Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Age of the Shiny Object

"What would a school that was totally focused on student and teacher learning look like?"

I believe that this is a question that, as educators, we are often quick to answer.   We might talk about how the building might look, how the classrooms would be organized, the classes that would be offered, the resources and technology that would adorn each of the classrooms, and the teaching that would take place.  However, the more time I spend in my school and others, the more I realize that we would be better served by responding to this question with another question, which would be

"What is the type of learning that we want?"

Right now in education, we are in the age of the shiny object.  Tablets, smartboards, mini iPads, smartphones, document cameras, chromebooks--you name it, schools and districts seem to be in a pseudo-technological 'arms race' in which the ultimate goal seems to fall somewhere between student learning and the ability to espouse sound bites like "we have a 1:1 tablet program in our Grade 4 classrooms".

We are also in the age of flashy programs--PRTI, PBIS, AVID, STE(A)M, Assessment For Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, and Problem-Based Learning are just a few of the appetizers in the buffet of programs and initiatives that are available for schools to sample when they are hungry to go in a new direction.  "We do PLCs!" we shout with pride.

Some of our structures are changing as well.  We have maker spaces, learning commons, creative corners, collaborative zones, green rooms, whiteboards in washrooms, and spots to house a litany of supplies and tech tidbits that people can use.

We have even created new positions in districts to operationalize these technologies and programs in schools:   Directors of Instruction, District Technology Leaders, and even ones like my own upcoming new post as District Principal of Innovation are popping up in jurisdictions all across North America.  There are so many more of these types of jobs today that a colleague asked me "Is it even that innovative anymore to have someone in a district who is focused on innovation?".  A valid question!

But before we buy one bit of technology, send a single person to a conference, begin piloting a program, or create new spaces or positions, we need to ask the question "What is the type of learning that we want?", and clearly define what students and teachers would be saying, doing and writing when they are demonstrating this learning.

For example, if we want our learners to be 'collaborators in a digital age', we might jump to buy 30 tablets on a portable cart, using the "if we build it, they will come" mantra.  We might give the cart to a couple of eager teachers to use in their classes, and hope for digital collaboration to be a contagion that spreads through out the school.  And for a period of time, these teachers may use the tablets in their classes, but then come and say something like, "We are seeing some collaboration, but the kids are really having a hard time typing on the tablets, can we get keyboards?", or "The one cart is great, however, to get them to collaborate with another class, we need another class set.  Is there a way to get another one?".  And so the 'arms race' begins.

Another way we might approach this could be to look at this problem as a design challenge, and

  1. Frame a design question such as "How might we improve the collaborative capabilities of our students?", with thoughts of the impact that we want to have on student learning and applications beyond school. 
  2. Assemble a diverse group of students and staff members together to think about possible solutions to the problem.  Within this context, we might need to define 'collaborator' in terms of what students would be saying, doing and writing when they are effectively collaborating. Low tech and high tech possibilities might be a result of this conversation, and there may be some surprises, such as a student asking a question like "Why don't we just use our phones?  I don't have an iPad at home, so couldn't we just get kids to use what they have?" 
  3. Determine some of the constraints that exist in our particular context--funding, time for training, time 'away from the curriculum', lesson structure, sustainability, upkeep and maintenance might come out of this portion of the conversation.
  4. Interview sample students and teachers about their hopes, fears, and ambitions about becoming a collaborator, why it is important to them in their context, and what they might use to get better at collaboration.
  5. Do a task inventory through the lens of "Are the tasks students do requiring them to be collaborators?", and perhaps augment this with Instructional Rounds-style observations with specific and non-judgmental feedback.  
  6. As a result of the feedback garnered from observations, debrief during PLC collaborative time to do a root-cause analysis (such as "The 5 Whys" exercise) to determine the structures and antecedents to the observed successful teaching of collaboration
  7. Gather the brainstorm of the possible solutions, constraints, task inventory, and root-cause analysis together to determine which strategies/technologies could be high leverage given the constraints that exist (this might include PD sessions that focus on designing and implementing collaborative tasks augmented with technology that students have)
  8. Determine the collaborative technologies that fit within the constraints that were defined.
  9. Pilot two or three possible tech solutions, and get immediate specific feedback on whether they helped improve the collaborative capabilities of students.
  10. Re-assemble the group, and make a tech decision based on the information that you have collected.
  11. Be prepared to get more feedback on how things are going so we can quickly and nimbly iterate, and iterate some more.

As a result of a process like this, we would have a co-developed, focused and targeted plan for our purchase and the associated PD that meets the needs of our design question.

Wow.  This looks like a lot of work.  And truthfully, approaching something like a technology purchase SHOULD be a lot of work.  But for me, here is the thing:  there is no more money, and there are only 24 hours in the day.  Our resources are precious and often scarce, and as a result, we need to create realistic and sustainable solutions that honour the parameters within which we must work. And if the process to effectively utilize our scarce and precious resources to get the learning that we want for students takes a bit more time, it's what we have to do.  Not to mention, if we do this type of process enough, we get better and better at meeting design challenges in our schools and districts.

A shiny object is just that--an object.  And with the proliferation of technology, programs, and positions that seem to be leading us down a pathway toward innovation, we need to see past the sparkle and ensure that the objects that we pursue are those which truly reflect the learning that we want in our schools and our districts.