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Friday
Dec022005

When Techies Don’t Get It

A colleague sent around an article, “When Teachers Don’t Get It: Myths, Misconceptions and other Taradiddle” by Jim Holland that appeared on the TechLearning website. Go read it, and then come back.
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OK, I can just hear all the marbles rattling as many of my fellow tech directors nod their heads in agreement with Mr. Holland.

But quite honestly, I was appalled by both the tone and message of the article. Mr. Holland seems not to have an empathetic bone in his body. (There was no bio in the article, but tracking back his e-mail domain, it seems Mr. Holland works for the Arlington, Texas public schools. I’m guessing he has some responsibility for technology.)

It’s time to call out my alter ego, Norm L. Teacher. (Some guys get Spiderman. I get Norm. Life’s not fair.)

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When Techies Don’t Get It
By Norm L. Teacher

Dear Mr. Holland,

Thank you first for adding a new word, “taradiddle,” to my vocabulary. The time I spent reading your article was not wasted.

I am a fairly typical 9th grade Language Arts instructor here in Left Overshoe HS. I meet with five classes of about 30 children for 180 days each year. I am neither a Luddite nor technophobe. I have a computer at home with cable Internet access. I use it to do e-mail, to research and write papers for my graduate classes, to do my banking on-line and to play chess. I have a digital camera I use often. I can set the clock on my VCR.

Yet, I am one of those teachers you say offers “excuses.” Such a pejorative term, “excuses,” Mr. Holland. Let’s both be adults here and call them reasons, shall we, and examine their validity.

“I don’t have time,” you offer as hogwash for not using technology “even when it is placed before [us].”
My guess is that it has been a few years since you’ve been a classroom teacher, Mr. Holland. The name of the game today is accountability. I have state standards to which I must teach. There are state tests that students must pass. Technology is not mentioned in either of these. My goals as a teacher are to make sure my students master the curriculum and pass state tests. My job depends on me meeting these goals. Until technology skills are either a part of our standards or are tested, they will remain a means to an end, not the end itself, as much as this may disappoint you. And until technology proves more efficient or effective than traditional methods in helping me meet these goals, it will be a method I may in good conscience choose not to employ.

Let’s look at your example of Ms Brady using a digital camera and word processing software to complete a “fact vs. opinion” unit. Lovely activity, but one that could be done in a class period with paper and pencil rather than in a week of class periods with the technology components. Having four class periods to reinforce the concept in other ways is a better use of time than possibly giving children exposure (certainly not mastery) of technology skills that will most likely be outdated in a couple years.

Our curricula are packed to the gills, sir. If you let me know which of the state mandated objectives I can remove in order to teach placing a digital photo in a word processing program, I’d be happy to give up this “excuse.”

“We don’t have any good software to use.”
I have vehemently argued against canned, drill and kill software for quite some time. As a creative person myself, I understand the value of what you call “open-ended” software packages or I might call “productivity tools.” These tools - word processors, graphic organizers, spreadsheets, databases, etc. -  are the mental Legos with which my students can construct and display ideas. I don’t like the teacher-proofed software any better than I like teaching with the worksheets that come with the textbook.

I would argue that we don’t have sufficient and sufficiently reliable hardware on which to run our software. My classes of 30 use a lab with 28 machines, which I have never seen all running at one time. I share this lab with a dozen colleagues in my high school and scheduling is a nightmare. My technology director tells me that I should always have two lesson plans – one for when the technology works and one for when it doesn’t. My response to this suggestion would be impolite so I’ll just let it go.

When the district and state decide to make a financial commitment that will ensure me easy access to adequate,  well-supported, fully-functioning equipment that shares with the analog telephone a 99.999% reliability rate, I will stop offering this “bunk” for not embracing technology more completely.

“I am not a computer person.”
Actually you are right about this. I’d like to think of myself as a people person. And I while no one likes looking foolish in front of students (or anyone), I’ve never had a problem admitting personal ignorance on any topic – even to my students. My best staff development experiences in technology have been those when my tech savvy kids, bless their patient little hearts, have done the teaching. The kids teach me the in’s and out’s of Word; I teach them how to write compelling sentences with it. Pretty fair trade, wouldn’t you say?

Please treat me as an adult learner when it comes to technology “training.” I want an IEP, not a boot camp, where I am expected to endure classes on technology of small relevance to my style of teaching or my curriculum. I am sure a spreadsheet is a marvelous tool. I am sure I could learn to use it. I am just not sure why I would want to. Let me spend my scarce time, funds and energies looking at things that I as a “people” person would find useful – brain-based research, best practices in teaching writing, and differentiated instruction, to name a few areas. If you can integrate tech into any of these instructional practices, you bet I'll be there and listening.

Oh, and please use the principles of effective staff development when doing tech training – focus on student achievement, the use of professional learning communities and peer-mentoring. If you want me to be a better tech student, you’d better be a better tech teacher.

Mr. Holland, you techies think about technology 98% of the time and real people think about it 2% of the time. Call me a computer person and I’ll just have to think of something nasty to call you back.

“My students can’t behave – they don’t deserve going to the computer lab.”
Sorry, I am one of those teachers who think (and are backed by research) that personal interest reading increases reading skills. I also happen to think that students when allowed to use the Internet to research topics of personal interest are learning as well.

Despite your best efforts to drain the motivational quality of technology from school, you’ve not quite accomplished it. It remains still the best reason for its use that I have found. My kids do like to write when they are able to edit easily, do peer-review, and publicly share their work because of technology. I’m sure with filters, lock-downs, and limits, you techies will, with enough effort, manage to somehow make technology as thrilling as a basal reader. Keep up the good fight!

“Let’s not Beat Around the Bush” (Why did you capitalize this subheading and not the others? Your editor should be beaten with a copy of Warriner’s Grammar!)
You may not know this, Mr. Holland, but we teachers are not overly fond of being compared to children. It's not a way to win teacher friends. Especially when it is only because we are less than enthusiastic about technology - a movement that can be argued that has never been as much about teaching and learning as it has been about technology company profits.

Give us a little credit for being professionals. Show me the research that definitively shows the use of any technology improves student learning. Convince me that spending on plastic and silicon is more prudent than on early childhood education, lower class sizes, or better libraries. Tell me how the questions in Alliance for Childhood’s Fools Gold and Tech Tonic reports have been answered.

Mr. Holland, when two people have different educational priorities or opinions, it does not make one an adult and the other a child.

Just because “Techs don’t get it,” doesn’t give me license to tease them. I could say thank you for your article because I not only learned the word “taradiddle,” but you allowed me to apply it immediately. But I won’t.

Sincerely,

Norm L. Teacher

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Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind, calls empathy one of the skills needed to survive in the “conceptual age.” Until we as techies start empathizing with our teachers, administrators, and students, our efforts will go off course and we will get ulcers.

Happy to read any counter arguments from my techie friends.

Thursday
Dec012005

An inhuman thing

“[It] destroys memory [and] weakens the mind, relieving it of…work that makes it strong. [It] is an inhuman thing.”
The sentiment above is from  Phaedrus - Plato quoting Socrates in 500 B.C. Greece. The “it” in the quote is writing.

Socrates was nervous since his information technology of the day, memorization, was about to be aced out by a new information technology, the stylus.

I thought about that quote when reading Naomi Baron’s Los Angles Times opinion piece (reprinted in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune) called “Killing the written word by snippets.” In it she bemoans:
Will effortless random access [to snippets of books made available through Google Book Search] erode our collective respect for writing as a logical, linear process? Such respect matters because it undergirds modern education, which is premised on thought, evidence and analysis rather than memorization and dogma. Reading successive pages and chapters teaches us how to follow a sustained line of reasoning.
Any echoes of Socrates in Baron’s worry?

Could linear thinking, stubbornly following a path (Stay the course!) be as harmful as it is productive?

 

Random abstracts, unite! (But form a mob, not a straight line please.)

 PS.  T-shirt slogan in a recent gift catalog: “They say I have A.D.D. but they just don’t understand. Oh Look! A chicken!”

 

Wednesday
Nov302005

Fiction meets tech

I admit I am a voracious fiction reader – mostly of books my mother would not approve of me reading. While I do like a graceful writing style and am growing increasingly intolerant of clumsy novelists, I still like in large doses sex, mayhem, murder, mystery and, well, more sex, murder, mayhem and mystery. I appreciate any genre –sci fi, historical fiction, thriller, technical manual – that includes sex, mayhem, murder, and mystery.

In my article on e-books, I speculated:

From reports of developing technologies, one may safely conclude a true e-book:…
Will change the nature of “fiction.” Many writers may experiment with text that is customizable by the end user for both artistic and commercial purposes. The reader may substitute the name of his or her current inamorata or inamorato for the protagonist (or murder victim). The latest Stephen King can be set to mild, scary or terrifying, or Harold Robbins to suggestive, lurid, or … well, let’s not go there. Video games and fiction may merge and the skills and choices of the reader/player may determine the outcome of the plot. Today’s most highly rated video games are plot-driven. Metal Gear Solid: the Twin Snakes is an example, according to my gamer son.

What great fun for those of us who are not literary purists. (Although I have enough English major in my bones to think that an electronic book in which George lets Lenny live or Beowulf gets bested by Grendel’s mom would somehow lead to the eventual collapse of civilization.)

It’s fun to see a couple other folks thinking on the same lines:
Once we have cheap e-books, the medium by which we read will also be a medium by which can write and respond. Reading will cease being a solitary act and will become a social one. You can see this already with blogs. David Weinberger's JoHo the Blog
Can the Sims or Second Life be considered a work of on-going fiction? Is e-mail correspondence ever literature? Are there novels in blog form in existence? (Dickens, after all, made his fortune by serializing his novels.)

Julia  Keller in her article,  Plugged in Proust, Nov 27 Chicago Tribune, writes:
Literature, like all genres, is being reimagined and remade by the constantly unfolding extravagance of technological advances. The question of who's in charge -- the producer or the consumer -- is increasingly relevant to the literary world. The idea of the book as an inert entity is gradually giving way to the idea of the book as a fluid, formless repository for an ever-changing variety of words and ideas by a constantly modified cast of writers.
English teachers beware!

 
Are hypertext minds be more likely to read hypertext novels? How would you like your favorite recreational reading material to take advantage of electronic publication? Or would you just as soon it didn’t?