Last week I attended a conference sponsored by SFU’s Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy (CSELP). The topic: Targeting technology for maximum student benefit. Three educational leaders – Chris Kennedy, Brian Kuhn and Kris Magnusson - shared their ideas about how “learning empowered by technology” (a key driver of the BC Education Plan) can best be achieved. What technology should be given priority? How should limited funding be used?
They agreed that they wouldn’t even talk about what was obvious: the essential infrastructure of a robust network (so we can access the technology), technical support (so the technology works) and professional learning (so we know how to use the technology).
Many districts (certainly my own) are struggling to get this “obvious” piece in place. Part of the problem is related to what Kris Magnusson noted: “Our most pressing need is not a technology shift, but a culture shift.” We can’t see outside of how things have always been done. Consider this conference. We all sat crammed into a room craning our necks to see to the front of the room where the three speakers delivered their message and we diligently wrote notes – or felt very “21st century-ish” and tweeted our thoughts for all the world rather than just whispering them to our neighbours. (You can peruse these 140 character ruminations – all 850 of them. As a teacher, you would wonder, of course, were the students paying attention as they tweeted so prolifically?)
During the final panel discussion at the end of a long day of sitting and listening, we sat and listened to the three speakers have a conversation with each other, sparked by questions from moderator Bruce Beairsto. Chris Kennedy dropped a hard question into the discussion – how could we have done this day differently? Would it have been better if we had “flipped” the conference so that the presentations were pre-recorded and attendees could view them prior to attending, so we could use the face-to-face time to build on the ideas?
There was a pause in the panel discussion and a small buzz of conversation from the rather languid audience who had begun to catch up on emails. No, said, Kris Magnusson. People would have been too busy, too interrupted, if left on their own, to focus on the presentations. (Of course, this is a doubly important reason why flipped classrooms won’t work, but we continue to tout them as revolutionary. Read Ira Socol’s argument for rejecting the flip.) What’s more, someone said, perhaps Brian, the conversations wouldn’t work without some relationship and a context for working together. And then the panel changed directions.
I wish they’d continued on this point. The point, I think, is this: unless we can figure out how to learn differently, how can we frame different learning in classrooms? How can we use technology to transform education, if, as educational leaders, we can only imagine using it to do what we’ve always done? Part of our reluctance to reimagine professional development might be related to another point that Chris Kennedy made: many teachers become teachers (and professors become professors and especially speakers become speakers) because they like to be “on the stage,” and in control of the message. He suggested that if people knew ahead of time that they would merely be a “guide on the side,” they might not have become teachers at all. Here, of course, is the culture shift. What I learned from making this shift in my own teaching practice is that being a guide is often a little, well, boring. I became a fetcher, a finder, a sometimes facilitator, an observer, a noticer, a connector. My role became increasingly passive as the student’s role became increasingly active. As a professional development leader, I’m learning the same lesson – and it’s just as hard.
(And I’m just as slow at learning it.)
And so I thought further about how we could have done the day better. Consider this: we don’t travel at great expense (including the time expense) to meet in one place. Instead the event could be a live webcast. The twitter backchannel would allow us to have input and connect with other districts and, better, we could set up a moderated twitter chat at the end of each speech - a question generated from the talk could be posed for everyone to collect, gather and tweet our thoughts and add further questions. Then at our separate venues we could engage in meaningful focused contextualized conversations about what we heard to consider how we might use the information to grow our own plans. As it was, although we had a team of people attending, it was almost impossible to hear each other in the din of conversations between speakers, and our table included people from other districts and from SFU, so the conversation was necessarily general. It isn’t that it’s a bad thing to have this general discourse; it’s that we have to learn so much so quickly that the thrust of the day needed to be how we can use these ideas for our own forward movement. We needed, in a word, to personalize the experience. We have the technology to find creative ways to make this possible. All we have to do now is to understand that it is the right next step for learning together.
We live in exciting times. But if we are going to target technology for maximum student benefit, our first job will be to learn how to learn together in new ways. After a day listening to educational leaders (and I’m not complaining about the day, only pondering; it was thought-provoking and invited hard questions and open discussions rather than “the way” to “do” technology in schools), one thing, though, is crystal clear: there is a lot to learn.
Chris Kennedy’s slides and notes
Brian Kuhn’s slides
image from Marc Wathieu’s photostream