This guest post was written by Dan Leighton who is presenting a workshop at the “Transforming learning in the 21st Century” conference.
I began to write this on the day of Nelson Mandela’s funeral . And I can’t help feeling humbled by the commitment and achievements of this extraordinary man. As I watched, and read, and listened to the coverage of his life I found myself comparing the extraordinary scale of his life in his struggle to break apartheid with the comparatively tiny worries we have in schools. As the internet meme goes: we suffer from first-world problems.
At the beginning of December 2013 I attended the Google Teacher Academy in London. The first exercise we took part in was, collectively, to identify challenges faced by educators in schools. This being a Google Certified Teacher conference, the challenges we identified were largely technological. Such problems as: frustration due to the lack of uptake of advances in technology; questions about inappropriate internet filtering preventing effective teaching; concerns about the slow adoption of good practice in classrooms. This was followed by a session identifying solutions to those challenges. Naturally, amongst a crowd of technically adroit teachers, many of the solutions proposed were equally technological.
What I found fascinating when I glanced over the list of challenges and solutions, was that the vast majority, while appearing on the surface to be technical in nature, were not technology problems at all. They were leadership problems. More specifically, they were problems caused by a failure of school leaders to tackle the root causes affecting the uptake of technology in classrooms. And they certainly weren’t problems which could be solved simply by applying funds.
Whether we agree that technology in classrooms is beneficial; technology is going to be an integral part of our classrooms in the future. In reality, it already is, whether we like it or not. We can fight it off by banning mobile phones from our schools, or restricting their use, or otherwise delaying the inevitable. But there will be a day where it is as inconceivable to restrict technology in class as it once was to restrict the education of individuals based on their gender or culture. Along the way, there will be struggles, difficulty and upset. There will be students who use technology in inappropriate ways to bypass the restrictions we put in place to protect them, or to avoid work, or to bully each other. But these are not technology issues. These are behavioural issues. And, ultimately, these are leadership issues.
Of course we categorically must protect young people from harm. But more importantly, we must lead them towards an understanding of how to avoid being harmed. Take the analogy of learning to cross the road safely. We don’t put barriers up along every road and it would be highly detrimental were we to try. Not to mention prohibitively expensive. Instead, we teach children how to watch for danger and when to wait for an adult if they are worried. When they are very young, we place barriers in strategic positions outside schools and shops to stop them running into the traffic, or we hold their hand as they cross. We train them so that we can be confident they will make safe decisions on the roads in the future. As schools, we try to apply the same approach to technology to keep our young people safe so they can take advantage of all there is to find on the roads and highways of the internet.
At this moment, however, in many schools, our teachers are like the apocryphal man who, in the 19th Century, walked in front of cars waving a flag; to keep passengers safe and bystanders away from interacting with the dangerous automobile. A situation that no-one really wants. Least of all the man with the flag.
Surely it is time for a new kind of educational leadership in respect to technology? The type of leadership that is clear and imaginative. Even brave. The type of leadership that looks to the future and, while seeing clearly that there is discomfort, negotiation and difficulty ahead, decides to take a path that it knows will lead to somewhere better. In revisiting Mandela’s life these past few weeks I have been reminded that, if we are sufficiently courageous leaders, if we stand up and lead others to a different path than the one expected, the outcome may be far better than we could have imagined.
The solution that is often proposed is to tell the teachers to get out of the way. To let the kids take the lead and roar off into the technological sunset in their shiny internet-enabled sports cars. To let them have their head and show teachers the way. It is an attractive idea – student-led learning and all that. But I am afraid I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the “young people as digital natives” idea either. Or any other idea where we say that the students can entirely mediate their own learning. I agree some students can drive the internet motorways faster than we can, but that doesn’t mean they won’t crash. Just because you can drive fast, doesn’t mean you are good in busy traffic. But why do we behave differently when it comes to educational technology? No teacher would ever stand in front of a class and say, “I can’t spell or write a sentence. So you are all going to have to learn that yourselves and show me how to do it.” So why would we assume that this is acceptable in respect to technology? I believe it is critical that we as teachers up our game and commit whole-heartedly to improving our own fundamental understanding of how technology can be used in education.
Of course, there are many teachers who have recognised this need and tackled these issues head on, independently and in their own time. But how many school leaders do you know who can say the same? How many school leaders feel confident in their ability to, for instance, set safe privacy settings on Facebook? Or worse, how many school leaders do not use social media themselves? Technologies which are the most prevalent social communication tool in the western world. This might be seen as the equivalent of saying to an assembly: not only can we not spell, we aren’t even prepared to learn to read.
This has little to do with learning how to use particular pieces of software or hardware. Yes, there is a basic level of training required for all educator and educational leaders, but all teachers know how to read and research, how to use websites and how to search on Google (even at a basic level). Even more importantly, we know how to ask someone else for help. These are the fundamental skills needed to learn something new, with which we are all familiar. After that, it’s a case of motivation, time, and freedom from the fear of failure.
Currently, many teachers feel under attack from all sides. They are expecting reprisals and condemnation from inspectors, ministers, the public, parents and often, sadly, their own school leaders. This may not be as we wish it, but it is nonetheless true. Teachers are required to prove their competence in ways that many feel are so burdensome that the scrutiny itself leads to worse teaching of our children. I would not necessarily agree that this is the reality – but there is no denying that teacher morale is at its lowest for decades. Without doubt, funding in many state schools is shockingly low – a situation that exacerbates the stress on teachers and can lead to a retrenchment of their positions. They may do their job competently, but many of them find it difficult to summon the energy to do more than their contractual obligations. Yes, there will always be teachers who go above and beyond expectations, but they are not the ones we are concerned about. In the same manner that we pay particular attention to the discouraged and disaffected students, we should, perhaps, start to concentrate on our colleagues who are struggling to adopt new ways of doing things. We are beyond the early adopter phase of technology now and need to explore how we encourage the mainstream and late adopters to move forward.
In this context, we often hear teachers say that they cannot see how to use educational technology effectively in the classroom. The reasons are many; they haven’t got time to learn how to use it, they haven’t got time to plan for it, they haven’t got time to waste trying new things which don’t contribute to the accountability bottom line and may not improve results. Often, the cost of training is given as a reason not to address this issue. Yet, how much does it cost to encourage them to be brave? To try to do things differently? To support and nurture them in their classroom to attempt something new, imaginative and inspirational? When we see this occur in schools, sometimes magical things happen. Students produce work of beauty, thoughtfulness and insight in ways that we least expect.
I have seen many fellow professionals who are excellent teachers – yet it is sometimes difficult to encourage them to allow students more freedom to use technology in their classroom. The reasons are varied and are often founded in a (perfectly reasonable) fear of the consequences of failure. Perhaps fear is the wrong word, concern might be a better term. Teachers are concerned they might lose valuable curriculum time trying something new, that students might see them struggling, that students might misbehave. They ask, quite rightly, how educational technology might improve the learning experience – with an assumption that it can’t enhance tried and tested methodologies. These are all concerns which are entirely valid. Yet, if we encouraged them to look at the situation with fresh eyes, they might react differently.
Classes cannot be miraculously transformed overnight, but we have seen schools where, over time, and with persistence, the overall quality of education has risen dramatically through the use of technology. This does not come about through the teacher trying to make the learning ‘fun’, but through the teacher having the long term experience in teaching to fine tune technology in a way that bolsters the key educational aims. And this of course is why we need still need teachers. They are the ones who understand the educational context, the purpose of the topic, the structure of knowledge and understanding – they are the professionals. Without teachers, students muddle along in a morass of online self-help courses. We are not talking here about technology for technology’s sake; but rather appropriate educational tools which have the power not only to service and support the pre-existing structures, practices and learning methodologies of great teaching but to transform and re-imagine learning in ways we cannot yet conceive.
I have talked with many colleagues in the past year about the Digital Divide. Not the Digital Divide between the third world and the first, nor between students and teachers. But the Digital Divide between teacher and teacher. Between those who are fearful to step forward and need the encouragement to take the first few paces, and those who are already sprinting ahead.
I correspond daily with teachers who really get it and their acceleration into this world of technology-enabled education is exponential. There is an almost miraculous moment that I encounter on a regular basis with professional colleagues where, one day, they suddenly recognise an application of educational technology that launches them into an upward curve of discovery. One moment they are concerned and cautious, the next they are experimenting with excitement. They see new possibilities everywhere and are fired up to learn, learn, learn. By the time they look back at where they started, it is almost impossible for them to conceive how they ever did things the old way. They are now, almost irrevocably, digitally divided from their colleagues.
Those of us who use educational technology every day now see it as so natural and normal that we forget that it is not normal. Once we are on the edtech rollercoaster, we keep accelerating away and leave behind those who are waiting for someone to press the go button. We then feel frustrated that our colleagues are waiting to start. We hear the common cry of teachers who feel they have been subject to continual criticism and pressure, “I need training!” And we stand there looking back and waving at them saying, “Come on! It’s exhilarating up here!” Which is not helpful or morale boosting if you are still at the bottom of the slope.
The sad truth is, there is no training that can be bought that can get them all the way there. Or at least, not perhaps in the way we might have imagined once. The only real way to be trained in educational technology is to do it. To experiment and to try out new ways of doing things. To get past the initial failures, time wasting and student distractions. And to do this, we must remove the fear of starting. To give teachers the freedom, respect and encouragement to try, to fail and try again.
In talking to other edtech savvy professionals, we are often asked how we know the stuff we know. The answer is simple, though not necessarily encouraging: we go out and find it for ourselves. We get on G+ and (to a much lesser extent these days) Twitter. We read blogs. We write emails to people. We talk to colleagues. We irritate our partners, wives and husbands by reading our devices in bed. We don’t have time for it either. But it is like a compulsion to know more. To find out more. To learn more. Yet, there is no way we can say to teachers that they must spend an hour a day reading educational blogs, streams and commentary – or fund them to do so. They have to want to do it for themselves and to see the necessary time investment as something not just worthwhile – but inspirational and life affirming.
I am aware that this article may be seen as unduly negative. That what I am describing might, from some perspectives be taken as a call to say, “You know? This just looks like too much to do. We have too many other fish to fry. Let’s concentrate on the basics and never mind all this technology business. We must not distract our teachers from their core practices.” Yet, what I see in the world of educational technology is tens of thousands of professionals around the world inspired to do something different. To learn something new every day. Who have re-discovered their excitement in their profession. Even if this was the only result of encouraging educational technology, is that not enough? What if every one of our teachers was so inspired that they would want to spend their free time chatting and talking about education with other like minded individuals? Not because they have to but because they want to and it gives them joy to do so.
As educational leaders there are then, perhaps, three things we might do, at low cost or no cost, to encourage a brave approach to technology.
- Do it ourselves. Ignite a desire in our colleagues to learn. Inspire them to want to learn and show that we are learning ourselves. Every day. Get onto G+ or Twitter every day. Hunt out like minded individuals and start talking to them.
- Communicate what we have learnt to our colleagues. And show that we are prepared to take measured risks.
- Give our colleagues the same freedom we give ourselves. Show them that we not only want them to take those risks, but that we will support them when it goes wrong.
It is now a month or more since Mandela died and the media coverage has, essentially ceased but I can still hear his words in my head. His words about freedom, courage and inspiration. As a leader, perhaps his greatest legacy was to free people from their pre-conceptions. To inspire them to think differently and to give them the courage to act. Surely we can apply a little of that bravery in our own schools?