves to be
    responsible for the development of their peers in addition to their full-time teaching positions.
    This practice often alienates their peers and burns them out as well as sorely underestimating and misunderstanding the skill set of a quality adult technology professional development provider who has spent thousands of hours learning how to effectively help teachers learn to integrate technology as well as likely having earned a specialized degree in the subject.  To continue this practice would be like us saying to the sophomore English teacher with five years of experience, “You’ve been watching your Principal at work in the hallways and cafeterias for years, surely you’re ready for the job. Get started!”
  7. Stop assuming that when you see students using technology they are doing something special, educational, or important. It’s easy enough to sit down in a classroom with a group of students and ask them what they’re learning and why and how they are using technology to do it and then to ask yourself, “could this same assignment have been done without this device?” That doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a worthy assignment or that an improper tool is being used, after all, the computer is the pencil and paper of our era, but it also doesn’t mean you’ve achieved technology integration nirvana and meaningful educational change. 
I’m aware that the opinions expressed in this piece may not be popular, but I know my fellow educational professionals well enough to know that their desire to truly enact meaningful improvement will easily supersede their need to be right. We are a profession of integrity, and it’s one of the reasons our public education system is so worthy of improving and protecting. Thank you in advance for your thoughtful comments. 



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