From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 12|No 11|Summer|2003
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Stories of Adult Learning

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

This article first appeared as a chapter in Jamie McKenzie's book, Just in Time Technology: Doing Better with Fewer (2002, FNO Press). It was also published as an article in the December 2002 issue of Multimedia Schools.

Without first investing heavily in adult learning and program development to set the stage for frequent and effective use of new technologies, it is foolish to jump ahead to the installation of networked computers throughout a school.

This article outlines the characteristics of standards-based, worthy uses of new technologies. It then describes the characteristics of an effective district change process - one that engages all teachers in an inviting and generative adult learning journey. The key term is “generative” - meaning that behaviors and daily practice will be changed for the better as a consequence of professional development experiences. Such change does not result from simple software training. The adult learning must be curriculum rich and clearly focused on enhancing student performance.

I. Toolishness . . .

In the past few years, schools have spent fortunes wiring classrooms in the hope that such investments would transform learning and produce gains in student performance. As this article goes to press, there is little credible evidence to justify such expectations. Some have come to realize that "Toolishness is foolishness." Toolishness is an obsession with tools, toys and technology for their own sakes -

Sadly, much of the "digital revolution" urged on schools has proceeded without noting the research describing how teachers learn challenging new strategies (Joyce, 1990; Leiberman, 1995, 1999). Those intent on wiring schools usually ignored the literature outlining the kinds of organizational development required to make successful changes in schools (Fullan, 1991; Lieberman, 1995, 1999). In most cases, they even ignored warnings from the world of business about "late adopters" (Moore, 1991) and "the total cost of ownership" (Van Dam, 1999).

Trouble begins when folks put carts before horses.

Wisely, it seems, many teachers resist PowerPointlessness - a term coined by one Australian educator - the flashy, glib use of technology for technology's sake. According to Becker (1999), traditional teachers (more than 60% of his survey) seek classroom activities that will help students perform well on increasingly demanding state tests and curriculum standards. He reports that traditional teachers are three times less likely than their constructivist colleagues to let students use computers even when they have five PCs in their rooms.

Data reported in Education Week’s Technology Counts ’99 showed that teachers were not making powerful, curriculum rich use of their networks. They also found that most teachers reported that they were not well prepared to use new technologies.

"And a new Education Week survey has found that the typical teacher still mostly dabbles in digital content, using it as an optional ingredient to the meat and potatoes of instruction." (Trotter, 1999)

Unfortunately, most districts have provided very little professional development, with Market Data Retrieval reporting in 1999 (p. 122) that sixty one per cent of American teachers received 0-5 hours of technology related "training" annually. And much of the focus of such training has been on learning software (how to make slide presentations or use spreadsheets) rather than on curriculum blending and classroom strategies.

Sadly, comparable data for 2000-2001 is unavailable since funding for these reports disappeared with the curious disbanding of the Milken Exchange and its smart funding of such studies. Education Week did not produce a Technology Counts 2000, and the focus of Technology Counts 2001 turned to "The Digital Divide." - a different set of issues and questions.

It is unfortunate that groups cheering the advent of new technologies stopped gathering data that helped us to assess whether or not the investments were paying dividends and whether teachers were getting the professional development support they need. Even the CEO Forum, which stressed the importance of funding professional development in its 1999 report, has stopped assessing and reporting progress on such issues. The CEO Forum suggested with its Star Chart that penetration (a large number of computers installed per classroom) translates into curriculum integration. This claim has been dispelled by Becker's study linking frequency and types of use with teacher attitudes and readiness as well as the level of district investment in support services as opposed to hardware.

II. Clarifying Purpose - Engaged Learning and Student Growth

In some schools, leaders ignored several crucial steps: 1) they forgot to clarify purpose and 2) they made little effort to win over reluctant and skeptical teachers. They jumped to the installation phase without dealing with the issues of inclination, philosophy, readiness and support identified by Becker's study. It should be stated, in fairness, that some of the grant and funding programs gave them little choice.

"Install and they will log on!" was the apparent campaign slogan.

In order to enlist the enthusiastic participation of all teachers, our goal should be the strengthening of student performance on reading, reasoning, problem-solving and related tasks drawn from state curriculum standards (Note sidebar on Virginia Standards). It should not be the creation of digital classrooms and wired schools. New technologies should be used when they enhance learning. They should sit comfortably alongside older technologies such as books and paper. They should take a back seat when other modes of learning excel.

Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) - Science

"Investigate" refers to scientific methodology and implies systematic use of the following inquiry skills:
* Observing * Classifying and sequencing * Communicating
* Measuring * Predicting * Inferring * Hypothesizing
* Defining, controlling, and manipulating variables in experimentation
* Designing, constructing, and interpreting models
* Interpreting, analyzing, and evaluating data

Visit a classroom making wise use of technologies and you will see a judicious blending of tools - no digital imperatives warping values.

Picture a middle school teacher in Virginia who has launched a major science unit challenging students to invent better ways to protect and restore various endangered species.

A cart of 15 wireless, Internet-connected laptops lives in the classroom for two weeks, providing "critical mass" - enough units to allow pairs and trios to share laptops to conduct their research and their writing. Thirty students spend their time fully engaged (see sidebar on Engaged Learning) with a variety of resources, some print, some digital.

The visitor notes that cluster diagrams mapping out research questions screens (using Inspiration™ software) have grown huge. Because they are too large for the computers' limited screens, some students have printed their diagrams out onto six or more pages of paper to spread them out across their desks. That way they can see the entire "map" at one time.

The visitor also notes some teams pointing back and forth between pages of books and the screens of laptops as well as topographical maps showing the locations of their species. Multiple sources of information are alive and well.

Some students are reading from screens together. Some are writing and taking notes on laptops. Others are using sticky notes. Some are e-mailing to other students or scientists in states or countries where their species is threatened.

Several teams leave the room for the school media center, having found excellent books through the library catalog now available online in their classroom.

One team is excused for the day to interview and tape scientists at a nearby preserve. They have borrowed the school's digital video camera.

The teacher moves about the room, lending a hand, offering a nudge, and patting a back as needed, managing the flow of activities and the well focussed hubbub of the classroom with calm and comfort.

Characteristics of Engaged Learning

When learning activities have been well organized around intriguing issues and questions, the visitor notes that students are . . .

  • Responsible for their own learning - They invest personally in the quest for knowledge and understanding, in part because the questions or issues being investigated are drawn from their own curiosity about the world. Projects are pertinent and questions are essential.
  • Energized by learning - They feel excited, intrigued and motivated to solve the puzzles, make new answers and reach insight. Their work feels both important and worthwhile.
  • Strategic - They make thoughtful choices from a toolkit of strategies, carefully weighing which approach, which source and which technique may work best to resolve a particular information challenge.
  • Collaborative - They work with others in a coordinated manner, splitting up the work according to a plan and sharing good ideas during the search for understanding.
Adapted from the Engaged Learning model - Jones, et al, 1994; Means, 1997

III. Setting the Stage for Success

Scenes like the one above do not happen overnight. They result from substantial planning and investment in teacher growth over several years. A robust program of professional and program development engages each teacher in 20-60 hours of learning and inventing annually, with the U.S. Education Department urging a commitment of 30 per cent of any technology budget to such activities.

"Today, schools spend an average of 9 percent of their technology budgets on training and support, while the experience of technology-rich schools suggests that more than 30 percent of much larger technology budgets should be invested in these areas." (U.S. Department of Education, 1996)

The development of the endangered species unit described above was the culmination of several years of learning and growing. The teacher began the journey with many hours of actually using the new tools for research and then moved on to many more hours of study group participation before finally attempting to build and teach a technology enriched unit.

The teacher's unit planning took place in the summer of 2001 as a team member participating in a week of district sponsored (paid) curriculum development. Working with two other science teachers and a media specialist, the team first identified standards-related essential questions and concepts with an approach suggested by Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998). Once the learning goals were clear, the team sought a combination of learning activities that were likely to produce the desired outcomes.

Even before the summer invention project began, this team had worked as a study group through the 2000-2001 school year exploring promising practices such as Understanding by Design and Power Learning.

The summer before that year of study, in August of 2000, they had all participated in three days of hands-on problem solving that engaged them in exploring an environmental issue with the new information technologies ( In "A River in Trouble," they were charged with making recommendations to the President with regard to the issues facing the Snake River.

Finally, in the summer of 2001, they were able to translate these theories and these learning experiences into the building of units for the 2001-2002 school year.

IV. Invention as Professional Development

While it is rarely recognized as such, the invention of effective unit plans can be a remarkably effective way to develop skills while winning support for the use of new technologies. The team mentioned above dove into unit planning with tremendous enthusiasm.

Rather than condemning students to hours of fruitless wandering across a virtual jungle of Internet resources (Google offers 595,000 Web pages with the phrase "endangered species"), the team spent many hours identifying reliable sources.

By stressing quality from the outset, they addressed a chief complaint of many teachers in the school - a sense that the Internet was badly organized, unreliable and quite weak when it came to supporting standards-based learning.

The media specialist began by pointing out the middle school's excellent print collection of recent books treating the challenge of restoration and protection - books such as A Common Fate: Endangered Salmon and the People of the Pacific Northwest by Joseph Cone. It became evident as they compared digital and print resources, that some print sources might provide greater depth and value than the articles available on the Internet or within the district's collection of electronic periodicals. The team devoted more than a day to the development of a balanced and substantial list. As a result, they were able to set aside concerns about quality and felt optimistic that they might win over their more skeptical colleagues across the district.

The librarian also pointed the team toward some helpful Web sites such as a listing of Research Modules and WebQuests that provide highly scaffolded (structured) projects - The team decided to adapt and adopt an endangered species unit from Grand Prairie, Texas that seemed well organized and quite promising -

The librarian also suggested related resources available from the Environmental Protection Agency at as well as lists of good resources compiled by other educators such as KidsClick - and Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators -

The team welcomed this district sponsored opportunity to provide focus, direction and quality to their students, knowing that class time would be spent more efficiently thanks to the preparation and planning made possible during the summer months.

V. Replacing Training with Adult Learning

How does adult learning differ from the training models that have dominated technology related professional development for the past two decades?

Adult learning usually involves the learner in activities that match that person’s preferences, interests, needs, style and developmental readiness.

The learner makes choices from a rich and varied menu of learning experiences and possibilities but must take responsibility for planning, acting and growing.

If we shift school cultures to support adult learning, professional development is experienced as a personal journey of growth and discovery that engages the learner on a daily basis. In the best cases, adult learning includes an emphasis upon self-direction, transformation and experience. One learns by doing and exploring . . . by trying, by failing, by changing and adapting strategies and by overcoming obstacles after many trials. One learns by teaming - sharing failures and successes as well as tricks and techniques that work.

This approach to supporting teachers may actually generate a change in how classroom learning occurs.

Unlike the training models, adult learning is primarily concerned with creating the conditions, as well as the inclination and the competencies to transfer new tools and skills into daily practice. While training usually occurs outside of context and frequently ignores issues of transfer, adult learning is all about melding practice with context. Adult learning should encourage teachers (and their allies) to identify and then remove obstacles.

VI. Examples of Effective Practices

The menu for teacher learning expands dramatically from lists of classes offering training in software to many other options such as study groups and invention teams similar to those described earlier in this article. Each teacher creates a professional growth plan (PGP) outlining steps to be taken on a personal journey of growth.

To support such journeys, the district invests in support systems such as technology coaches, mentors and cadres. Augmenting these formal systems, the district strives for “just in time support” by encouraging the development of informal support groups and support staffing of various kinds. Teachers have help lines and answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) within easy reach. To expand their horizons and appetites, they find many opportunities to enjoy excursions such as school visits, work place visits, conferences, etc. In order to match lifestyles and provide 24/7 adult learning, districts explore the potential of online learning programs. Many of these offerings are described at length in "Head of the Class: How Teachers Learn Technology Best." Electronic School, January, 2001. and in How Teachers Learn Technology Best (McKenzie, 1999).

VII. Measuring Return on Investment

There is far too little assessment being done to guide professional development. Most districts do not know the level of development already achieved by staff, let alone their preferences, styles, fears and passions. A thoughtful assessment strategy helps to identify offerings that stand a chance of matching preferences, and then assessment makes it possible to steer the program forward. See “Finding Your Way through The Data Smog” by Joe Slowinski at

VIII. Putting New Technologies to Good Use

We have known for a very long time that enduring and worthy change in schools depends upon strategic and robust investments in professional and program development. If we expect to see new technologies employed in ways that make a difference in the ways students learn and think, it is time to put far more resources into adult learning.


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The CEO Forum Year 2 Report. 1991.

Cone, Joseph. A Common Fate : Endangered Salmon and the People of the Pacific Northwest. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1995.

Deal, Terrence E. and Peterson, Kent D. Shaping School Culture : The Heart of Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998.

Fullan, Michael G. The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York, Teachers College Press, 1991.

Jones, B., Valdez, G., Nowakowski, J., & Rasmussen, C. Designing Learning and Technology for Educational Reform. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994.

Joyce, B. (Ed). Changing School Culture through Staff Development. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1990.

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Lieberman, A. The Work of Restructuring Schools: Building from the Ground Up. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995.

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McKenzie, Jamie. How Teachers Learn Technology Best. Bellingham, WA: FNO Press, 1999.

McKenzie, Jamie. Planning Good Change with Technology and Literacy. Bellingham, WA: FNO Press, 2001.

McKenzie, Jamie. Power Learning

Means, Barbara. "Critical Issue: Using Technology to Enhance Engaged Learning for At-Risk Students." North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. , 1997.

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Trotter, Andrew. “Preparing Teachers For the Digital Age.” Technology Counts ’99. Education Week, 1999. September 23, 1999.

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Van Dam, Jan. "Total Cost of Ownership." Technology and Learning. October, 1991.

Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1998.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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