Without question, and for obvious reasons, technology is the area I have changed the most in my philosophy. At the beginning of this program I viewed technology as a tool but also as an end in and of itself. It was my belief that technology should be included for its own sake because our students are immersed in technology outside of the world. But my understanding of what this means has gone much deeper since. The quote that I like to think best sums up my new views towards technology comes from Alan November (November Learning):
If you ask teachers, “What technology should we buy to improve learning?” many teachers cannot answer that question intelligently. But if you focus on information communication planning and you ask every teacher, “What information do you want? What relationships do you want?” then every teacher can participate.
What I appreciate about November’s approach is that he sees technology as being a tool to help reach an end independent of the technology, but one facilitated through the technology’s use. I have heard simpler forms of this bandied about Twitter in the form of “Don’t teach just the tool” or “Technology should not be an event.” All come from the same mindset that technology in the classroom should be ubiquitous in nature and not an end unto itself.
I have put this philosophy into practice in my technology lab by constantly asking the teachers that come see me, “What are the students in your room learning?” One example was earlier this school year, the second graders were working on word problems in math. I designed a three lesson sequence around students using Lego’s Comic Builder so they could create three-panel word problems of their own. They have also used virtual manipulatives (yes I realize the oxymoron) to create patterns and pictures out of virtual shape blocks. Students have also taken lists of spelling words or sight words to create sentences and then make a virtual avatar speak them back. In short, when kids enter the technology lab at my school, the aim is never solely to teach a website, a program, or a piece of hardware. I do give some direct instruction on the basics of the tool, but it is always within the context of the content they will be working with, or to give them some structure to facilitate exploration time with the tool.
I have also put the idea of technology not being separate from content or pedagogy into practice in my coaching. My school is currently in the midst of implementing Google Apps. Before demonstrating Google Docs for students, I make sure teachers have an idea of what they want students publishing on Docs and integrate that into my demonstration. Also, I rarely bring a new tool/website to a teacher or classroom until they express a need that would adequately be filled by a given tool. For example, one of our fifth grade teachers wanted students to realize how many years took place between the events leading to the American Revolution, which meant making time-lines. She was aware, however, that students often equally space or inappropriately bunch events when they create time-lines by hand. I suggested using Dipity or TimeGlider so students could create time-lines and have the website calculate the appropriate spacing of events. What I’d like to bring explicit attention to is that while Dipity allowed students to incorporate images or video with the events, we did not teach students these functions because they were outside of the content aim of getting students to realize the temporal relations of the causes of the American Revolution. By not bringing that into the mix, students were able to focus solely on the content aim without the noise of bells and whistles getting in the way of the learning goals.
Since getting my bachelor’s degree, I have believed in a constructionist account of learning, meaning that students build knowledge on previous knowledge and through meaningful interactions with their environment. While there was nothing in the program to dissuade me from this line of thinking, I certainly picked up a new wrinkle to this pedagogical disposition while researching a paper for my second master’s course. One of the major subjects for this paper was Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). While familiar with the essential thrust behind ZPD, that it is the difference between what can be done independently and what can only be done with assistance, what I was not familiar with was how the idea came to be. According to Gray and Feldman (2004), the idea of the ZPD came from Vygotsky’s observation that children develop knowledge and skills by interacting with more experienced peers or adults and often execute new functions by collaborating with others before they attempt them on their own. What had been missing from my understanding was this social aspect to learning. This seemingly simple notion has changed a great deal of my practice and brought into sharper focus why certain methods work over others. It has also highlighted for me the real power behind Web 2.0’s social and interactive nature.
Any time I teach something new to students now I am sure I explicitly model for them what to do. I take time to reflect on the three or four things students absolutely need to be able to know how to do to successfully explore a tool or complete an assignment and model those three or four things for them. During their exploration time, I encourage students to collaborate with each other by asking each other how someone did something, and then model for each other how they did whatever it is that grabbed another student’s attention. During this exploration time it is not uncommon for 25% of the class to be out of their seats helping each other. As a result, I have noticed that while I only teach the students 3 or 4 basic functions, at the end of the exploration time each student has learned about 10-12 functions. It is this social interaction that helps students more than my direct instruction. I have also used the idea of social learning by teaching small groups of students how to use a tool prior to presenting it to the whole class. This way we have multiple “experts” in the room to assist and further the social aspect of the learning. These peer experts also capitalize on the phenomena of “kid speak” being a better facilitator of learning then “teacher speak”
In regard to social learning and Web 2.0, I have found that engagement in students rises when they realize their work will be received by an authentic audience. Recently, one of our third grade classes published book reviews to their class blog. Knowing that they were going to receive comments from students at other schools, the students not only responded positively to feedback from their teacher and myself, they also consistently asked for it at a rate not seen before. Before this program I would have mistaken this increased engagement and concern for the quality of their work with the mere fact that technology was in their hands. And while that is certainly a contributing factor, there is no doubt in my mind that the real driving force behind the shift in this class is from the social aspect. As a slight aside, the teacher of this class has also noted that the sense of community in her room has greatly increased and she attributes it to students helping other students with the technological tasks they are faced with during the publishing process.
The area I have probably changed the least in my beliefs as a result of my master’s program is in the area of content. I have long held the belief that content should be as student driven and student-centric as possible. With content that is centered around student interests or driven by student questions, the content becomes more meaningful to students and, thus, more likely to be learned. And because each student has their own zone of proximal development, I question the current wisdom of curricular designers that seems to establish a single path to mastery of the different content areas. The following quote from John Dewey sums up many of my feelings on the issue of content:
I believe that there is, therefore, no succession of studies in the ideal school curriculum. If education is life, all life has, from the outset, a scientific aspect; an aspect of art and culture and an aspect of communication. It cannot, therefore, be true that the proper studies for one grade are mere reading and writing, and that at a later grade, reading, or literature, or science, may be introduced. The progress is not in the succession of studies but in the development of new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience.
I would like to pay particular attention to the words “in the development of new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience.” Dewey is clearly not interested in students who can regurgitate isolated facts. Nor is he interested in students who can follow a recipe to write a 5 paragraph essay. Instead, he is interested in helping students to experience new things, reflect on those experiences, and then find new ways of thinking or new avenues for future learning. I believe this way of looking at content not as isolated facts, but as a mechanism to develop new understandings translates exceptionally well to my chosen content area of technology.
It is true that technology has numerous platforms and there are countless websites and tools in existence that learning specific procedures for every single program or website would simply overwhelm students. Instead, when I do decide to teach a specific procedure, I try to make sure it is a procedure that will have numerous applications, and I try to teach it in a way that will have as much universal applicability as possible. For example, I teach keyboard shortcuts for selecting all, copying, and pasting because they are fairly universal, as opposed to their location within menus, which is not.
These skills also open up many doors for students to a variety of tools that will help them communicate their ideas more effectively. Text can be selected and copied from any word processor or website and then pasted into Voki, Wordle, or KidBlog, to name a few. Once the words reach these tools, students can publish their ideas and receive feedback from others. In other words, I do not teach them copy and paste simply to teach them how to move text. I teach it to them because moving text facilitates the development of ideas in one tool and then the communication of ideas in another. It is the feedback that results from the communication that leads to new understandings and attitudes. Again, that end goal of developing new attitudes and interests is what drives many of the curricular decisions I make.
Gray, P., & Feldman, J. (2004, February). Playing in the zone of proximal development: Qualities of self-directed age mixing between adolescents and young children at a democratic school. American Journal of Education, 110(2), 108-145. Retrieved from Academic Search Premiere database. (12513520)
Koheler, M. J. (2011, May 13). What is TPACK? In What is TPACK? Retrieved December 4, 2011, from http://tpck.org/
November, A. (2009, February). 4. Don’t do Technology Plans. In Creating a New Culture of Teaching and Learning. Retrieved December 3, 2011, from November Learning website: http://novemberlearning.com/resources/archive-of-articles/creating-culture