The Learning Curve and Technology

Apr 29, 2011 by

Yesterday, I was at a meeting where a typical “mexican stand-off” began to take place. One group wanted a group of teachers to receive professional development for a technology only a small portion of them had access to, and were insisting the PD had to take place first; in the mean time, the teacher-learners were saying, quite reasonably, that they weren’t eager to take a course for something they wouldn’t have an opportunity to implement, and if it was eventually implemented, the knowledge they acquired in the PD would be long enough ago to make it useless and it would need to be redone.

These sorts of arguments take place all the time. Each side has it’s points that are perfectly reasonable on the face. However, in education, we seem not to want to spend money or adopt a technology until we can be 100% assured of its eager acceptance, use and return on investment. What drives me insane is that teachers and educators, out of everyone else in society all together, have first hand knowledge of something called the learning curve.

The learning curve, as you all know, is the process of trying and experimenting with learning new skills and acquiring information. It may take many repetitions, experimentation and tweeks before people feel masterful with any new piece of information. We have yet to develop a pill or two hour course that can guarantee to make a kid read- the process of learning to walk, read, ride a bike, etc. all takes a number of trials, making mistakes, and eventually reaching mastery.

Yet it seems like some adults forget this completely when it comes to expecting instant results from adding things like computers, tablets or smart boards in the classroom. In even the best of circumstances with flawless and epic professional development, teachers will still have to adapt any new tool- a textbook, a worksheet or a computer, ELMO or Smart Board into their lesson plan and curriculum. Heck, every year they have to adapt their current lesson plans to a whole new group of students who come in, not as widgets down an assembly line, but as a whole new group and community that needs to be transformed into a community of learners. Those lessons and plans will need to be tweeked along the way as the teacher gets to know the students- and no amount of prior knowledge makes that problem go away. Experience does make the process faster, as a seasoned teacher can spot patterns they’ve seen before and may have more tools readily available to pull out when needed. But regardless, in September, there is annually an adjustment period for everyone, teacher and student alike, as each learn about the other on a standard learning curve.

No one can reasonably and 100% guarantee that any new technology or curriculum or ANYTHING at all will be 100% successful in the classroom in advance. We can say that others have had good experiences, and that support can be provided, but that in the end, teachers will have to learn about the new tools by using and experimenting with them to find out what works best for them.

If we want to solve these sorts of issues, I think it’s time to consider whether we need to equally apply the principals of Differentiating Instruction, Personalized and Project based learning to professional development.

Maybe teachers have to devise, along with other teachers in their school or grade, true professional learning communities. Not everyone will have the same level of experience and expertise, but they can help each other. What is a group decided to set a few goals in the beginning of the year- a project- such as adapting 3 or 4 units in order to incorporate new technology tools ranging from smart boards to wikis and blogs? What if they set a goal to make sure every classroom at a certain grade level had its own web page for communicating information with students and parents? This would be a tangible, useful goal to set, making sure not only that teachers had something to show for their PD at the end, but that they also got more direct experience implementing tools in a real life setting, which helps consolidate learning, just as we recommend for kids. This makes the classroom much more of a laboratory and exploration of learning, which has the useful side effect of injecting a little more joy and risk into the equation, making it more enjoyable for teachers and students alike.

Whether we call these things Individualized Learning Plans for teachers, Professional development milestones, Project based learning for educators- it doesn’t really matter. What matters in the end is that the emphasis will be in trusting teachers to set and meet their personal and professional goals. This is probably a much better measure of teacher engagement and professional development and evaluation than looking at student test scores. What got accomplished and what did not? What additional supports are needed? What could we do to take this to the next level next year? This analysis will do more to improve teacher morale and student learning than any of the current crime and punishment like measures that are in place today.

There will always be the 16% technological laggards that still wonder what was wrong with slates and McGuffey’s Readers, and the twenty percent of people who hate anything new regardless of what it might be. In fact, every teacher knows this, because there are always one or two kids in a class who are more difficult to teach and more resistant, but we don’t refuse to teach the rest of the students because these kids aren’t on board- that would be silly. We wouldn’t stop teaching if one kid was absent. So why is this an issue for adults?

We simply can no longer afford to wait for 100% compliance or 100% agreement to move forward. If we waited for everyone to be on board before doing something, we never would have gotten out of the plains in Africa, and would still be wondering whether this new found “fire” thing was really advised or was simply too dangerous to be reasonably contained and adopted as a fuel source. (Ok, that was a little snarky, sorry.) Seriously though, we have to start taking chances as professionals and be willing to learn and experiment, the same way we expect students to do every day. Unless we adopt this attitude of going forward and be willing to work things out, we’ll never make the progress teachers and students both deserve.

Educon- Educators on a Mission

Feb 3, 2011 by

Every year since it started, I have attended Educon.  Educon, the only education conference held in an actual school, grew out of EduBloggerCon as a way to continue the conversations started there, and to make sure the conversations between educators about teaching and education had another place to be voiced and heard.  It’s a place where teachers, administrators,  parents and others in the education world can get together and have conversations about how to change and evolve education, how to improve the craft of teaching, and brainstorm solutions for some of the stickier problems everyone in these worlds face.

The Science Leadership Academy (SLA),  a Philadelphia special admission public school, is an example of what every school can be- student centered, inquiry-driven, and an amazing environment where learning and community come together.  On the Friday the conference was supposed to start, Philadelphia schools were closed due to snow.  Yet the students, who are an integral part of  running and planning the conference, took it upon themselves to start sending messages via Facebook and Twitter, and over a hundred students still came to school on a snow day, to make sure the visitors and guests would be able to see THEIR school in action, even under somewhat unusual circumstances.  You know a school is a special place for kids if they come there even on a snow day, where the hurdles of even getting to school are more challenging than normal.

But I’m not surprised by this.  Because at the first Educon, I was speaking to one of the teachers, Mr. Rochester, who spoke about the kids regularly coming to school early, and that the faculty would have to chase them out of school at 6pm when the building was being locked for the evening.  He said they couldn’t figure out why the kids wouldn’t leave.  I knew why from the moment I got there- the people who cared about the students, the students  who cared about their learning, and the electricity in the air of “How can we change the world today?” was palpable.  Of course kids would do this- school is the most exciting place to be- better than video games, better than just about anything.  School has become their place, their home, their club.  And while the fact every student has a laptop is nice, it’s the fact that this enhances their communication and collaboration that really makes a difference.  The tech is secondary to the people- the teachers and students who have a sense of school and community that transcends anything I had ever seen before.

SLA is a special school that totally changed my perspective on what school can be, and I’d give my right arm to get to be there as a student.  But it also sets a shining example of what schools can be, and makes me want to do whatever is necessary to help my school district emulate some of what SLA has.  I want to help inspire our teachers to want more, to care more, and to realize it’s not all about the external things, but it’s as much about who you are as a teacher and whether or not you are personally invested in your students and their success.

The teachers at SLA are excellent not only because of what they know, but moreover, because they care so much about their students.  They care about their own learning.  The faculty meets and works as a team, and they don;t leave a meeting until their is consensus.  Not everyone wins, but there’s a sense of setting a common agenda that everyone can live with and try, and knowing that if Plan A doesn’t work, they’ll go to Plan B just as willingly, without a sense of defeat, but just a sense of there may be a new and better way to tweek what’s happening.

It all starts with Inquiry.

I look at Differentiated Instruction as having many parts- Inquiry, project-based learning, personalized learning for students, and more- all of it together creating a learning atmosphere where students are valued and known as individuals, and are challenged to know themselves and push themselves, as much as be guided and mentored by the teachers.  SLA embodies this every day, so I know it’s not a myth, a silver unicorn, but it can be done.  Moreover, the change is not about tech (although it helps) or location- it’s largely one of attitude and a willingness to do things differently.  And that is free- all it takes is a belief that change is truly possible.

Places like SLA where the kids have a sense of place and ownership in their school don’t have to be rare gems- but it does take leadership, culture and support- a willingness to be different and do different.  And all of that starts inside each individual.  Places like SLA just set an example and let you know it’s not a utopian dream.

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