17 September 2011

Neither Here Nor There

In my last post, I asked you to think about the purpose of technology in the classroom. Maybe it is not necessary to get students to 21C skills---like critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration. (Heresy, I know...) So, if technology isn't for all the reasons we give school boards, voters, and teachers...what's it for?

Looking back to my start as a beginning teacher (21 years ago...), I would describe myself as eager, but not great in the classroom. That is, I really wanted to do a good job---I was very enthusiastic about working with kids and sharing my love of science---but I was inexperienced (only had 1 pre-service teaching semester) and ill-prepared (very little of my coursework applied to teaching in a high-poverty junior high). I don't remember having students with IEPs, but I'm sure they were in my classes---how could they not be? And yet, I'm sure I didn't pay them much attention. Ditto for ELL students, who spent most of the class time being pulled out. I won't claim that for the first year or two that I did much in the way of encouraging critical thinking in students. Sure, we did lots of labs and activities, but I lacked the skill to help kids pull the deeper meaning from these learning experiences.

What saved me from a career as That Teacher was just a drive to do better. I sought out NSTA conferences and moved into more specialized graduate studies. Technology? Not an option at school. I think there might have been 10 computers in the whole place (school had 1600 8th and 9th graders)---all of them for administrators, counselors, and secretaries. The computers were for student records, not productivity or creation. But to say that my students never engaged in any creative output for their learning or flexed their critical thinking muscles would be a lie. I still have some of their products. I won't claim that I asked them to dig deep into content every day or that I reached every single kid---but I can say that it is possible to provide high-quality learning experiences for students without using technology.

However, I can say with certainty that not every kid had access to the content at a level that they needed or in ways that best supported their learning needs. And to me, this is the role that technology can have in the classroom. This is what tech can do better than I can. I don't have to rely on a single set of instructional materials and media. I can find content that connects a student's learning needs with the standards. If a student needs to access the lesson from home or just needs to see/hear things again, that can happen. Students who need resources in languages other than English or delivered in ways that account for learning disabilities can have them. Sure, the output can be varied, too, but I won't claim that you need the technology to write, draw, collaborate, communicate, or produce. I can get content to students in a diversity of ways. But that's all. I can't make them learn it. And I am still the teacher---I am responsible for instruction, for using assessment data wisely, and for building relationships with students. I think I would have been a much better teacher at the beginning of my career if I could have focused on those things and not had to spend so much energy just tracking down content.

As for the second question I asked, I would have to rely on more qualitative measures. Observations of students and (informal) interviews with them along the journey to check for learning. Sure, it's great if they come to school more often or do better on summative assessments. But if the role of technology is to support the journey, then I need to see evidence along the way. I need to be able to connect the fact that an English Language Learner used a YouTube video that explained a concept in their native language with what they are able to show me in a lab or how they add to a discussion or help another student.

I realize this isn't a very sexy answer. I know some of you believe there is something more to what technology (and only technology) can do. It's not my goal to deprogram the fervent believers, but I do want to start restructuring the conversation.

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