Tuesday, June 24, 2008

From Brute Thing to Organic Learning: Time to Unplug Professional Development?

We won’t learn a great deal of new material. My hope is for you to become more perceptive of every day school matters many of us take for granted but that can change our schools and the world for the better. A professor used this sentiment as the opening of one of my school leadership courses. I sometimes feel like that after spending time putting together a blog post like this one which doesn't feel especially earth shattering.
In Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe cite a timeless John Dewey quote from How We Think *:

To grasp the meanings of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things: to see how it operates or function, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to. In contrast, what we have the called the brute thing, the thing without meaning to us, is something whose relations are not grasped...The relation of means-consequences is the center and heart of all understanding (pp. 137, 146) (p. 38)

Dewey's timelessness really shines in this quote. "The brute thing", which I bolded in the text, is a beautiful descriptor of how technology can be viewed in education even for those who use it. I've juxtaposed brute with organic since brute's definitions range from inhumane to crude to irrational. Organic for me anyway connotes something that is grown from within and the only word I could really come up with. In this case, technology need/adoption/selection is grown from within the need to use it.

This all comes as I reflect at this past year's success with professional development and take a look at next year's professional development within my school.

The Brute Thing Approach

Description: We provide training “Day 1” on technology tools (the brute things). You name it we show it, model it, and let teachers play with it. “Day 2” training is typically in the classroom environment. That’s when the onus is placed on teachers to make the “relations” between the technology and student learning often without immediate assistance or any connections to student learning. The classroom, as we teachers know, is a pretty isolated environment. (As a sidebar, the diagram mentions Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) here as a awesome tool to use to help make connections and further reduce the isolation.)

Organic Learning Approach

Description: In this model (please click for a larger version), the technologies are grown out of quite simply student learning. No matter what your beliefs, values, convictions, or politics of education, I think we can agree that schools are about learning. Shouldn't our training and conversations about technology be centered around this singular facet or at least someone connect to it? In fact, curriculum, instruction/pedagogy, standards, assessment, community, leadership, culture, vision, student voice are all about learning. As such, tools and subsequently our training models should grow from learning.

Hardly a novel concept, I know, but one that seems to be at the crux at technology adoption, change, providing better opportunities for our students and ultimately improving our schools. As an example of teacher technology adoption, please see my post about Teachers Beliefs of Technology. And I've discovered other research since then that supports these themes.

The core mission of our schools and education haven't changed: learning. I think the fuzziness comes from the fact that learning itself is changing. What needs to be learned and how we learn are changing. Since technology (as a whole) is one of those drivers behind that change, the technology itself become the focus of learning sometimes at the detriment the core mission of learning in our schools. Yes, tools in and of themselves need to be taught but I think a greater connection needs to be made.

That's what I love about standards: state standards, 21st century standards, and ISTE's NETS. When all is said and done, standards are at least one constant that we can keep us grounded in learning. And even more, I'm becoming more and more indifferent to the high-stakes testing environment (I'm not saying it's perfect and can't be improved). Why? Because tests are about the standards and standards aren't that much of an obstacle to new learning and new skills that must be learned. Why can't we achieve standards about main characters, plot, setting using blogs, wikis, Twitter, Second Life, or any other tool and still have learning and understanding that is deep, reflective, collaborative, and meaningful to students and yet meet standards?

In the realm of professional development, a learning approach just may make "The Brute Thing" and make it more meaningful with greater sustainability and resonance. When was the last time we held a professional development series on just student learning and all of the new great research available on student learning? Is it time to unplug our professional development offerings at least a little bit?


Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

*Interestingly, the quote referenced in UbD is from Dewey's 1933 edition of How to Think. I wasn't able to find it in the 1910 edition which I own.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Are Teaching Tools Enough?

I'm excited to be participating in Scott McLeod's CASTLE book study group reading and discussing Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. I've always been a proponent of change. As educators, I believe one of our moral purposes is to adapt to change allowing our students the best preparation for their lives and the worlds they will face.

But in reflecting about the concept of change, I think sometimes we can get too focused on tools at the expense of the human nature, student learning, culture, vision, instruction, standards, and day-two implementation. We teach tools to groups of teachers in hopes that something that is said will transform their teaching, student learning, and ultimately our schools. I think we start with tools because they are neutral, keeping the focus away from intangible and sticky subjects of teaching and learning.

Teaching exclusively tools is essential. At some point, we must introduce how the technology works and let teachers use it during non-instructional time. But, I think, tools are inherently easier for us to present.
After all, cool, new technology has a way of presenting itself. We give teachers enough time in our training to muck around the tools. While we work hard at these things and our approach may be an important first step, I wonder if we truly are seeing the results we expect. Do we know what we expect from our training? Is it just tool proficiency? Should our expectations go beyond tool proficiency?

If I look back at the training I've given starting 13 years ago, I wonder how much of my discretionary training has had a long-term, residual effect. My ego says one thing but reality speaks a different tune. From my early days of "One Computer Classroom" presentations to present day "Web 2.0 Tools" (yes, I'm just as guilty), I wonder how many teachers have transformed their teaching as a result of my workshops.
Looking at a national level, I wonder about the adoption rates of technology training per training hour that occurs on a yearly basis. If I was a betting person, I'd suspect it's on the low side. Of those training hours, I wonder how much time is spent on having a conversation about human nature, student learning, culture, vision, instruction, standards, and day-two implementation?

One of most pervasive arguments I hear about technology is that ultimately it's the teacher's "fault" technology isn't adopted. But I can't help but to ask, "Do we blame students for low test scores?" Something tells me, there's a larger issue other than just willful non-compliance. And if it is just willful non-compliance, what can we do to change this behavior? After all, what is our role of trainers and teachers of teachers? Are we directly addressing new student learning theories, 21st century skills, and ways to work with the familiar standards. Also, are we providing a school culture conducive to technology adoption? Do teachers have a school vision to work with that includes an updated perspective of the world in which we live?

One of the early principles in
Influencer is the notion that identifying and changing vital behaviors is the key to solving a problem. Have we defined the problem? Is our training addressing these few vital behaviors beyond the tools?

Lastly, I'll end with this question: Is it time for us to construct some sort of training guidelines or training best practices that addresses these questions and hopefully ultimately vital behaviors? Is this a realistic step that the educational technology community can take to begin addressing vital behaviors?

A Vital Part of the Learning and Technology Equation