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