Breaking the Cycle

I often ponder why systemic change is so hard to make happen in education.  Systemic change (and by that I mean not just change from a handful of scattered individuals but an all-in buy-in to create change right across a school system) is never easy, but it seems to happen with far less resistance in fields outside of education.  Schools just seem extra hard to shift.

I’m pretty optimistic about the positive effects that technology can bring to education.  I really do believe that the school experience for both teachers and students can be made richer and more meaningful with the wise use of technology.  Not just technology for technology’s sake, but by making intelligent decisions about what and how our students learn and supporting that learning with appropriate technologies.  I’ve never seen technology as an add-on, or just another thing that teachers need to somehow squeeze into their day, but rather as a deeply embedded set of tools, methodologies and skillsets that students should acquire in order to help them deal with the ongoing process of learning. 

Students are, or at least should be, seen as “knowledge workers” in the truest sense of the term. They spend 13 years at school essentially learning, manipulating, constructing and deconstructing knowledge.  Their “job” as a student is to create information products, and that could mean anything from conducting research and writing essays, through to creating sophisticated information products like multimedia presentations, collaborative group projects and persuasive written work. Unlike students in the past, today’s students need to develop fluency in not just textual literacy, but also in the multiliteracies of new media, multimedia and social media. They need to develop the skills of taking information from multiple sources and turning it into usable knowledge.  In the process of doing this they need to learn important things like how to express ideas clearly, how to influence an audience, how to work in teams, how to learn on demand, how to communicate, and so on.  

In essence, none of this is all that new, and good teachers have always done these sorts of things with their students.  But pervasive digital technology has an important role to play in how it happens.  Take the research process for example. Asking students to research a topic is fundamental to what happens in most classrooms and most teachers have always included the requirement for research in the learning tasks they set. But digital technology opens up many new possibilities for how a student might tackle the research process.  Use of live streams, real-time information, geotagged data, RSS feeds, socialgraph feeds, even advanced Googling, may all just be new ways to perform the age-old process of research, but if a teacher lacks basic fluency in these new tools themselves then how on earth can they help their students develop those skills. In my experience, most teachers have very little idea about most of these things, but don’t take my word for it.  Do your own poll… pick a random group of 20 teachers and ask them what they know about these things.  I suspect the answer will be very few. 

It worries me that so many teachers seems so woefully ill-equipped to provide these understandings for their students, but they simply can’t provide what they don’t have.  I know a lot of wonderful, dedicated, well-meaning teachers who care deeply for their students, but the gap, technologically speaking, between what those students need and what their teachers are actually able to provide seems to be widening.

Before you flame me for making such a comment, can I make clear what I’m not saying.  I’m not saying that these people are bad teachers. But I do think that the landscape of learning has experienced some deep and fundamental shifts in the last few years that many teachers have yet to even acknowledge, let alone adapt to.

In some cases, success can be the enemy of change.  I once suggested to a very good teacher that there were a number of ways that technology could be used to enrich her lessons. Her reply was that every single one of her students achieved Band 6 results in the HSC (for those outside NSW, that’s about as good as you can get), so why should she change anything? Trying to convince this teacher that technology might make the learning more engaging, more interesting, more rewarding was falling on deaf ears.  By her standards the students were as successful as they could possibly be, so why mess with something that was obviously working? That’s a hard argument to win, and makes it very difficult to convince someone to change what they do.

The other thing that makes it incredibly difficult to create systemic change in education is the “revolving door” nature of school.  We all know what school looks like and how it works, because we all went to one.  So when someone decides to become a teacher, it’s usually right after spending 13 years in a school as a student, then spending 4 years at teachers college and then going right back into the same environment they just left a few years earlier.  Of course they know what school is like! They probably feel like they’ve never left it. Whatever they might learn in teachers college has to fight for attention against the 13 years of day-in and day-out seeing their own teachers model what it means to “be a teacher”.  Even their lecturers at teachers college often come from a similar experience.  It’s incredibly hard to break the cycle.  Education needs significant change and new approaches, but it’s damn difficult to make that change happen when the steady stream of new teachers are just recycled students who feel like they already know what they need to know in order to be a teacher. 

I’ve done a little bit of work with pre-service undergrad teachers, and to be honest I was quite shocked at their general level of apathy about the role that technology might play in their lives as future teachers.  Not all of them mind you… there have been some good ones, but the number who openly admit to disliking technology or not relating to technology or not being interested in technology just scares me. These people will be going into classrooms as teachers in the next few years, and instead of being the much-needed catalyst for systemic change, many of them will just fall into the same old establishment that they experienced themselves during their own school life. No wonder it’s so hard to make the shift happen! 

Let me finish with a story.  I was having lunch in a little café in Newtown a while back, and when the waitress came with the bill at the end of the meal I paid for it with my Teachers Credit Union credit card. When she looked at the card she remarked on it and asked me if I was a teacher.  I told her yes, and she asked what I taught. I told her that was a technology integrator, to which she asked “What’s that?”

I meet lots of people who have never heard of a technology integrator, so I replied with my standard answer.  “I go into classrooms and work with students and teachers to help them use technology in more meaningful ways.” 

“Really?” she said. “I’m in third year at teachers college, and I’ve never heard of anything like that. So do kids use computers in schools much?  Is technology, like, important?”

Third year teachers college. “Is technology, like, important?”  This woman could be teaching your child in the next few years.  OMG.

I’m sorry if I seem crotchety and snarky about this, but to me, this is just not good enough.  How on earth will we ever break this cycle? We keep getting technologically clueless teachers incubating the next generation of technologically clueless teachers, and so on.  We live in a world that is changing so rapidly, but the teaching profession seems to be stuck in some sort of endless Groundhog Day loop.

Image: ‘Magic Revolving Door

CC BY-SA 4.0 Breaking the Cycle by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

12 Replies to “Breaking the Cycle”

  1. I really liked Glenn McMahon’s Education Officer for the Sandhurst Catholic Education office
    suggestion that with all the Building Education Revolution (BER) money being spent we should have a Learning and Teaching revolution as well. Many schools have new buildings and infrastructure, so how can these conferences (or for Friday night – How did this conference) assist us to use them beyond the wrapping paper and box?
    See –

  2. Hi Chris,

    I agree with this comment – I too have noticed this with the little bit I have done at University with future teachers.

    “I’ve done a little bit of work with pre-service undergrad teachers, and to be honest I was quite shocked at their general level of apathy about the role that technology might play in their lives as future teachers.”

    It really was not prominent in their schooling. Also it just reflects it is more social for them rather than educational.

    BTW – I had written my last blog post before I read this 🙂

  3. Hi Chris,
    This post rings so true for many of us. I think there are quite few educators out there experiencing some frustration with just how slowly the education system has been in realising the potential of technology. Perhaps we have had an attitude of slowly, slowly for too long. If we were serious, as a system, there would be no ‘slowly’ about it. It would be an expectation.

  4. May I add one more factor that I know is at play and holds back quality teaching in the 21C?

    Our school Principals are not all comfortable with technology and as a consequence they do not understand what “is needed”, “what is available” nor “what is best practise”. As one principal told me: “I am not good at technology because I don’t need it”

    They then adopt the “softly, softly approach” not wanting to change the status quo.

    Teachers who are keen to adopt, integrate and embed new technologies then have to fight to have the resources approved to do so. “Isn’t one digital camera enough for the school?”

    We need our leaders to appreciate and value the embedding of learning technologies into our teaching and learning activities so that they support teachers through adequate provision of professional development opportunities to make the changes necessary for successful implementation.

  5. Chris,

    Interesting post and I have a few thoughts to put forward. Firstly, context. I came from an IT background and knowledge systems emerged from the IT industry and I can distinctly remember the shift from “Information” to “knowledge”. I have since re-trained to become a teacher (2005-2006) and presently working as a maths teacher and, with Martin, as an ICT integrator as well.

    1. The Knowledge era, extremely simplified, requires 3 main skills: questioning, (analysis and) synthesis and presentation. It is imperative that multiple perspectives are taken because most organisations have several departments who view and use (the same) data differently. I worked as a Systems Analyst/Designer and was part of creating strategic reporting and decision support systems. I was part of a team creating a Global Data Warehouse and tinkered with Data mining when these were emerging terms….that was years ago. It was fascinating. Anyway, I can only guess what it’s like out there now.

    2. I noticed that the Education industry (both pre-service and in-service) put a heavy emphasis on research-based practices. On the other hand, corporations shift based on theories – granted, these typically come from places like Harvard Business school or the innovative leader within. Innovation means breaking new ground – if you wait for someone else to prove that it works, you’re behind already. Besides, change based on someone else’s success is no guarantee that it will work in your own situation, your own school….too many variables: students, teachers, parents, school ethos and environment, etc. Oh, and innovation requires time including ‘play time’ (the what-ifs) which most educators do not have anyway.

    3. Technology in pre-service is not emphasised. Just like in schools, the pre-service curriculum is jam-packed with other ‘essentials’ like psychology, social impact, hidden curriculum, syllabus, programming and lesson planning, learning theories, etc. Technology is a tool that is used – so we used them, esp in distance ed.

    So then, in summary, I believe the reason it’s so hard to effect systemic change is because of cultural barriers within the industry. Cultural change is very hard to implement – way harder than Process Change (I also got involved in Business Process Re-engineering).

    I remember you commented before how those who’ve worked outside academia have a different teaching approach. I’d say part of it is that they would have observed/experienced the points mentioned above. They are perhaps more aware of what it’s like to operate outside the school walls.

    I’m an ICT integrator now and my first question is typically: Forget technology first, what do you want to achieve? Let me understand first how I can possibly help before diving in. Sadly, quite often, this collaborative effort does not happen in time to design the ideal ‘solution’.

    …pardon the late night rambling…

  6. Thanks for the comments… it’d good to hear that others have noticed the same thing (well, it’s not a good thing, but it’s nice to have my observations validated by others who have seen the same phenomenon)

    @Malyn, I SOOO relate to your last paragraph. I experience it constantly… the other day I got “Can you come to my Friday afternoon Period 6 class and teach my students how to use Photoshop for their assessment task?” They never bother to include me in the planning process, to help come up with tasks that use technology in relevant ways and then build in the necessary time to make it happen. Grrrr! It’s so often a last minute add-on that is ill-planned, ill-conceived and ill-prepared. The frustrating thing is that it doesn’t have to be like this… there IS time to put some thought into those tasks and to make them really good, but instead we rush it and come up with less than stellar tasks that do little except frustrate the kids, the teacher and me because they are trying to do too much, too quickly with too little.

    Keep up the late night ramblings… 😉


  7. Hi Chris,
    Until it’s mandatory (measurable?), unless there is an absolute expectation (effective policy) at all administrative levels that states learning and technology should be embedded into classroom practice not much changes.
    Teachers/lecturers who can, do, and the others stand still and travel backwards.
    I’d like to see a 1 to 1 laptop initiative for all teachers with access to high speed broadband. I have colleagues who do not own a personal computer, have no access to the internet outside of school and some who do but still use dial up. It’s hard to even find a common language to communicate/share with them. If you don’t have the language you cannot comprehend the message.
    It’s great to have supportive leadership and ready funds (I have it) but still it’s not been enough to shift the majority.
    Teachers need to make a personal commitment, both time and effort, and develop an understanding that school or ed., dept., based professional development will never meet all their learning needs. What’s most concerning is that this includes some of our early career teachers who show little interest in, or inclination to, embrace 21C learning practices. They have smartphones, hang out on Facebook, use IM etc., but see no educational value/connection in these activities.
    As long as teachers consider it the domain of the techie types or as on optional extra to the curriculum these conversations (amongst the converted) will continue.

  8. We just spent MILLIONS of dollars upgrading our infrastructure so that we’d now have high speed connections with seamless WiFi throughout the buildings. What a dream come true.

    Then the IT department put up so many firewalls and blocked just about everything useful. We DO have teachers (not all yet) who are excited to have the kids Glog instead of paste PPT printouts on a posterboard; who encourage participation in group project planning with thing like Webspriation, which can be accesses from home and school, and who consistently blog to keep parents in the loop.

    Then came the firewalls and even such a simple thing as our online keyboarding program (which is a paid subscription!!!) was blocked. Of course, with much outcry, things are a bit better, but the resulting funk from IT has been a policy of no, no, no. Even the high speed network is often slowed to a crawl.

    I can understand the frustration of teachers attempting to use tech in a meaningful way to have to spend half of a 40 minute period waiting for pages to load.

    Even our Moodle server now takes over 7 minutes to load, log in, and upload an assignment or even switch to a second page! It used to take mere seconds.

  9. I was speaking with a rehabilitation psychologist on Friday and her job is to help me finding full time employment again somewhere in the education system. Somewhere in the course of the conversation she got me onto the subject of how I use technology to enhance learning. I think the interview then went for about an hour longer than was intended.
    I too was hugely frustrated by having every second website I tried to use blocked by the system. It is very dis-empowering to have to wait for a “gatekeeper” somewhere to give you access to things you want to use.

  10. I’m a 3rd year Media Coms student and don’t know what to do with my life. But if people are REALLY that ignorant about the need for integrating technology into school, then maybe my calling is to help initiate that change, as someone who’s studied media.

    An interesting notion to ponder.

    It’d be funny if someone like me, with a media degree ended up being better qualified than a a grad student with a teaching degree.

  11. It’s events like this catered to high-school kids that make me insanely jealous I finished school earlier.

    I’d love to run a session at an event like that one day, though!

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