Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Technology, or ELSE!

I was present at a lecture given by Dr. Wilson Gum this week. Dr. Gum has worked as an industrial chemist for over forty years, including acting as R&D director for Dow Chemicals polyurethane division. At one point, Dr. Gum was sent to evaluate a recently acquired factory in the, then, recently independent country of Estonia. While touring the plant, which manufactured benzoic acid, he discovered that every piece of equipment was duplicated. The entire factory was like Noah’s Ark: two of everything. He asked why so much inefficiency was tolerated. The plant’s engineers told him that under communism efficiency for profit’s sake was never much of a motivator, but that engineers were regularly executed or sent to Siberian gulags when their processes failed, or when production broke down. A fear of technological failure, and its consequences, shaped the manner in which technology was both designed and employed in that environment.

Throughout this semester, I have wrestled with the dichotomy between theoretical assertions, backed with data, and educational practices. I have taken the time to ask my colleagues about educational technology, and to listen carefully when conversation drifted to that topic on its own. Teachers, it seems, are inherently pessimistic about technology; new technologies often have bugs, networks crash, the copier jams. In the end, most teachers view technology as magical or adversarial, or a combination of the two. The few teachers that possess any comfort or facility with technology are seen as exceptional by their peers.

Technology will fail. Teachers must strive to become experts in the technologies that are incorporated into their pedagogies, as they are to become expert in their content (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, 1999). Teachers are able to adapt to new students and new learning situations, but are often incapable of transferring their own skills both to and between technologies. Too often, technology is employed as a patina on top of more traditional pedagogical methods. Web quests are used for enrichment. Publishing programs are used as an alternative to nearly identical paper and pencil tasks. Teachers are rarely able to be flexible with technology, because their knowledge is that of a novice.

Teachers don’t have to worry about banishment if their technological attempts fail, but there are considerable pressures bearing on classroom decisions. Primarily among these pressures is that of time. If technology breaks down, or if a project is ineffective- time has been lost. Time is in short supply as teachers attempt to meet increasing standards of accountability and to cover prescribed content. Consequently, teachers will play it safe. They will use technology they can count on. They will design projects which can be easily converted into a less technology-reliant version. In short, teachers will design around education as long as it remains a mode of thinking in which they are not fluent. Teachers must become expert in the theory and use of technology in order to effectively bring research findings into the classroom.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Teachers as partners

If research of best practices for applying technology to learning states that teachers should be partners in innovative techniques (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999) my school district clearly does not consider such research when making decisions. As teachers, we are required to attend monthly technology sessions in which we are meant to receive training in practical application of technology to our classrooms. We have recently been asking our technology staff about firewalls prohibiting YouTube from being used on the district network. The firewalls have been up and down throughout the year, and we have been told, with finality, that both teachers and students will not be able to access YouTube for the foreseeable future.

While the pedagogical merits of YouTube may be debatable, the context in which this decision was made seems to be in stark contrast to the principle of teachers as partner s in innovation. We were told that the main concern our administrators had with YouTube was the likelihood of tying up bandwidth due to overuse. We were directed to use subscription-based video services which have been approved by the district. When asked how the bandwidth requirements of these subscription-based services differed from YouTube we were told that they did not, except that they have found use of these services to be less frequent.

The subscription services we have been directed to use contain severely outdated materials. The staff of professional educators in our district universally mock and revile these videos and simply do not use the service. When given the opportunity to use another resource our teachers have voted with their feet. By our technology department’s own admission use of YouTube is frequent throughout the district when it is available. Yet, the decision has been made restrict use of this popular site.

Administrators are challenged to make a number of decisions which they feel are best for their districts. They are restricted by finances and their overall vision of district priorities and goals. However, it seems to be the height of professional disrespect to have clear evidence that their faculty have preference for a particular resource and to then restrict its use. Increasingly, teachers are limited in their roles as partners and professionals with teaching expertise by top-down decision making which posits that teachers are either a) wrong b) uninformed or c) lacking the judgment to use such resources effectively and responsibly. If administrators are unwilling or unable to give their teachers a role in decision making their will never be a place for teachers as partners in innovative use of technology.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Teaching Teachers

Teachers are often resistant to incorporating theoretical practices in their classrooms. Training for teachers is often carried out antithetically to the pedagogy teachers are supposed to practice (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999). However, it is my contention that the greatest barrier to teachers accepting and implementing new pedagogies is the interplay between the need for immediate problem solving and the lack of time for reflection on current practices.

Typically, teachers are asked to do a lot in a day: grading, attendance, IEP monitoring, communicating with parents, counselors, and administrators, cleaning, watching the halls, administrative duties, planning, copying, mentoring, coaching, organizing field trips, administering standardized tests, and usually- teaching. Teachers must adopt time management strategies to keep from being overwhelmed. Strategies involve prioritizing problems, and often solving them “just in time.” Teacher survival strategies often result in myopia that prohibits the reflection and thoughtfulness necessary to absorb and implement new techniques.

During in-services, and even in some courses in degree programs, teachers may be seen grading or filling out paperwork; trying to stay abreast of the continuous tidal flow of requirements from day to day. Teachers do not want to hear about innovative practices. Teachers are decidedly uncurious about what is going on in academia or even in colleagues’ classrooms. If Maslow’s hierarchy of needs were applied to teachers, it would be apparent that most are mired in safety or psychological survival, at least in a professional sense.

In order to bridge the gap between theory and practice, new pedagogies must be made meaningful to teachers in an immediate sense. In the same manner that constructivist theory dictates that students develop personal ways of acquiring information based upon the fulfillment of their own needs, teachers should be presented with information on an as needed basis; or at least taught new pedagogies in application to specific students and classes. Teachers can work cooperatively during in-services, grouping themselves by department or clusters of students. Cooperating teaching groups can determine their own priorities and search for solutions in the academic literature, or find knowledgeable individuals to train them in useful applications of theory.

I have been at too many in-service trainings and workshops where speakers lecture to a room full of teachers who are bored, tuned-out, or hostile to the presentation. The needs of teachers must be of paramount importance in addressing effective teacher training. Unfortunately, political agendas and budget restrictions will always keep teachers from working in an ideal classroom. There will always be too many students, too much administrative work, and too many requirements of accountability to allow teachers the luxury of reflection and creative thought that appreciation of academic theory requires. Theoreticians must bring new pedagogies to teachers in a meaningful, immediately relevant form if new research-based practices are to implemented.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online: