teachers know where they're going -- they're just afraid of what will happen when they get there

"The biggest barrier to tech integration is professional development. Simply giving teachers iPads won't change anything," I overhear someone saying in the Blogger's Cafe.

"I agree. But it has to be rooted in educational theory," a woman responds.

Another woman adds, "I think a lot of them are still not motivated. We need to sell the idea. It can't feel like another thing they're being forced to do."

I stay quiet, while I try to organize a workflow for students using multiple devices in my classroom next year. But the question of why tech integration hasn't taken off completely continues to distract me. We need better professional development. We need better stories of technology integration. We need coaches that work with teachers in small groups. We need differentiated training. We need teachers developing their own PLN's.

True.

But we also need permission.

We need permission to take risks and fail. We need permission to fall on our faces with technology before we see the benefits. We need spaces of shared autonomy where we try things out and we need spaces of vulnerability where we are allowed to admit that it didn't work.

I remember a few years back when I developed differentiated professional development. I assumed the teachers had low skills. I was wrong. Many of them picked up on the skills quickly. I assumed they had bad educational theory. Wrong again. Many of them knew what good practice looked like. I assumed they were simply unmotivated. Again, they were excited about it.

However, in my second round of training, only the social studies teachers volunteered to work on job-embedded, tech-integrated, project-based learning. I looked back at the survey questions and I began interviewing the teachers one-on-one.

The social studies teachers weren't afraid, because they had no quarterly benchmark tests. However, the math, science, reading and writing teachers were worried that a constructivist, differentiated approach wouldn't transfer to high scores on the standardized, multiple-choice tests.

I found the same trend to be true in coaching teachers last year. Teachers tended to pull back on project-based, authentic and tech-integrated learning as the test approached. It felt like jumping off a plane with no idea if the parachute had been packed correctly.

So, as I leave ISTE, I am struck by the reality of the context of my own district. We cannot value innovation without giving permission to fail. We cannot claim to support project-based learning if we define achievement and learning only in terms of multiple choice tests. If we want professional development to work, we have to tackle the four-letter f-word that's working so violently against innovation.

 photo credit: PhotoDu.de / CreativeDomainPhotography.com via photo pin cc

36 comments:

  1. Great post! Standardized testing and high stakes that are being tied to it keep teachers from trying new ideas, or even old ones.

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    1. Great point about old ones. Some of the best strategies are ones that we've lost.

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  2. Well written sympathetic post. You have identified the most significant barrier to innovation in public education. NCLB served the purpose of identifying gross inequities in the system. Now it is time to move on with that knowledge but without the all too frequent bubble tests.

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    1. If you look at the comment below, you see another negative trend: higher education sometimes paints a dysmal picture of K12 education, because they don't want to take the time to teach and they don't see any need to change pedagogy from how it's always been. As long as it is our job to prepare students for long lectures and boring textbooks, we'll always be lambasted for our failure to "prepare" them for a painful, irrelevant and out-of-touch educational environment.

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    2. Thanks, Jack. I think we need to look at the systemic injustice and deal with it from all the angles. I'm just not sure we have the social or political will.

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    3. Anonymous, I see your point. However, that type of tone won't go very far in getting higher education to adjust to a new pedagogy. What would it mean to build bridges instead?

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    4. I agree with Anonymous and also with you John. For a brief six months I lectured at a university in the Faculty of Education. There was little discussion of methodology, but the Faculty seemed better in tune with instructional strategies than the professors I experienced in my own undergraduate classes in Arts and Science. Thirty-years since then, and I wonder if anyone could speak to change.

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  3. Have many stopped to think the adoption might be slow because there is little evidence that tossing new types of computing devices and software packages into a classroom is effective at promoting learning? I've looked high and low and the research evidence is not there. FWIW, I love technology and use many different applications to get my content to my students - I'm not among the Luddites. But I've also taught almost 10,000 first year college students over the past 20 years at a state land grant university that gets the best students in my state and I see performance dropping, not improving. Students who engage with technology for learning only think they are using their time well but in most cases they are spending their time distracted (I know, I've measured it - if there are other attention grabbers on their machine, they go there.) For 5 years now I have begged and pleaded with textbook publishers to show me data that says reading on a screen is as effective as a book and they ignore me - which in the world of marketing (to a guy who buys a huge number of books every year) means they don't have any evidence or more likely, they have evidence of the opposite. I have found a couple studies that show that when all other sources of distraction are removed, reading comprehension decreases the smaller the screen size, and nothing beats a good hard copy text. Thems the facts.

    Ask those of us who teach college students in their first couple years - and those paying attention will tell you, our incoming COLLEGE students cannot read. That is the root of most of their problems, even in fields like math - students cannot follow along in a textbook and find how to solve problems. I'm as guilty as anyone - I provide them with videos so they are not forced to read and improve but I do this to get them through my course, not because I think it is best. I know textbooks are expensive so I provide a cheaper online e-version of the textbook even though I know now half my students do not purchase hard copy text and that hurts them. Mea culpa.

    This is a complicated problem where in most cases, the answers are not known. But I think that lack of evidence of learning is a valid reason for slow implementation of all things technology. Push for concrete answers.

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    1. You raise some valid points. However, I think the lack of reading is not simply an issue of alternate media. In fact, the trend from a print culture to a visual culture is more an issue of a cable television generation (that started thirty years ago) than one of social media and blogging. From my experience, most students who take the time to blog are also highly literate.

      I think the issue of reading is a little more complicated. The testing environment, both in the sheer amount of testing and in the reduction of reading to comprehension alone, have contributed to illiteracy. Schools haven't embraced SSR like they once did. It's an issue of nonverbal reading fluency along with a larger issue of a failure to push critical thinking.

      I do believe that technology can enhance learning. That's been my own experience as a teacher, at least. However, it requires wisdom to choose when to go tech-integrated and when to avoid the technology. It requires some tech tools that are less trendy (concept maps and spreadsheets, for example) and most importantly, it requires a shift back to SSR and critical thinking.

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  4. There's another reason.

    It's really, really hard.

    As soon as we own that, we actually might have a fighting chance at the other problems.

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  5. I second Mr. Fletcher's thoughts. For nearly 4 decades technology has been studied in schools and shown little impact on student learning. Why should I spend time, effort and money on something that doesn't help students learn?

    See: http://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/progress-or-regress-at-los-montanas-part-2/

    I would also add, as a teacher, I and many other teachers like content tests. I don't completely trust my own judgement about student learning. I like externally written and graded assessments about what my students are learning or are not learning.

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    1. I'm a fan of Larry Cuban's work. However, blanket statements that it "doesn't work" fails to recognize a few factors:

      1. There is research out there about specific tech-integrated strategies working. Full 1:1 rollout doesn't work. However, those cases are often examples of poor implementation.

      2. The data used to see "effectiveness" is almost always pencil-and-paper, drill-and-kill test data. So, it's not surprising that the data would have a bias toward a similar medium.

      I'm not sure who likes external tests. I don't. I've never met a teacher in a K12 environment that likes externally written and graded tests. The only people I've met who are like that have been university professors who don't seem to have a passion for the art of teaching. (This isn't to suggest that all university professors fit this description)

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    2. "I'm not sure who likes external tests. I don't. I've never met a teacher in a K12 environment that likes externally written and graded tests."


      You don't know a single teacher that likes/supports/believes in the AP or IB exams?

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    3. I know of teachers who like teaching those classes, yes, but not anyone who loves the tests. I've seen the opposite trend (especially with Physics and History teachers I've known) of teachers who love teaching the class but get frustrated by students who are only focussed on whether the content will be a part of the AP tests.

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    4. Like virtually all of us, I have experience with externally designed common assessments, and also with provincially scored tests. It is hard not to attend to the results. It is hard not to buy into the data. I admit to being attracted to the tests provided by textbooks and common district or provincial exams. They save work. Sometimes their design informs my own practice. Often, my own ongoing classroom assessment of learning validates the test results. Sometimes the test results contradict my assessment. I trust my intensive assessments far more than I trust the all too efficient, hour-long, common assessments. I must say I don't have enough time to create effective, differentiated assessments adapted to the needs of all my students for all learning in my room. Apparently, despite their vast resources, neither does the testing industry.

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    5. I love externally set and marked tests, as long as they are high quality (the relevant ones for me are). The years' worth of challenging questions in them provide stimulus for challenging and rich classroom material. My love of high-quality tests supports my passion for the art of teaching; it doesn't contradict it.

      Yes, students can sometimes have shallow motivations, but a bit of "passion for the art of teaching" can get around that.

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  6. I think.k that sometimes our profession becomes too lofty through jargon. When you throw out terms like "technology integration" and "educational theory" it just scares me from the get go.

    I currently run a paper less classroom and do quite a few projects that are tech centric. I don't want to talk with teachers about the educational theories behind my tech integration. I want to talk with teachers about what works in my class and what doesn't. Then about their classes. Then about what we're going to do the same or different.

    I want a kinder, simpler teaching world.

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    1. I hope my terminology got too jargony, Jeff. I think you're doing great things in your classroom. I wish I could come and visit it.

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  7. You make a valid point. I am just a student majoring in elementary education. We are already learning about how you have to teach by certain standards and that teachers are judged based on how their students score on standardized tests. I believe that you are right; teachers are afraid to fail. This has put a major kink in the tech integration. Teachers are too afraid to take risks. However, if they knew that it was alight if they didn't succeed at first, they would be more willing to try new ideas.

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    1. That fear of failure prevents not only tech integration, but also quality instruction. It's a dangerous factor that I rarely see spoken about within the ed reform circles.

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    2. Shouldn't teachers be risk adverse? Arn't the stakes too high to gamble with a kids future because YOU think something is cool, or interesting, or engaging or important or project-based? What if you try a collaborative, technology-integrated, project-based lesson that lasts a month, and it fails and the kids have not learned or grown at all in a whole month? Should we accept that failure? Should stakeholders: parents and taxpayers and even your colleagues let you gamble with their resources and their kids?

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    3. Matt, I think teachers should be balanced in risk-taking. Doctors operate on people and yet the community of doctors actively work toward innovative practices. It isn't simply a "go do whatever the hell you want" mentality. However, they create trials and engage in research. It isn't simply something they pawn off to higher education while they remain only practitioners.

      You make an assumption that a teacher is going to push things that have no research behind it. Yet, in the case of things that are tech-integrated, project-based and collaborative, there are some studies suggesting that those can increase learning.

      So, no, I'm not suggesting a "gamble." I'm suggesting that teachers, as professionals, try new things to see if they will work. Not all the time. Not every time. Not boldly forcing anarchy. However, the traditional textbook reading and lecture approach are strategies that continue to fail. We have to try other methods (especially other research-based methods) and we, as professionals, have a responsibility to be innovative and transparent.

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    4. I don't think he's talking about gambling. Gambling would involve trying a method that is almost guaranteed to fail and then hoping, by chance, that it works. I think John is talking about taking risks that we know will work but not necessarily transfer to test scores. There is ample evidence of constructivist methods. However, teachers are reluctant to use these.

      There is ample evidence of certain tech-integrated strategies. As a mother, teacher and tax-payer, I would be offended if I found out that teachers were continuing to do what they did thirty years ago. That would be far more unprofessional than taking a risk and documenting if it worked. Can you think of any other profession where the refusal to change is something society accepts? Can you think of any other profession where society has been duped into going back to the "good old days?" I'm trying to imagine engineers or doctors being asked to revert back to how the system worked forty or fifty years ago.

      No, we, as professionals, have to be innovative. Yes, we have to use what works, but we know the classroom context the best. It is our duty to use best practices and to build upon best practices to increase student learning.

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    5. "There is ample evidence of constructivist methods."

      See, this is not true. There is little to no evidence.

      http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

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    6. Two thoughts:
      First, I read that research and it wasn't an analysis of constructivism as a whole, but rather a question of whether "less guidance" always works. There was more nuance to this than it first appears. In addition, there are constructivist, tech-integrated researchers. Read up on D.H. Jonassen for some solid constructivist research.

      Second thought: I'm not held accountable to a politician or an administrator or to the tax-payers. I'm ultimately held accountable to the students who depend on me to master the standards. This is why ultimately, I will allow research to inform my approach to teaching. However, I will let the context, the relationships, the immediate environment around me, drive instruction.

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  8. I think I was clear but I'm so very pro-teacher, I want to make sure I'm clear. I'm for anything that works and I'm for anything a qualified teacher wants to try - so I'm supportive of John's main point. My only Debbie-Downer is that I want to be sure it's clear that it's still teaching by teachers that nurtures student learning, not simply a new technology. And I was making a call for evidence. I'm sensitive to this stuff because in my home state of Idaho, our Superintendent is pushing tech for what seems to be tech's sake. He is requiring every HS student to take at least two courses online before graduating and using teacher salary to buy every HS student his or her own laptop - all without teacher training or specification of what the machines will be used for or a dime for course development for the two online courses.

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    1. I agree. A tech-based classroom is almost more dangerous than a worksheet-based classroom in the fact that it not only pushes bad pedagogy but amusement and entertainment in the name of learning. Just to be clear: I think there are some real dangers in going tech-based without the right paradigm. I've read too much Neil Postman to convince me otherwise ;)

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    2. End of year is a good time to see students slipping off task. Computers indeed offer easy distractions from learning. "Math game" sites have too many streaming applications that look remarkably like Pong or Pacman. Amusement or entertainment will be served by every technology. Remember the Peanuts cartoon where Lucy confiscates all of baby Linus' toys. She offers him a rubber band and then becomes furious when he takes delight in it. Schools are full of textbooks, workbooks, and notebooks that have been illustrated, edited, or annotated by students seeking entertainment. Those damn pencils again John! It always comes down to authenticity and engagement.

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  9. You hinted at but missed the biggest barrier: lack of autonomy, particularly in large urban districts. The top down approach to decision making bleeds into every aspect of teaching and impacts how technology can be implemented. Remember though, that technology is just a tool and this tool is fascilitating a new way of teaching that isn't happening in top down systems.

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    1. Thanks for that reminder. I think you're right. The lack of autonomy is what creates that fear.

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  10. "We need permission to take risks and fail"

    Do that on your own family, thank you. As a medical doctor, would I have your permission to do that next time I treat your family?

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    1. Three Thoughts:

      1. The medical doctor analogy is a bad choice. We're talking about teaching linear equations not doing a heart transplant. Teaching is a creative endeavor and I would expect that failure would happen in anything where innovation is happening.

      2. Medicine involves risks and failure. It's part of clinical studies. I'm not advocating risks to the extent of reckless abandon. I'm referring to the chance to try things and see if they work. I'm advocating research.

      3. I'm tired of cowards hide behind a cloak of anonymity. It's getting old.

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    2. The medical doctor analogy is even worse than bad: it's completely false. The only reason we can have heart operations now is because brave doctors and patients took risks in the past. Many patients died, but gradually, more and more lived.

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