Monday, October 11, 2010

Educators as Life Long Learners

One of the things I hear about all the time in my position is, “I don’t have time to…” fill in the blank with whatever technology it is that I’m trying to help teachers learn. It’s probably the single most irksome thing that I deal with, and I’d be happy to tell you why.

When we ask ourselves what we want educationally for our students and our own children, “lifelong learning” appears near the top of every list in some form or another. Why, then, are we as a collective group of educators NOT modeling this very behavior?

How did it ever become acceptable for an educator to refuse to learn something vital to their students? How many times have you heard that it is important for teachers to model the behavior they expect from students? What message does it send, then, when we say we don’t have time to learn something that is critical to our students’ education?

Maybe the last point is where I lose some of you; you don’t agree that technology is an important part of the education for all students, and so you have been holding out on learning new skills in the hope that it will just go away, like so many other educational initiatives. Two things are wrong with that logic; one is that I don’t believe anyone can argue that at least SOME of their students would benefit from the use of technology in the classroom (and if even one student needs it, you should be using it), and the other is that this is not an educational initiative-it’s the way the world operates now. It’s time to catch up with it. Just because teaching hasn’t changed much in the last several decades doesn’t mean that most other professions haven’t. If anyone would like to debate this issue, I welcome the discourse.

I should clarify what I mean when I say “use technology”. I don’t want anyone to use technology in a classroom if it doesn’t have an impact on the learning. Sometimes the impact comes in the form of motivation when using a “cool” tool, but that’s not what I advocate. Nor do I advocate automating tasks to free up time. Sitting students at a computer to do drill-and-kill types of activities is NOT good technology integration. Yes, the instant feedback offered by many of these sites and programs is supported by research, but true integration goes much deeper.

Good technology integration uses appropriate tools to accomplish tasks that students couldn’t do without it; it helps them to think more deeply about subjects, interact with peers and experts all over the world, create and publish authentic work that is both useful and relevant, interact with the world when disabilities would otherwise be a roadblock, analyze information that was once held by one person in the room, provide access to all the world’s knowledge collectively, and the list goes on. Hopefully the difference between these approaches is clear.

Back to my argument-how is it acceptable practice for teachers to refuse or avoid learning how to empower students with these tools?

When I was in college studying to become a teacher, my professors made a point to remind us that we would not have much of a life outside of school; that if we were there for the summers, we needed to choose another career. It was made painfully obvious to us that continuing to learn would be an integral part of our professions. New things are discovered all the time. Maps change, books are rewritten, scientific discoveries are made, opinions change, and on and on. This should not be news to anyone. Why, then, is it acceptable to keep up on whether or not we call it Istanbul or Constantinople, but still not know the difference between a blog and a wiki? Let me put the period on this point by asking another question; when you go to the doctor, do you expect him or her to be using the latest advances in medical technology, or would you be fine with them pulling out a jar of leeches to suck out the evil spirits causing your ails?

Now let’s talk about the ‘time’ issue. When you consider all the things that technology can do-from removing roadblocks to providing a platform for expression, thought, and growth-it should be the top priority for every educator when they budget their time.

I am a former fifth and sixth grade teacher. Believe me, I understand the fact that there are hundreds of things teachers are responsible for above and beyond simply working with kids. We’ve all seen the comparisons of what we do today vs. what we did a hundred years ago. Sometimes it feels we are solely responsible for the upbringing of an entire generation. I get that. But, when you look at all of the tools at your disposal to accomplish the impossible, how is it that we tend to overlook the fact that technology may be our greatest “multi-tool” for getting there? Time is precious to all of us, and technology can help you accomplish more in less time, and with better results. So when we look at how to spend our time, we should recognize that learning how to better use the technology tools at our disposal is maybe the most efficient use of it.

Teaching is an art, and technology can provide an entirely new and vast set of brushes, let alone canvas on which to paint your learning experiences. The time to embrace that concept is long overdue.

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