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Inventing your technology future

A section of the final chapter of the book I'm writing for the technology-reluctant teacher. I'd love to hear more ideas on this topic.

How you can invent the future and take charge of your own technology environment


The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Alan Kay

The biggest mistake teachers can make in technology use is to simply let the future happen to them rather than be a serious part of creating their future. But how do you do this as a teacher and still teach full time?

1. Have a personal vision of education and how technology should be used in it.
One of my favorite recipes for change is the simply stated formula: C = V X D X F > R. Richard Beckhard and David Gleicher posit that Change = Vision X Discontent X First steps > Resistance. Both vision and discontent are plentiful supply in most schools and communities. It’s figuring out how to develop a shared vision and then get the resources needed to make those “first steps” toward making it come true that is lacking.  

Teachers who invent their own futures take time to reflect and formulate a personal vision of what education ought to look like and the role technology plays in that vision. And then modify what they do – even slightly – to move toward that educational model.

2. Have a voice in school technology policy-making and planning

I often hear comments like this from teachers who are upset about the technology policies in their district:

  • "They" are blocking school access to YouTube.
  • "They" make us use PCs when I’d rather have a Mac.
  • "They" won’t let me access my grade book from home.
  • “They” won’t let me use my personal laptop computer on the school’s network.
  • “They” insist we have long and complicated passwords and make us change them all the time.
  • "They" make us teach to the test.

The question I have when I hear statements like this is: “ Just who is this mysterious ‘they’?”

Can you actually name "them"? Or are "they" just a convenient scapegoat for poor policy-making procedures? Can you as a single teacher influence "them?" And are you personally working to change such decisions from being made by a faceless "they" to being made by a known "we?”

If not, you should be. It's your professional obligation.

By its very nature, policy and rule making is influenced by human values. Nowhere in schools is this more evident than when it comes establishing appropriate policies for the relatively new and often confusing field of educational technology.

Larry Cuban suggests such value conflicts present not a solvable problem, but a dilemma that needs ongoing management. In other words, policy-making is an area in which there will always be conflict, no matter how hard we work to resolve issues. Technology use disagreements have at their heart two very different sets values, resulting in two sets of priorities – one set held by the technical staff and one by educators.

Technical people have the responsibility for data security, network bandwidth conservation, and the reliable operations of far too many machines.  Techs desire rules that will decrease the likelihood of technical problems. Taken to the extreme, this results in a “if they can’t touch it, it won’t break” mentality. Limited access, over-blocking, and long-passwords are the byproduct of prioritizing security, reliability and adequacy.

Teachers want as much access and convenience as possible. Security systems requiring multiple log-ins eat into class time and restrictions on what is accessible and from where can discourage technology use and innovative practices. Those for whom access, convenience and ease of use are the primary concerns often seek home access, simple passwords, private computer use, and minimal blocking.

Both parties – techs and teachers – have legitimate points of view. And both parties are interdependent. Teachers won’t use the technology unless it works. Technicians are irrelevant if educators don’t use technology.

There is no simple resolution to this ongoing dilemma of conflicting priorities, but I know this about making better policy decisions: the best rules and guidelines are those developed collaboratively.

District and building technology advisory committees and building technology committees have policy development as a major task. These small groups that meet a few times each year are comprised of a variety of stakeholders – teachers, librarians, administrators, students, parents and community members with our technology personnel serving as ex-officio members.

Technology use issues raised are given a full hearing. I often use Edward de Bono’s PMI tool, asking about a proposal “What’s Good, What’s Bad and What’s Interesting” to get a constructive discussion flowing during meetings. It’s a simple activity in which a statement is made – “The district should allow personal computers to access our wireless network.” – and then small groups list the positive (+), negative (-) and interesting (?) potential consequences of the statement, with each group required to have at least one item in each column.

Collaborative policy-making can have two results – an agreement is reached that everyone can live with; or an agreement is reached that some members don’t like, but understand why it was made.  Either way, such decisions are better than those made unilaterally by a faceless “they.”

Don’t let “they” make technology use less productive than it can be for you as a teacher. Find the policy makers in your school and district. If there is a technology committee in place, get on it and contribute. If not lobby your administrators for the creation of one. Turn the “they” into “we.”

3. Experiment.
Educational technology use is sufficiently new that there is not a body of “best practices” all educators should be following. The happiest and most effective teachers I know have the confidence to try new approaches to teaching and learning with technology. And they fully expect that not every experiment will work.

Survival tip: Let your principal know about your experiment before conducting it, what you are hoping to accomplish, and discuss what worked and what didn’t work afterwards.

Successful technology-using teachers “monitor and adjust” during these experiments, learn from them, and then modify or discard the activities that simply are not effective.

4. Look for a mentor, coach or guide.
Find someone in the building will to teach you about new technologies. Oh, consider that this might be a student, not an adult.

5. Share information.
Professionalism requires that practitioners share their knowledge with other practitioners. This can be done informally with fellow teachers during lunch or afterschool and at staff meetings. Effective practices should be shared formally:

  • during staff and curriculum meetings
  • at in-house staff development workshops
  • at state and national conferences
  • though school and professional publications
  • in personal blogs, “tweets”, and social networking entries

Parents also like knowing about how their children are using technology in the classroom. At parent-teacher conferences, in the school newsletter, and through the local media, information about interesting units that are augmented with technology are always greeted with enthusiasm.

Survival tip: If your class is doing something interesting and new with technology, call your local newspaper and television station to see if they would be interested in doing a story. The school gets good PR and the practice may encourage others to try something similar.

5. Support others and use a teaching team approach.
The movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch and Sundance find themselves on the edge of cliff overlooking a river far below with a posse rapidly closing in. It’s only by jumping together that they have the courage to escape. What we might find frightening to try alone, we can often do with a partner.

Other teachers and especially your librarian make great partners when attempting to use a new technology or an old technology for the first time. Students can make wonderful partners when give responsibility for figuring out how to use a new technology when given that charge and responsibility.

The giant and the ants: How big problems are really solved

A tour guide in Nairobi told me this pourquoi story about how the Ngong (Knuckle) Hills just outside the city came into being.

A giant once ravished the surrounding land. The animals of the savanna were determined to be rid of it. The big animals went in first: the elephants, the rhinos, the lions. Each in turn were soundly trounced by the giant.

That night all the ants gathered and decided each would carry a few clumps of dirt and place them on the giant while he was asleep. They reasoned that they made up for their lack of size by their sheer numbers.

By the next morning the giant was buried so deeply that he never rose again. All that can be seen today are the protruding knuckles of one hand – the Ngong Hills.

As teachers, sometimes we feel that we cannot make a difference in solving “giant” problems in education. But I would encourage you carefully consider who in the long run can make the most improvements in education: politicians, departments of education, consultants, administrators -  or every teacher making some small changes every year?

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Reader Comments (6)

What a great article. You are so right that it's easy to blame them, without realizing that we are also often "them"" - or at least have the capacity to become one of them by volunteering to sit on the committees that make change.

As for the shared vision for the future -here's my thoughts. (for what they are worth) -

1. We acknowledge that all students are different, have different needs, different learning processes and different interests and will all play a different role in society - yet we aim for more and more "standardized" testing. Some subjects ( I teach German) are never subject to standardized testing and are considered the "electives' or the "not quite so important" things so we don't have to spend time/money) on those classes/teachers. Same for Art, music etc - all of which are valuable contributions to education but not considered as worthy of "testing" . I'd be the first to agree that math, reading (for true comprehension, rather than mechanical ability), writing, and the ability to ask questions/think critically are vital skills, but if the other topics are worthy of a place on the diploma, they need to be considered as essentials rather than electives. That may be semantics - but it makes a different at the middle/high school level.

Can you imagine a car manufacturer being told to produce a "car" - all different colors, all different sizes and that they had to have the car ready by a certain date, but would not be told what that car would be used for until after that date had passed... I'm sure there's not a business out there that would not laugh at that business plan. Yet that's what we try to do in schools with our students. We try to prepare them for every eventuality, assume they all have the same motivation, acknowledge they come from different backgrounds and place ever more demands on the teacher to be aware of the differences by requiring IEP's and differentiation - and don't give our teachers near enough time to plan/prepare effective lessons, let alone assess effectively.

I realize that multiple choice questions are easy to grade, and have a role to play in assessment but if we truly want to assess writing skills and critical thinking skills, then the tests cannot be multiple choice. Same for math - grading the steps followed to achieve an answer, rather than just the correct answer might be more productive but is significantly more time consuming.

As a society, we must decide "what does a high school graduate look like? What skills should he/she have to survive in the 21st century. But since every high school student will follow a different route to learning, it is almost impossible to have a "single" vision. We tell our students from day 1 in Kindergarten that a successful person goes to college and make that the goal/aim for everyone. At the same time, we know that barely 25% of our population has a college degree - in other words - we tell 75% of our students that they are unlikely to be successful from day one and yet are shocked at their lack of motivation to do well in class.... Do we need to reassess what success looks like? Should we be concentrating more on the lifelong learner as a vision of success? As a society, we want to assess what our students do in school - we want to be sure that our teachers are teaching well and that our students are learning what they need - but without a clear vision of what learning looks like, we cannot simply take the old "test" and apply it and hope to achieve success.

2. We put all students in the same classrooms thinking that if we treat them all the same, they all have the same opportunities. This doesn't make sense to me. A student who "gets" math easily may do fine in a larger class that moves quickly because they are all at the same level and all students are interested in the topic, whereas some students may need (not just benefit from) more personalized instruction in a smaller class to actually begin to understand. We also need to remember that equal opportunity does not mean equal achievement, for a variety of reasons.

3. Instead of assuming that every subject can be taught in a 54 minute session every day( or 90 minutes every other day) - could we allocate larger blocks of time (3x54 minutes for example to a science class that may need an experiment set up/take down) and still keep the smaller, daily sessions for things such as foreign language, where daily practice/repetition is vital. Who says we have to have 54 minutes per day for everything?

4. Can we acknowledge/define the basic skills that are needed in the 21st century. We no longer need to be able to regurgitate facts on demand. We need the information/visual and computer literacy skills to deal with the information that comes at us from every angle. A successful person today must be able to do more than read, write and do math - they must be able to identify where information might be located,( print/digital), how to access it (use of databases in a library, is one example, rahter than just using the first search engine they think of) and must also be able to evaluate the veracity /validity of the information they have located and its' relevance to the problem at hand. Yet we still need to have a basic set of skills, such as history/geography/ etc as a background to build on as we move into the mode of lifelong learner. A 21st century learner must also think critically, and ask questions. Yet our testing at the moment demands that they regurgitate a definitive answer rather than think about concepts and how they are applied to real life.
School can no longer be a place to simply "get educated" - it has to be a place where we begin our education, not finish it...

5. As a society, we must also begin to think of how we are going to assess learning in this 21st Century. Until now, one went to school, got a diploma and then possibly (if you were lucky) went on to college and got a degree Fewer people had Master's degrees and even fewer had PhD's. Today, many more people will continue to follow this traditional route and those degrees/diplomas are still extremely valuable to list on a resume as a way of showing what we have learned. However, more and more people will have access to education and classes which they do not pay for (Open Educational Resources such as those offered by MIT and now the University of the People at ). Those prepared at school to become life long learners will be able to make the most of these opportunities, no matter where they are located geographically, or what their circumstances in life. People will have the opportunity to study whatever they choose, rather than what the local college/University/CE Dept. offers. As a society - we will have to acknowledge this "open" learning and move beyond the concept that only learning that takes place in the classroom is worthy of validation (testing) .. and we will somehow have to decide how to assess the lifelong learning that is accumulated in a way that makes it meaningful for employers.

Once we decide on a shared vision (which could incorporate multiple visions) - then we need to alllow parents to choose which school to send their children to, rather than insisting on the school in the area in which they live. There are currently many magnet schools that require some form of admission tests. For parents who cannot afford to live in the "right" school district, they should have an option to take their children to the higher performing schools if they are willing to work to achieve the grades needed.

Just a few thoughts on some of the ways we need to adjust our thinking if we are to continue improving. (and please understand that I'm open to active discussion on all of these suggestions) I'm not at all sure how we will achieve these changes (other than being actively involved in the policy making committees that you suggested) but I look forward to a conversation about this and to hearing some other people's thoughts on this topic.


April 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjanmac60

Doug, I must be broken. Help me understand.

Once upon a time, I could write something similar to what you have above, even debate it. Now, I find the topic a waste of time (not your writing, but my spending the time to dole out the advice).

Something is broken. When did it break?

Did it break when I found out the name of "they" and it didn't make a difference when I said something again and again?
Did it break when I found myself saying "no" to teachers as enthusiastic as I remember myself because it went again admin procedure?
Did it break when I realized I could not effect change in the system around me, but only, a little bit, in myself?

Thank you for the story.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel Guhlin

Hi Miguel (and everyone who must feel like him right now),

It saddens me to read this, especially from someone like you who I see as a "mover and a shaker."

Given the state of educational politics in Texas and elsewhere, I can understand why you might feel "broken." Even in the best of times, it is an act of faith that those of us not working directly with students are making a difference in the educational system.

Personally, frustration either makes me sad or makes me mad. Mad is always better. If I'm going to go down, I want to do it fighting.


April 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

About the not letting people bring personal laptop on a school network, well we are. I,m a 7th grader from Nagle middle school, google: nagle middle school pilot program, if you don't believe me or for more info, enjoy

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered

Hi Jan,

Lots of food for thought here. My sense is that "individualization" of education will be (or ought to be) the next major change that technology allows schools to offer. Our current model, as you suggest, is broken for too many kids.

I hope you work to make your vision a reality!

Thanks again for sharing - another example of when the comments have more value than the original post.



Our district allows students on its wireless network and have had no problems. Thanks for voicing a student's POV.


April 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thank you for the post. Great information here. In my district the collaboration and relationship between "The" technology and my department (instructional technology) has been so crucial in making strides in the right direction. These are baby strides, but positive strides nonetheless. :) When was in the classroom I used the "they" statements a lot, and still hear them a lot from classroom teachers now. I always follow those up with, "Well who are you making your case to?". The reply I usually get is, "Well I haven't made my case to anyone."

Whenever I'm finishing up a PD session, teaching a grad class, whatever; I cannot stress the importance to teachers of the point you made in #5. Share information! I implore them to share what they're doing with technology. Invite your principal in when you're Skyping with another class or expert, email the entire staff at your building and share why you think they're students would love it, invite school board members, etc., etc. We have to share what's going on in our classrooms. No more of this isolating ourselves on an island with the door closed stuff!

Thanks again Doug.

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKyle

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