Things I Know 353 of 365: It isn’t all for everyone

A successful tool is one that was used to do something undreamt of by its author.

– Stephen C. Johnson

My stepdad was explaining at lunch today why Facebook just wasn’t how he connected to people. I understood.

“What about Twitter?” he asked. “I haven’t looked at that.”

Knowing him as I do, I told him to stay away. “It wouldn’t be useful to you.”

I get the feeling this is was unexpected piece of advice coming from me.

It took less than a semester for people at Harvard to come to expect my nerdiness.

Even at SLA, a school that breathes technology, I was one of the nerdiest.

Here’s the thing to remember, I like technology. I will totally geek out on the newest gizmo, gadget or app. Being a beta tester is a source of pride for me.

When thinking about systems and considering a task to be completed, however, one of the last things I’d advocate is technology for its own sake. Out of context or usefulness, there are few things I can think the use of which I’d advocate for their own sake.

This is because the misuse or thoughtless application of tools, structures, and systems can be an ugly, counter-productive thing.

I’ve seen it in the teacher with access to 1:1 laptops who makes the worksheet using Word and distributes it for her students to type in their answers and then print them out to be submitted.

I’ve heard it in the arguments of those who call for changes in schooling so that students can, as a result of those changes, do better at school.

While I think most every teacher could benefit from jacking in to the network of educators on Twitter, I don’t think every teacher should. Requiring every teacher in a school to sign up for this account or that account is a great way to insure you’ll never have 100% participation in that market.

The best way to make a tool useful is to wait for the use of that tool and build the capacity to recognize when it is called for.

Had I encouraged my stepdad to sign up for twitter, I would have been giving the world another person complaining about twitter’s uselessness.

That’s not my bag.

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Things I Know 137 of 365: Conversations are excellent professional development

Change that eminates from teachers lasts until they find a better way.

– Roland Barthes

Continuing to tie up the year during SLA’s weekly professional development meetings, it was my Professional Learning Community’s turn to present what we learned during our independent study in the first semester.

My very small learning community consisted of Mark, a math teacher, and me. That’s it. Just two of us.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t love learning with Mark in the first semester.

What began as a plan to find new tools and writings to bring to each meeting shifted into something more directly applicable – conversation.

Each time we met, Mark and I shared what we were doing in our classes and brainstormed ways in which technology could transform students’ learning into something more engaging, authentic and differentiated.

As Mark admitted, I’ve a bit more proficiency with tech and learning. Often, our conversations consisted of me learning about the math concepts he was teaching his students and then throwing out whatever ideas came to mind.

Because I realized math is Mark’s domain of understanding and had no qualms admitting my deficiencies in its instruction, I didn’t hold back my ideas, nor did I take offense when Mark dismissed an idea as impractical.

Had I paired up with another humanities teacher, my ideas might not have flowed so freely, and any negation might not have been so freely accepted.

When it came time to plan our presentation to the entire faculty, we experienced a moment of pseudo-panic. Had we been collecting and cataloging tools and articles throughout the semester as we planned, we would have been set. Read this, now try this, now plan a sample lesson, now share, now critique in small groups. It’s the unsweetened cereal of professional development.

When it came time for today’s presentation, we decided to share not only what we learned about the tools, but what we learned about process as well.

For us, learning had been social, collegial and immediate.

In the first five minutes, we gave an overview of our process.

Next, I asked each faculty member to think about where they would rate their comfort with technology in learning on a scale of 1-10.

“Now, use your fingers to show your number. Without talking, line up from highest to lowest.”

They did.

From their, we broke the line in half. The highest end of each half was paired with the highest end of the other half and they were broken into couples.

Then, down to business.

Laptops in tow, the lower numbers in each pair explained what they’re doing in their classrooms through the end of the year. The higher numbers listened, asked questions and then started brainstorming ideas on how tech could be better leveraged to help with learning.

Mark and I milled about the room.

At each table I stopped, a conversation similar to the conversations Mark and I had throughout the first semester was taking place.

After a few minutes, we paused, asked people to share what was going well and then gave a few more minute either to continue on their topics of discussion or to let those who had been brainstorming share what was going on in their classrooms.

For the finish, I asked the group what they noticed about the past 25 minutes that stood out to them:

  • People were working cross-disciplinarily. With one or two exceptions, each couple was made up of teachers from different disciplines.
  • People were talking one-on-one about their practice.
  • People were talking about things that could immediately affect classroom practice rather than living in the hypothetical.

We also talked about what could be done to continue this kind of conversation and collaboration. The thing that stuck the most was the idea of moving outside people’s normal routine to seek out the feedback of our peers.

That’s the key of it. In a structured, focused way, we asked people to move outside the routine of talking to those in their disciplines or the routine of curriculum design and have a one-on-one conversation about improving how they teach.

That should be the routine.

Things I Know 132: With tech, teachers fear the unknowable

Growth means change and change involves risk, stepping from the known to the unknown.

– George Shinn

It takes quite a bit to get me visibly frustrated. I like to joke that teaching G8 for 4 years prepared me for any frustration that might come my way.

In some ways, it’ not a joke.

Deep in the throes of adolescence, eighth graders’ brains are in a constant state of flux. As such, so were my lesson plans. Outside of the classroom, I needed a score card to follow the ever-shifting line-up of friendships in the social melee that was the cafetorium.

Teaching G8 honed my interpersonal skills like nothing else. Understanding and shifting to meet the needs of my students meant I was able to do the same for most adult problems that came my way.

I’m not unflappable, but most flats are pretty securely tied down.

Until moments like yesterday.

All I wanted was to watch a movie on Netflix. For whatever reason, the Wii was not cooperating.

We reset the router, reset the modem, reset the Wii’s Internet settings, reset anything that could be reset – nada.

With no information but the icon that relays signal strength on the Wii connection screen, there was little I could do to diagnose the problem, let alone solve it.

I decided the combination of the television being on a different floor than the router combined with the thunderstorm that was rolling through must have caused the problem. I needed to believe that was correct.

I shifted my attention to the upstairs, Internet-enabled television.

Located in a part of the house that was an addition, it’s never gotten great wifi reception.

Frustration mounting, I unplugged the TV and moved it to the living room coffee table.

There, I tried over and over again to find a strong enough signal.

While I could establish a connection, nothing was strong enough to support streaming.

Thirty minutes after the process began, the decision was made to crowd around my laptop and watch the show.

I was bested by the machine.

The fact that I couldn’t get it to work was less a frustration than not knowing the why.

“This should be work,” I kept repeating aloud with varying degrees of anger in my voice.

It wasn’t, and I had no idea why.

With eighth graders, when something didn’t work, I could change my approach, gather more information and attempt to solve the problem in a new way. In even a refusal to share information, there was information to be gathered. I could adjust my tactics to fit the changing needs of my students.

Yesterday, the tech was tougher than an eighth grader.

No matter my approach, the outcome was invariably the same – across two different machines. No level of cajoling would solve the situation.

We like to think it’s change that scares resistant teachers from embedding technology into their classroom practice. We credit fear of the unknown as the greatest barrier.

I don’t think that’s it.

It’s not fear of the unknown, it’s fear of the unknowable.

With their students, teachers can question, assess and converse to solve nearly any problem. With technology, there comes a point where teachers’ ability to problem solve runs up against the wall between what they can know about how it works and what they cannot know.

This is akin to knowing from the display screen there’s a paper jam somewhere in the copy machine, but having no way of navigating to that particular innard of the beast to remove it.

I was upset yesterday because I couldn’t know why what I wanted to do wouldn’t work. With kids, that very rarely happens.

I don’t teach in the 17th century

I don’t teach in the 17th century.

More pointedly, I don’t teach in a 17th century school. I never have.

About a week ago, this quotation from Don Tapscott got tweeted out from a webinar he was doing with Discovery Education Network:

We have the very best schools that 17th century tech can deliver.

Granted, I’m not aware of the context of the quotation.

But, that’s twitter – providing context-free snippets since 2007.

I’d really appreciate it if Tapscott would not say things like this. If he said more, I’d really appreciate it if other people didn’t push out pieces of thoughts.

It’s not that I don’t see the value in making generalizations about all members of a group. When has that ever gone wrong?

Science Leadership Academy is well beyond 17th-century tech.

Phoenix Academy, my previous school, was well beyond 17th-century tech.

Sarasota Middle School, my very first school, was well beyond 17th-century tech.

The counterargument is simple:

These three schools do not represent the norm.

I can’t agree with that. I’ve seen many schools across the country creating amazing content owned by learners.

Look at the work Karl is doing at Arapahoe High School is doing.

Look at the thinking Bud is doing at St. Vrain Valley School District is doing.

Look at the creating Ben is doing.

Look at the connecting Monika is doing.

Look at the pushing Dan is doing.

Look at the teaching Diana is doing.

So long as we continue to say our schools are failing, we’ll never notice success. The statement of failure is generally wrapped around the metric of standardized test scores. While they provide a snapshot of ability, I think we’re all on board the train of thought that recognizes they don’t provide a complete understanding of learners’ understandings and abilities.

Stop asking what’s wrong. Start asking what’s right.

My follow-up question is this. How much tech does it take to push a school into the post-modern age?

Don’t worry about answering, I’ve done some figuring. The official answer:

Three netbooks, one digital projector and a class set of T1-83s.

Aside from avoiding generalizations, we should, perhaps, start to move our thinking to the globalized approach folks have been hoping their kids would adopt.

It might give some perspective.

Schools without electricity in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa are operating without any tech to speak of because the ups and downs of a generator would likely damage any equipment in which they invested.

Schools on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya have graveyards of second-hand monitors donated by well-meaning businesses. The monitors don’t work, and the schools can’t afford to have them properly disposed of.

When Tapscott makes this assertion, and again, I don’t have context, and others re-tweet, perhaps a little humility and perspective are in order.

We’re on the way to building amazing temples of ideas across the world. The teachers mentioned above and countless others I’ve met are working to make learning what it can be. More to the point, they’re meeting with tremendous success.

They’re doing it without racing anywhere.

Those schools without electricity in South Africa, they’re about to harness the power of mobile technologies.

Those schools with the monitor graveyard in Kenya, turns out you only need a handful of working computers to connect to the world.

I’m not certain I’m teaching to the full extent of what 21st-century tech can deliver – 2099 is a fair piece away – but I’m doing alright. So are a lot of others – today.