Child's Garden Tool
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Yesterday, I began a series of blog posts about the responsibility that comes along with the use of powerful technology tools in school. We cannot hand students the keys to the Internet without some discussion of the ethics and responsibilities of driving on the Superhighway.

But students aren’t the only ones in this discussion that have responsibilities. Teachers also must understand their role in the process—and I’m not just talking about their responsibility to teach responsibility to their students. Teachers have three main areas of responsibility of their own when using instructional tools in the classroom.

Learn the Tools

Long before a teacher can possibly use a tool to teach, she must first be a student. This has been true as long as there have been technological advances in education. When chalkboards were first introduced to schools, teachers responded much like they do now to modern tech tools.

Black-boards are not uncommon, but are little resorted to by the teacher. This would be the case with most of the school apparatus which is thought indispensable…. Most teachers, with their present qualifications, would not understand their useful applications. (Barnard, 1839, p. 5)

The importance of the black board as an instrument of instruction…has been insisted on in every periodical on education which I have seen…. In many of our common schools, however, it has been but barely introduced. The teacher knows almost as little how to use it as his pupils. (Alcott, 1843, p. 170)

That second quote comes from a book of instruction for teachers about how to use a chalkboard, including step-by-step tutorials. Today, of course, the chalkboard (or white board) is such an integral part of what we do we don’t even give it a second thought. Instruction in its use is no longer necessary.

This is not true with more recent technology. Unlike the chalkboard, today’s teachers did not grow up in a culture where computers and the Internet were an integral part of daily life and school. Thus, we need to first become learners and understand the technology ourselves. This may mean taking workshops and seminars (more on this in my next post), reading books and articles, or just jumping in and fiddling, but it will not happen on its own, and it will not happen by osmosis.

I read a blog post yesterday which gives a great explanation of the importance of this mindset, and which also leads right into the next responsibility:

Use the Tools

Many times teachers attempt to leap directly from a basic familiarity with a new tool into using it in instruction. I’m certainly guilty of this myself, particularly if the tool is one that intrigues me and is full of possibilities. In my experience, though, this usually leads quickly to either miserable failure or at best a superficial layer awkwardly tacked on to existing instruction.

There is a crucial step missing: teachers must first use the tool themselves for their own learning, professional or otherwise. Until you integrate something this deep and powerful into your own learning process on some level, you can’t comprehend how a student will interact with it. This is not a new idea, but it is one that does not yet pervade the profession, and until it does, new technology will be thought of as a fad or an add-on—or worse, a substitute for “real” instruction.

We have to continue to remind ourselves that these are not new subjects to be taught, they are simply new tools. Would you trust a flying instructor who could pass a written test about piloting but had never flown an airplane? Why, then, do we think we can teach students about blogging if we aren’t bloggers ourselves?

Design Quality Learning Experiences

This is (and should be) the hardest part of teaching, and one which consumes the largest amount of energy and time. If done well, it will be like the Parthenon: the structure you and your students build together will hold up for a very long time. If done poorly, it will be more like a movie set: it looks great from one side, but has little substance and less endurance.

Yesterday I discussed the students’ responsibilities in using technology and the importance of teaching them. Many objections to technology use revolve around keeping the students from “fooling around” during class. Let them blog, and they might write about something inappropriate. Let them have cell phones and they might text the test answers to each other. Let them use a wiki and they might get outside help on their assignment. (All of this happened before there was technology, of course, but let’s just give the argument the benefit of the doubt for the moment.)

I suspect that beneath these objections is fear: fear of losing control of the classroom and fear that the lost control will reveal inadequate and ineffective teaching methods that are more easily hidden in a teacher-centered, traditional structure.

Thus, the problem isn’t the technology, it’s the teacher. Know the limitations and pitfalls inherent in the tools and plan for them. If they might get outside help because they can access the wiki any time, then build that into the assignment. Encourage it, even. Make it essential to the task. That’s more realistic anyway. Of course creating assignments like that is more complicated. It takes thought, energy, and time. But truthfully, it is thought energy and time that we should be putting into our instruction even if it does not involve new tools.

To paraphrase Haim Ginott, we must collectively recognize the frightening conclusion that we are the decisive element in our classrooms, and the responsibility is ours to see that the climate and the learning environment allow our students to thrive.

References

Barnard, H. (1839).First annual report of the Secretary of the Board. Connecticut Common School Journal, 1, 155-176.

Alcott, W. A. (1843). Slate and black board exercises. New York: Mark H. Newman.

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