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

11 Things that make a Difference

I did post a version of this about a year ago, but my mate Bryn Jones from Perth recently revamped the “10 Things that make a Difference” list.  He recently added an 11th thing, and it’s a pretty good list, so I thought I’d repost it here for your consideration.

So, for what it’s worth, here are 11 Things that seem to make a difference in helping teachers get up to speed with using ICT.

1. Emotional Support
If you look at how teachers are using technology in schools, it ought to be pretty clear that some really “click” with it and some don’t. In fact, if you look at statistics, about 75% are just doing it because they feel they have to, and about 16% are downright obstinate about not doing it. It’s incredibly threatening to these people if they feel they are being forced to adopt technologies and work practices they really don’t understand. I found it fascinating that the number one things that teachers need in order to integrate ICT is emotional support. Sometimes, they just need to know that other folk understand how they’re feeling and will “be there for them”.

For schools, this means they really need to ensure these teachers have support and backup to ease them into this new world. This is where mailing lists, online resources and personal learning networks can be so great – they can offer constant support and a place to turn. It’s important that schools set up internal structures to support their staff.

2. A Shared Pedagogical Understanding
Having some understanding of pedagogy – the science of teaching – is an incredibly important part of being a good teacher, and really has nothing to do with technology, not directly anyway. But when we start talking about integrating technology it’s crucial to do it from a pedagogical perspective. You may have heard the saying that technology in a classroom can be used to do old things in new ways. If that’s all you use it for, you’re missing the real benefit. Technology lets you do entirely new things. Things that could not be done previously. Bunging a whole lot of computers into a school and using them to do the same sorts of things you’ve always done is a bit like strapping a jet engine onto a horse and cart. At the end of the day, it’s still a horse and cart. Having a good understanding of pedagogy lets you make informed decisions about where technology works and where it doesn’t. And when an entire school staff has the same shared vision… that’s when magic happens!

3. A Constructivist Philosophy
Constructivism, in a nutshell, says that if you create the right learning environment then students will build (or construct) knowledge and learning for themselves. Constructivism takes the focus off “teaching” and places it on “learning”. It sometimes means teachers have to take their hands off the controls, let go a little, and realise that the best kind of learning happens when students work things out for themselves and not always when they get “taught”. You may have heard the phrase, “I taught them, but they just didn’t learn!”
Computers and communication technologies are amazing tools for moving the centre of power in a classroom over to the students, and this is a really hard thing for many teachers to get to grips with. As teachers, we are used to “controlling the class”, having “good discipline”, and calling the shots.
In many ways, constructivism turns all of that on its head. When you introduce technology into a classroom, you suddenly invite your students to learn at different rates, about different ideas, catering to different interests and abilities. These are good things, but it certainly changes the balance of power in the classroom.

If you understand something about Constructivism, you realise this can be a great thing, but if you don’t, it’s pretty scary. That’s why adding computers to schools without developing teachers’ ability to change the things they do simply doesn’t work.

4. At Least Four Computers per Classroom
(Or more generally – proximity of computers to learning areas) Not two. Not three. According to research, you need at least 4 computers in a learning area before you start to see a change in the way technology affects learning. This is probably more applicable to Primary classrooms than Secondary, but I found it an interesting statistic.

The bottom line is that unless you can get access to technology, it’s obviously not going to have an effect. It’s all about ubiquity of technology within a school – kids (and teachers) need to be able to get their hands on it if it’s going to have any impact.

5. Help to Access Appropriate Material
The keyword here is “help”. Sure, teachers need to be able to get their hands on the right resources. But if they don’t know how to do it for themselves, they’ll always need help. You can give them a fish, or you can teach them to fish. I know what I’d prefer.

6. Just-in-Time Technical and Skills Support
Related to Point 1, this is not just about emotional support but real, hands-on support. Having someone to turn to when you need ideas and answers. Having someone to actually come and give you a hand, show you what to do, tell you what button you need to press, whatever it takes to give you what you need.

7. Reliable Infrastructure
If you want to kill off whatever enthusiasm exists in your school for using ICT, just rev up a teacher with grand stories of what technology can do in their lessons, about how it can enthuse the kids and lead to whole new paradigms of education, and send them into a classroom where the Internet connection drops out at the crucial moment. Or the mice don’t work.  Or the machines freeze regularly. Guarantee they won’t back to try again in a hurry.

Schools really have to ensure that everything works, all the time. Not most of the time; all of the time. Everywhere, for everyone. Until you have that, it’s an awful hard slog to build excitement about the joys of technology.

8. Access to Professional Development, but not necessarily participating in it
It’s the last bit of that which intrigues me. Research found that if you want teachers to get on the technology bandwagon they had to have access to PD, which makes sense. But they don’t want to be forced to participate in it. Sort of like a safety net. I know when we run PD for teachers, they like to be able to focus on the things they need, and not get bogged down in the things they don’t need. Break PD into a smorgasbord of pick-and-choose modules, so people can pick the bits they need, and feel empowered by the bits they already know.

9. Links to School from Home
If you can think of a better way to do this other than through the use of the Internet and ICT, let us know. It’s all part of the move to gain anyplace, anytime learning. Why should the school day stop at 3:30? (well, maybe for teachers that’s a good thing, but why for kids?) The school and the home, and in fact the whole community, why shouldn’t there be a blurring of the boundaries between these. There isn’t much point working with ICT on projects at school if you can’t continue with them from home.

10. Leadership
You must have known this one was coming eventually. Putting ICT to work in a school requires leadership and vision. It takes someone to stand out the front and say “We’re going this way! Follow me!” Without that shared vision, it always comes down to a couple of keen individuals who push the technology barrow, but for a systematic change to sweep through a school it takes leadership. Lots of it.

11. Flexible Learning Spaces
Since this article was written a few years ago, Flexible Learning Spaces has emerged as another critical factor. Are there areas for large groups, small groups, noisy groups, quiet groups? Can students find somewhere to rehearse presentations, make films? Can a large piece of work such as a claymation or time lapse photography project or science experiment be left in place over several periods without disturbance.

So, what do you think…  does this list of factors (which were originally shared way back in 2002) still hold up five years later?  Has anything really changed?  What else, if anything, are the other factors that make a difference to teachers with regard to ICT

Enough Excuses

UK blogger Terry Freedman wrote a great post on the TechLearning blog called “Oh Sir, you are too kind“. He actually wrote it a while ago now (Sept 07) but I only just stumbled across it… I guess that’s one of the great things about blogs, the way they can capture someone’s thoughts at a particular point in time and make them available to anyone, even people who stumble across them much later.

Terry’s basic premise is to ask why we keep putting up with teachers who can’t or won’t get to grips with ICT in their teaching. He seems to think that it’s time to tell teachers that ICT is an important component of being a teacher and that if you can’t, won’t or don’t get yourself up to speed with technology and how it should be used to integrate with student learning then it may be time to find another job. And he suggests that we are being way too nice about accepting this sort of thing, and allowing the laggards to get away with it.

He’s absolutely right of course. The laggards ARE still lagging, and schools don’t seem to be willing to draw the line in the sand and start demanding some ROI on the millions of dollars they’ve spent in professional development over the years. Terry says we are too nice. OK Terry, here goes…

For many years now I have been in the position of someone who works with teachers to assist them learn about, and then embed, technology into their teaching. Some get excited about the possibilities it offers, and some have actually told me that they have no intention of doing anything about it. Some say that they are too old, some say they are close enough to retirement that they aren’t going to worry about it, and most tell me that are just too busy with all the other stuff they need to do. It ticks me off to hear the excuses that teachers come up with about why they can’t integrate technology into their teaching… “I don’t have enough time, I’m so busy” is the commonest one.

Poppycock. We all have 24 hours in a day. We’re all busy, we all have too much to do and not enough time to do it… so how come some people are able to learn and apply what they need to learn and apply, and others cannot? If we all have the same amount of time in our day, then it’s clearly NOT a matter of finding time, no matter how much people use that as an excuse. Are they suggesting that the people who do learn this stuff have more time on their hands? Do I not have enough things to do, so I’ll just get good at using technology in all my spare time? If they don’t want to learn what they ought to know, then just come out and say so, but don’t insult me with the “I don’t have time” excuse, because trust me, I don’t have time either.

Is it intelligence? Maybe some people are just too stupid to use a computer. Maybe some people really are incapable of learning this stuff? Aptitude has something to do with I’m sure, but that only explains why some people might pick technology skills up quicker than others… it doesn’t explain why some don’t seem to be able to pick it up at all. Especially when you see the basic, basic stuff that seems to confuse some people… I mean jeez, how hard is it to make a frickin’ folder and save something in it? Trained monkeys could do that. If people are too stupid to learn basic, low level operational skills, then maybe they are too stupid to teach.

But we all know that time and intelligence have nothing to do with it. There is only one factor in this that really matters, and that’s the motivation to learn these things. After 30 years of the personal computer being in our schools, ongoing opportunities for professional learning, and the continual development of better, simpler and more intuitive technologies, there are no valid excuses that teachers could possibly dream up to justify why they could not or should not be actively embedding information and communication technologies into their classrooms. We manage to do all the other stuff that teaching entails – write reports, do playground duty, turn up to class on time – but for some reason when it comes to adopting the use of ICTs in our work too many people still feel they have the right to treat that as optional. It’s not. It’s part of the job of being a 21st century educator. You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.

I think Terry’s right… it’s time for those teachers who have not accepted ICTs to shit or get off the pot. I’m tired of accepting excuses. Technology is, and will continue to be, an absolutely integral part of the lives our students will lead. The work we are doing in our classrooms to prepare them for this future must contain a significant amount of access to, and understanding of, this technology or we are failing them as teachers. To be a technologically illiterate teacher in the 21st century is unacceptable, unethical and unprofessional. To hold students back from using the tools that they need to be literate for the 21st century is, quite frankly, immoral.

Seriously, if becoming technologically literate is too hard, or you don’t think it’s “your cup of tea”, then get out now. Quit. Let someone else take over and do the incredibly important work of educating our young people using the tools they deserve.

Thanks for getting me fired up Terry.

Image: ‘Car Problems

A Letter to Teachers about Learning

I’m running a course for our school staff at the moment called 23 Things. I borrowed the idea from the very successful 23 Things program run by the San Jose library, but have adapted it slightly for our particular school situation.

Essentially, the teachers work their way through 23 separate tasks, some as simple as reading a blog post or watching an online video tutorial, while some are a little more complicated such as setting up their own blog, feedreader and delicious accounts. The course runs over 9 weeks in total, and each week they are asked to do 3 or 4 “Things” – 23 in total – that will expose them to a wide range of Web 2.0 tools and ideas by the time it’s over.

I’m running the course internally using our school Moodle, and have set it up in such a way that people must sign up for the course and work their way through it a week at a time.  I thought it sounded like a good idea, and  so did they it seems… 14 teachers signed up for the course very soon after I announced it.

For all the palaver that teachers carry on with to students about the importance of time management, committment, and handing work in on time, it amazes me just how “flexible” a group of teachers expects a course to be. So far I’ve had one official drop-out, and really only 3 or 4 people who appear to be doing much at all. If this was their students that were taking such a relaxed approach to a course of study, I wonder if they would be quite so flexible and understanding.

I can’t write a note home to their parents, so instead I wrote a note to them… here’s what it said.

Some folk feel a little awkward or intimidated when they feel they don’t know how to do something… doing a course like this must feel a bit strange because you’re getting asked to do things that you have no idea how to do.

Let me remind you of something… the reason you are in this course (one can only surmise) is that you DON’T know how to do these things, but that you’d like to learn. So it’s ok not to know how to do them, or to not understand them. Applaud yourself for taking the plunge and signing up for 23 Things in an attempt to learn more about these things you don’t know.

Now, here’s a secret… if you have the Internet, you can learn to do almost anything. Try going to and in the search box, type the thing you want to learn how to do… so, if you want to know how to set up Google Reader, go to YouTube and type “set up google reader“… you’ll find a bunch of tutorials to show you how. If you want to know how to make a Caesar salad, try typing in “how to make caesar salad” and viola! Dinner is almost served!

One of the unavoidable facts of life in the 21st Century is that Information is Abundant. If simple facts and data is what you need, or you want instructions on how to do something, then there is no shortage of information about it. In a previous age, school was predicated on the notion that Information is Scarce. Thanks to the Internet and tools like Google it no longer is, and this has changed the very nature of education. One of our greatest challenges in education nowadays is to deal with this idea that Information is no longer scarce… our students can (potentially) know as much (or more) than us about a particular topic. It doesn’t matter how much we know, there will always be more we don’t know.

For this reason we have to be continual learners, and we have to learn how to find answers to things that we don’t yet know. If this course was delivered face to face, I’d be able to explain and show you a lot of this stuff… but it’s not. And so you need to figure some things out for yourself and motivate yourself to find answers to problems that crop up.

By all means, I will help you if you get stuck and need a hand. But sometimes working it out for yourself can be the best thing you can do for yourself.

I have no idea whether it will make a difference or not, but I felt better after writing it.