Jun 2, 2008

Look at me! Im tech savvy!

I'm often asked to speak, write, participate in webcasts, and serve on panels discussing education and technology, and enjoy the opportunity to share some of the things we are thinking about here at Saugus. Having done so on many occasions over the past year, I find myself struck not by the value of the discussions, but by the consistency of the responses. For it seems that no matter how much we speak of change in education through technology, no matter what is said, no matter what is offered, or who leaves inspired, the foundation is rarely shaken. Most often the light of new ideas is bent through the lenses of personal perspective and bad habits, which results in technology decisions based on personal appeal, a sense of safety, or worse, a desire to be part of the "in" crowd, rather than utility, value, and potential.

I was reminded of this today when I happened upon David Jakes excellent post, "The Tragedy of the Commons", and read the comments of many who would disagree. I'm certainly late to the "cocktail party" on this one - it was posted more than a month ago. But, while I would never suggest that discussion isn't valuable, the thing about the discussion that stood out to me was the undercurrent of those in opposition.

To understand where I'm coming from on this one, you have to first understand that David committed the cardinal sin in all of technology - he dared to criticize Twitter and, to a greater extent, those who use it obsessively. Mind you, the post wasn't actually about Twitter, but was a commentary on the loss of thoughtful reflection and consideration demonstrably evident in our modern, fast-food, sound-bite driven culture, and the mentality that is naturally attracted to it.

I feel David's pain, for I too have dared to suggest technologies that are near and dear to some educators' hearts may not be doing much good, may not be making a significant difference, or may be more costly than they are valuable. The visceral responses of those who have found these suggestions to be a personal affront only reveal the (unrealized) truths of their view: that to them passion is more important than practicality and that they define themselves by the technologies they are passionate about. Is Twitter the best tool for sharing weblinks (as was suggested by one commenter) - of course not! Diigo or Del.icio.us are far superior, and can aggregate them in a post directly to a blog, which offers those other than "followers" a chance to get in on the discussion, perhaps even after some - get this - thoughtful reflection. One said "(Twitter is) an invaluable resource for me when used to share new ideas and resources." With who? A couple of buddies for a moment in time who think just like you? Where's the long term impact of that? And if one follows any more than a handful of "Twitterers", the amount of content streaming by can be amazing. Who has time to parse all of that for one nugget of valuable information in a sea of babbling?

It occurs to me that, as suggested above, we have a tendency to gravitate towards that which is easy and cool, and spend our time trying to build our identity around the technology so that we can say, "Look at me! I'm tech savvy. Follow my lead.", without any consideration for the value of the thing. We don't invest in learning something that might actually make a difference in our learning environment, rather we spend our time patting each other on the back for how insightful we are.

The real "tragedy" is that we forget to ask the right questions. "What's to be gained through the use of this resource?" is too easy to justify. "What are the costs?" and "is there a better way?" are much harder to answer. Or how about this one, "what is the educational value of this resource to my students?" As David has suggested, we seem to be a bit too caught up in what everyone else is doing at this very moment, competing for attention, and forgetting to focus on the real reason we are where we are.


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  1. History will confirm that people are great problem solvers, short-term problem solvers. Most of us (especially in education) have to solve an extraordinary number of problems each day. They're right in front of our face and if we're to see past them, we need to solve them quickly and check them off our to-do list. The problem is that we often don't consider the implications of our solution, and sometimes we just can't. Automobiles, hydroelectric power- these were viewed as marvelous inventions that would solve the problems of their day. To some extent, they did. But now we're stuck dealing with problems that those solutions created. Educators aren't any different. We're trying to solve problems and with the rapid invention of new technologies we've got all these great new tools to solve them with. We're grabbing stuff from a toolbox and applying them with a "let's see how this works" attitude. It's like throwing a saw at a nail and seeing what happens. Those of us in the classroom need time to reflect on our choices and to strategically choose our approach. However, we don't have this time. Our planning time is insufficient for just checking papers, let alone planning best practice lessons. Most of us (the educators) rely 80% or more on our curriculum adoptions. I don't know why we want educators to be so well-educated in methodology if we're just going to force dependency on someone else's pedagogy by not giving us any time to develop a better approach. I've been trying to implement much more project-based learning in my classroom over the years. Technology is a help in this, but the path is a slow one. Most of my innovation comes after my family goes to sleep and I stay up late working for free. What I do ends up being what you're talking about above- a lot of using the wrong tools at the wrong time. My intentions are good, though. I would say I have passion. That's a word you used to describe those that are defenders of Twitter. I am familiar with Twitter, but I haven't yet incorporated any of it in my classroom. The thing is, there are lots of people doing research- they reflect; conduct experiments and observations; write essays and books; give talks, etc. They think they know what we should be doing in our classrooms. I've read quite a few of the books and I agree with what the "experts" are saying. I just need the time to retool my curriculum using the best practice ideas presented in books like Understanding by Design, by Wiggins and McTighe (1998). It's been about 10 years since that book was printed and we're still just at the tip of the iceberg. Although Jakes is frusted (heck, I'm frustrated) with how slow we're moving to an optimum model for today's classroom, I don't think it's because of people with passion. If we're held back by anything in education, it's our lack of time for reflection and strategic planning and by our lack of people who DO, actually, possess passion. Boat anchors, for example are very dispassionate, but they can really slow down a boatload of passionate people. I agree with you that what we're doing isn't necessarily what works best. I agree that we shouldn't be so quick to marry ourselves to any one solution that might not be the best (or might cause more problems in the future). I'm all for pragmatism. But until someone gives me the time to reflect on my practice in a way that is methodical and at least quasi-scientific, I have to confess that you might walk into my classroom to see me using an educational flamethrower to light the candles of my students' interests when really all I needed was a simple match.

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