How many hundreds of thousands of dollars hang from the walls of our day schools in the form of interactive “smart” boards? I half-jokingly say that 15-20% of our classrooms have smart boards, another 25-30% have extremely expensive overhead projectors (because if the only person interacting with the white board is the teacher, then it is, effectively, an overhead projector) and in the rest of our classrooms we have that damn thing that’s blocking the chalkboard.
We are not alone. School all across the country, and probably even the world, have expended millions upon millions of dollars on this particular piece of equipment. All for the purpose of improving our students’ learning.
We are not seeing the results.
We’ve known there is a problem for quite a while. And in the best tradition of Monday morning quarterbacking, we realize now that equipment by itself is not the answer. If we do not nurture buy in from those charged with using the technology (teachers and students), and we do not appropriately and adequately train them, not only in the use of the technology but also in the rationale of why we think this will improve learning, then we are doomed to failure.
And we have failed. For the most part. There are teachers and schools who have integrated smart board technology better than others. I wonder, though, if they can attribute any improvement in student learning to the use of this technology, or perhaps to the improved abilities of the teachers as a side benefit of the technology training.
And so we arrive at our current state. Schools are now ramping up expenditures on state of the art 3D printers, Glowforges (nearly $30 million worth sold in the last 30 days according to the company website), iPads and Chromebooks. Maker spaces are being carved out and outfitted with varied equipment. There is excited talk about project based learning and inquiry based learning (less of the latter than the former).
We are upending our educational model with the goal of creating 21st century learning environments, to teach those vital 21st century skills that our students will need to find jobs that do not yet exist.
We know the elevator pitch. This goal is commendable. It fact it is crucial. This is the direction we must head.
But doing so means upending everything many teachers and administrators, and even parents and students, believe about what education is and how it is accomplished. It is no longer just the transmission of information. It is critical thinking. That is something that can not be taught in a 40- minute lesson. Even if it is perfectly constructed in the Madeline Hunter Model of Mastery Learning.
And I am only talking about the teachers who actually have training in pedagogy (the methods of teaching) and in the science of how people learn. How many of our teachers only have a vague intuitive notion of these crucial skills and knowledge?
And now we are again spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, in the aggregate it will probably be tens of millions of dollars, on shiny bling. To what end, if we do not first face, head on, the new education paradigm?
The re-teaching, or in many cases initial teaching, of educators in how learning works in our modern world is not a one-off professional development conversation in the pre-school opening faculty gatherings. The task will require years of learning, carefully planned, with pre-identified measureable goals and formative and summative assessments along the way. Sounds like the way we preach at parents. I mean, to parents. No, I mean, the way we patiently explain to parents using words they can understand, and not hide behind jargon.
We have to work with our teachers so that they learn and come to understand how people learn. And that people learn differently. Even teachers. And once our teachers know how people learn, we can then work on how we can help them best learn. Only after that, should we start looking for technology that can help us help our students to learn more efficiently.
I am not arguing for stopping all spending on technology. That is folly. There are many needed skills that can be taught using technology. But we have to first ask what we are hoping to accomplish with our acquisitions. What are the goals of the purchase? How will we define success? How will we measure for it? What will we do if we do not find success? How can we monitor our progress so that we can replicate it if it works, or avoid it if it doesn’t? How do we assess how teachers are integrating technology into their own learning, a necessary indicator if we hope that they will pass that skill along to their students?
The goals do not have to be as lofty as the complete overhaul of education as we know it. It can be as straightforward as teaching students how to use apps on a tablet, certainly an important skill. Though it is one that nearly every two year old has already mastered. The key is to identify the goals. And build from there.
Our task is already complex enough. Let’s not get blinded by the new shiny toys.