From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal
|Vol 13|No 1|September|2003|
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While our fundamental calling as teachers is the development of student capacities, we are mobbed by groups wishing to impose alien agendas, digital fantasies and marketing schemes on institutions that are already severely stressed.
Sticking to Our Knitting - In Search of Excellence, 2003?
In the early 1980s, a business book was all the rage in school leadership circles. In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters identified traits that set successful companies apart from the mediocre. This book arrived at about the same time as a sweeping indictment of American schools - "A Nation at Risk." Two decades ago, we were warned about educational disarmament.
A prime strategy advocated by Peters was "Stick to your knitting!" He reported that excellent companies were careful to avoid trendy distractions and were very good at focus. They knew what they did best, and they concentrated their efforts on improving performance. They were careful not to wander off task or dilute their performance. Our culture is filled with similar folk warnings. We are told to "Keep our eye on the ball!"
Within a few years, several of Peters' excellent companies folded. People's Express - a low fare airline - made a big splash but could not endure. Perhaps they did not stick to their knitting or maybe they stopped practicing some of Peters' other suggestions?
Peters' advice still seems apt for schools today, but outside pressures for change often make it difficult to focus our energies in ways that lead to lasting improvements. Many of those who concoct these change efforts have little notion of the tough, deep work required to turn around the performance of a single school, its teachers and its students.
Some schools that have already made startling improvements and have succeeded with disadvantaged students are suddenly being labelled as failures by the arbitrary and senseless provisions of NCLB. The law applies the failure label if subgroups do not improve their performance.
Then, as weak students transfer to supposedly effective schools, they will bring down their scores. Success can breed failure under such a bizarre system.
Florida leads the nation in showing the folly of such measures.
States impose technology imperatives on schools via student technology standards, technology competency standards for teachers and technology tests for students. Districts must demonstrate that they are loading all teachers onto the technology bandwagon.
National educational organizations pile on the pressure with documents and products all pushing technologies upon teachers like some kind of religion. Their publications - jammed with ads - help vendors roll out "The Next Big Thing" in technology.
And yet we have no credible evidence that all of this technology sound and fury signifies anything worthy. The United Kingdom has conducted a huge study that failed to establish any convincing connections between ICT investments and student scores on national curriculum examinations. Note FNO, May 2003, "Focus on the Locus." http://fno.org/may03/focus.html.
The summary page makes some weak claims . . .
But a review of the actual data shows that most of this and other claims in the summary are based on the thinnest of correlations and very small margins.
We are pushed by many organizations and institutions to infuse technology throughout the curriculum without having first established a very convincing case for its value.
No Technology for the Sake of Technology
It is time that schools stick to their knitting and stop doing technology for the sake of technology. It is time for state leaders and politicians to back down from the pressure to "do technology." Schools and teachers should be using new technologies only when they serve the primary mission of schools - teaching students to think, solve problems, make smart decisions, read with understanding, interpret information and communicate effectively.
We should stop measuring technology progress by the number of computers per classroom or the ratio of students to computers. We should stop assessing the quality of our technology usage by counting the number of teachers employing the tools or the number of classroom hours devoted to such activities. (Note the model suggested in the June issue of FNO, "Assessing the Maine Laptop Program" at http://fno.org/jun03/maine.html.)
We should be looking at whether we are deepening and enriching student capacities. Counting is primarily an indication of market penetration, but the presence of equipment says nothing in itself about the quality or depth of student learning.
Putting Curriculum and Pedagogy First
Instead of putting the technology cart ahead of the program horse, we should start by asking which student capacities deserve our attention. We then seek best practices to develop those capacities. First comes pedagogy, then the choice of tools. We select those tools most likely to work, whether the technology be paper, questioning, handheld device or laptop.
Example #1 - Writing
Perhaps the school has already been using computers for student writing but has been waiting until the final draft is completed before allowing students to touch a keyboard. The school has successfully integrated technology into classroom life but has done so in a trivial, inconsequential manner that is unlikely to improve student writing performance. Here we have a perfect example of technology as diversion. Too little too late.
Fortunately, the principal and a planning team do a search for effective writing strategies and they begin to read of work by those who have devoted a lifetime to changing student performance in this domain. They collect the most promising strategies from a dozen thinkers (see Resources below) and combine them into a new school approach to improve writing by students. They apply professional development money to a weekend retreat designed to equip all teachers with the skills for teaching "Writing as Process," and they plan several more weekends to show them how to apply the "Six Traits" approach (see 6+1 TraitTM Writing) as well as mind-mapping with a computer program (Inspiration).
The group comes up with lesson plans that combine these approaches to writing with the use of computers. All teachers are given the message that these strategies must be applied to paper and pencil writing as well as laptop writing as long as the state still uses paper and pencil assessments.
Here we have an example of technology use that follows logically from sound curriculum thinking. In fact, paper and pencil has been a prized technology combination for decades - a technology that most state departments of education have been unable to relinquish at assessment time for a number of reasons such as cost and practicality.
Many professional writers who have fully embraced writing on computers will confess that paper still plays an important role in their creative efforts, whether it be Post-It Notes, napkins or matchbook covers. Smart technology use concentrates on utility rather than mere fashion.
Example #2 - Reasoning
They look at the open response questions and document-based interpretation questions on the state social studies test and identify which are causing the most frustration and failure. Then they do a review of best practices much like the writing review mentioned earlier.
"From Trivial Pursuit to Essential Questions and Standards-Based Learning" at http://www.fno.org/feb01/pl.html
Once they have collected and synthesized the best strategies, they conduct the required professional development sessions and create model lessons.
The school had been using networked computers for students to conduct research, but few of the teachers were asking students to think about the information. Their ditto sheets were filled with trivial pursuit questions such as the population or products of a country. Students were engaged in scavenger hunts. They were filling in the blanks. Lots of Internet research. No thinking required. Technology integration for inconsequential purposes. Technology as diversion.
The school outlaws topical research and mere scavenger hunts, emphasizes essential questions and requires that all students make answers rather than find them. Technologies are used to support thinking.
No More Technology as Diversion
Schools have serious work to do. Smart leaders will recognize the folly of technology as diversion and will concentrate resources where they will do the most good. They will use those technologies that make practical sense and they will support staff in learning how to use them most profitably.
"Writing the Right Way." FNO, June, 2003. http://fno.org//jun03/writing.html
The "Corporate Head" installation is part of the "Poet's Walk" public art display at Ernst & Young Plaza (formerly Citicorp Plaza), located at 725 So. Figueroa in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles. "Corporate Head" is a collaboration between Terry Allen (artist) and Philip Levine (poet), Corporate Head. bronze, 1990.
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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .
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