My generation of students are some of the very first to be considered digital natives. I logged into my first email account at the age of ten. As a child growing up in the Silicon Valley, I used technology and experienced the frustrations and challenges with its cumbersome integration into my own education. I graduated from high school at a time when we still burned CDs, when the Internet had a dial tone, and when my browser of choice was AltaVista.
When I graduated from high school in 2002, text messaging was just becoming a viable means of communication, Google was still a couple of years away from going public, and Facebook and Twitter weren’t even on the horizon yet. Despite the change that was just around the corner, the classrooms I learned in looked strikingly similar to the ones my parents learned in. By and large, my classmates and I learned in isolation. Classtime was often spent listening to lectures and lessons from hard plastic chairs, and when we got home to do our homework, we spread our books and notes out on the kitchen table and did our best...alone. If we had a question in the process of studying, it would just have to wait until tomorrow.
Over the last twelve years, access to technology inside the classroom and out of it has increased dramatically. But, what’s changed now that we have laptops and tablets in the hands of every child? In a word: time. Technology has equipped teachers to rethink the way we use time, and liberates us to use class time for whatever is most import or most pressing, knowing that old stand-bys like lecturing and direct instruction can be flipped out of class in order to preserve that precious face-to-face time for students to actively engage in learning together.
I spoke about this change, among others (like how I approach teaching reading and writing) for a good half hour. Later, during the Q&A time, one question really stood out to me: A gentleman in the front raised his hand: "It's clear to me that even though we think our tools are pretty magical, the magic of technology in the classroom is really the teacher,” he started. (Um, you had me at hello.) “What can we do to help teachers work their magic?"
Truthfully, the answer I gave this morning wasn’t all that great. So I want to take another stab at it. The first thing we need to do to help teachers “work their magic” is to kindly refocus the conversation. Good teaching has never been about the technology. The fine folks at Google understand that, and yet, so often in faculty meetings at my school and others I consult for, the conversation revolves around tools, apps, gadgets, and the issue of screen time. I don’t want to diminish the importance of thoughtfully considering those issues. But, please, let’s center our discussions on the teaching rather than the tool (I wonder how many such debates were had around the introduction of white boards, overhead projectors, or boom-boxes?). Technology can be a wonderful way to facilitate our best work, to help us refine our pedagogy, to make our assignments differentiated, and our assessments more relevant. Purposeful integration of technology does not mean looking for ways to use a device or an app in an already perfectly functional lesson. It means rethinking the whole lesson, looking for ways to improve our craft, to increase opportunities for student collaboration, for real-world audiences, for creativity that calls on 21st century tools . . . It means seeking out space in our agendas for activating student engagement so that all students participate. And it means making ourselves open to the possibility of ceding power to our students, asking for their feedback, and granting them ownership over their own learning.
This brings me to the second part of the answer I wish I gave. All of those wonderful, high-minded goals I listed above are hard to accomplish, and take a lot of time to figure out. So, if we really want to help teachers “work their magic,” then we’d better start investing in meaningful professional development. How we are expected to refine our craft in one or two inservice days a year is beyond me. We need ongoing opportunities to be in conversation with our colleagues -- both on our own campus and beyond. Teaching can be an isolating business if we let it be. I remember my first few years of teaching, feeling so lucky that I had the luxury of my own classroom. I didn’t have to “travel” and I didn’t have to share my space. But the flip side was that I didn’t interact with any other adults unless I made the effort. When we stay in our own space, with our own curriculum and our own students, our ideas and methods run the risk of getting stale. Our creative energy can fade. Our real-world relevance can dwindle. The single best thing that happened to my teaching is when I started sharing a classroom and team-teaching. A shared space and an open door are physical reminders to me of best practices in teaching - learning from and with colleagues, connecting across grade levels and disciplines, asking questions and talking through new approaches, revamping lessons and revitalizing learning. Ongoing professional development is crucial for recharging our teaching. We need funding for training, and access to experts who can walk us through the process. Do that, and I think the results could actually be magical.