An Encounter With EduTech Economics

A few weeks ago, I went to a training session, wherein I was introduced to the Promethean-brand interactive whiteboard.

I’ve been curious about these things for a while – I spent most of October and November visiting a school which had one of these in every classroom – and my colleagues and I have often spent time wondering: is this a worthwhile piece of technology?  I considered this training a chance to find out.

Here’s my assessment:

As far as pure utility, I believe that one of these devices – a Promethean board or a SMARTboard – is technically better than the next best thing, which would be the combination of a standard whiteboard and a projector.  Unfortunately, the interactive board’s advantages are pretty incremental.  For one thing, when you’ve got an interactive board, you don’t have to raise or lower any projector screens when you want to write or draw something for your class to see – you can just do it, and what’s more, you can do it on top of pictures or text that you’re looking at – offering a handy tool to annotate stuff on-the-fly.  You can also manipulate the elements of any digital presentation with a stylus as you teach, instead of having to go back and forth between the board and your computer.  (Of course, you could solve this problem with a reasonably-priced clicker.)

…But as far as I can see, that’s kind of it.  And it has to be said: the (small) ways in which this technology changes education seem mainly to be focused on the experience of the teacher, not the students.  I’ve seen for myself that from the students’ perspective, they may as well just be watching another PowerPoint or hand-drawing on a dry-erase board; they’re not experiencing anything different.

Add to all of this the fact that the cheapest Promethean board I could find online was almost $1700, while the most expensive VGA projector and dry-erase board combination I could find totaled out at under $500…and I know which purchase I would make.  In my view, an interactive board is technically a more powerful presentation tool; but my questions are: A) is presenting synonymous with teaching?, and B) does an interactive board really have a $1200 advantage over more “conventional” tools?  My answer to both questions is “no”.

Especially when you consider that that $1200 difference could be spent on 4 iPad Minis, as part of what I would deem a much more useful effort toward democratizing computing power and putting digital tools in the hands of students, rather than on the Tech Altar in front of them, at the “head” of the class.

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Loveducation.

Early in his book A Sustainable StartJohn T. Spencer asserts that “love” is one of the most important parts of teaching – if you love your students, he claims, then you can’t go far wrong as a teacher.

This notion – and I think specifically, Spencer’s use of the word “love”, generated a surprising (to me) degree of push-back from my teacher-ed cohort during our conversations this week.  This comes on the heels of a very timely and productive – if stressful – discussion we had recently about professionalism in (our) classroom, discussion norms, and the dichotomy in our profession between professional dignity and the need for emotion, connection, and caring.  These two conversations had a lot of conceptual overlap, and generated a lot of profound thoughts.  Here are some of mine.

1.  In your teaching career, you won’t always be able to be genuinely sunny, happy, and “apparently” caring – this job will be hard, and that’s where professionalism comes in, because you have to perform anyway, and part of that means appearing to care.

2.  Nevertheless, here and now sitting comfortably, we can all agree that we wouldn’t be getting into this profession if we didn’t care about all of our students doing well.

3.  You can’t make caring effective if you aren’t relating to students on a personal level – getting to know them, letting them know you, really developing a connection.  To many (including myself), that sort of relationship – with caring, mutual knowledge, and vulnerability as hallmarks – that looks like “love”, and would be labelled as such.

4.  “Love”, perhaps, is a social construct and a cultural concept – something with a very relative definition.  Not all of us will apply “love” as a label for what we do in our classrooms.  It should be up to every one of us to define what we do however we wish to – what’s important is what we do, and whether our students learn/are served/grow as humans.

According to physics, any effect which perfectly simulates gravity may as well be gravity, from the perspective of the entity experiencing it – i.e., if your car’s accelerating so fast that it pushes you back in your seat, from your perspective, the car may as well be standing on its rear bumper – if all your windows were blacked out, you’d technically have no way to tell for sure which was the case.

Likewise, perhaps any effect – any emotional state or professional practice – which perfectly simulates love, may as well be love, if the result is the same – whether you feel comfortable defining it that way or not.  Students who feel safe, cared for, and pushed to succeed; teachers who ardently pursue their students’ success and agonize over whether those students are being properly served.  It amounts to the same effect, no matter the emotion behind it, or the label put upon it.

The Next Step

The first week of a new quarter of college classes is always a little surreal – doubly so when you’re also coming back into a learning-by-doing situation, i.e., teaching-methods classes where you have to jump right into figuring out how to help kids learn.

I’ve spent the last week being terrified that, over about 3 weeks of winter break (ah! the luxury), I forgot everything I learned last quarter.  This after I spent about 2 days compiling a digital portfolio of, essentially, everything relevant to teaching that I’ve learned or produced in the past year.  But I’m sure anyone who’s recently attended (or taught) any school knows what I mean: rooms full of students who stare blankly at the mention of even a simple concept which was delivered towards the end of the previous quarter.

Thankfully, my professors are doing a good job of including “briefly review such-and-such chapter” in their reading assignments, and I’m beginning to get my bearings back.  I’m very excited for this quarter, and for new secrets to teaching science and intermediate math and literacy to be unlocked – all three areas are going to be immensely helpful for me in my 5th-grade internship placement.  Science methods, in particular, is going to be a very fun class for me – I especially can’t wait for the chance to have some really meaty discussions regarding the purpose of teaching science, as well as how popular perceptions of it might help or hinder our attempts to do so.  I’m sure my readers will hear plenty more on this sort of thing from me in the coming quarter.

Anyway: here’s to a new quarter, and another step toward teacherdom.

Quarterly Reflection

And so we come toward the end of another quarter in my teacher training, and I set out once more to recap my experience of the past few months in the blogoverse.  Blogosphere?  No.  Blogoverse.

This quarter I think I’ve done two main things to enhance my blogging: I’ve been more authentic, and I’ve been more brief.  I believe that in previous quarters, I’ve tended far too much to long-windedness, and nobody wants to wrassle with a text-wall – especially when a good portion of my readers are my fellow classmates, and none of them has the time.  😉  As for the authenticity thing: I’ve been blogging more often about things which are close to my heart, and I’ve been connecting those things with broader contexts; this is probably the best example.  Also I’ve been putting a lot more of my actual teaching practice out there for public review – for instance, this.

These elements, I believe, make my writing more concrete, more relatable, and more interesting.  Please let me know whether you agree.  Which is another thing I think I’ve done well this quarter: putting questions out into the blogoverse.

As for contributing to other bloggers’ thinking: good examples here, where I connected ideas from a blog on the concept of an “ask me anything” machine to ideas about early literacy development; and here, where I asked some questions, and made some suggestions, about an English lesson, with a special view toward what to focus on when teaching a piece of literature you may not be familiar with, or may not even like.  I’m glad, in hindsight, of the requirement this quarter that we comment on each other’s blogs; it’s good to see conversations emerge, conversations which in many cases (in my experience) have carried over into the actual classroom.

I think my single biggest take-away from this quarter’s work with technology and connectivity as aids in teaching would be the familiarity I am continuing to develop with these tools.  I’ve been steadily incorporating my Twitter- and WordPress-capable devices into my daily patterns – keeping my phone handy to Tweet something I heard on the radio, for instance, or keeping my Nexus tablet in my coat-pocket to start tapping out a blog on a thought I just had.  Additionally, taking time to actually look at my Twitter and WordPress feeds is sort of a new thing for me; I’ll continue to work on that.  After all, like I said, it’s supposed to be a conversation – not just me shouting into a barrel.

Anyway, thanks for reading; trust me, there’s more to come.

Follow-Up on Flipped Classrooms

I posted about the “flipped classroom” – lectures online at home, and “homework” in school – a while back, with a special view toward how to sell parents on the practice.  During my drive to work the other morning, I was listening to KUOW (Seattle-area public radio) and heard a story on flipped classrooms which couldn’t be more perfect for my thinking – including an interview with a college professor who had advice on how to talk to parents.  Listen to it here.

The basics: Russel Mumper has been teaching in a basic lecture style for years, and when he (reluctantly) switched to focusing on work and practice in class while assigning online lectures at home, he saw a dramatic increase in both student engagement and the quality of student work; now he’ll never go back.  That kind of testimony, I think, would be incredibly valuable when trying to sell a parent on the practice, and I may in fact use it as such.  Not to mention the results of the study mentioned.

Pekakucha Thought Stream

I’m working on a pekakucha (which I’m only ever going to hear as “Pikachu“) with the theme of “Who I Am As A Teacher”.  As I’m thinking about the images I want to use, my own attributes as a teacher come bubbling to mind.

I will always be a joker.  That’s a part of my personality which will never be divorced from teaching.

I’m learning more about my “presence” as a teacher – tone of voice, stance, ways to approach students.  I’m becoming a little more serious and a little more responsible.  Sometimes I turn around and can’t quite figure out who I am.  It’s bizarre (but hopeful?).

I’m learning that this is about the long game – establishing yourself, getting yourself grounded, learning whatever it is you don’t have a chance to learn during actual teacher training.  Eventually gaining some security.  Slowly moving into a place where you can get your “real” work done – both in the classroom and beyond it.  This isn’t a process I’ve stepped into lightly.

How am I going to show these things in images?

No Son of Mine Won’t Do No Homework

The notion of school without homework is one which has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in the writings of Seth Godin.  It was a notion I hadn’t thought about for a while, until Jeff Utecht brought it up during a visit to one of my classes this past Monday.

Briefly: assuming all of your students have easy Internet access (a smaller and smaller assumption as the years go by, even for kids from lower-income families and especially in school districts with a 1:1 device ratio), and acknowledging that, by and large, a teacher is not the best lecturer in the world, nor is lecture/direct instruction the easiest way for all students to learn, then it is reasonable to assume that students are just as able to learn at home – by which I mean, absorb facts – as they are at school.  That being the case: instead of lecturing students at school and giving them packets to practice at home, why not assign them something online to watch or read – a widely accredited blog, a TED talk, an online journal article or two – and have them do that at home; then when they come to school the next day, give them a project to work on which builds on what they’ve learned.  That way, school is an environment in which students are constantly showing what they know, rather than being made aware of what they don’t; students see that learning happens throughout their lives and not just within a classroom; often, students all come to the table with the same information, and if they haven’t understood it, they have each other and their teacher to rely on.  They can do and learn, rather than just sitting back and being taught.  They can see their own, and each other’s, work unfold before them as they create it in a social setting which is seen as a resource rather than a distraction.

A good point was raised during Jeff’s presentation on Monday: if we have the technology to learn anything in the comfort of our own homes, why go to school?  Answer: because we are social animals.  Yet “socializing” is a word I so often hear used negatively in school settings, as in “The boys in my class just like to socialize, and don’t get any work done.”  Do I advocate for spending an entire school day recapping the latest [insert popular culture reference here]?  No.  But I do contend that “socializing” can be an asset to learning – and, used more broadly, is maybe even half the point of putting children together in school.

Anyway, thinking about all this “no-homework” theory (which educators worldwide have tried successfully at this point), I went to my first ever parent-teacher conference this past Saturday.  I observed (and only observed) two different conferences, and one of them went in an unexpected direction: the parent in question wound up rambling extensively on her son’s (not the child she was there to discuss, by the way) “disgusting” (her word) lack of homework which he was getting from his middle school.  She went on and on about how it was going to hurt him in the long run, that he’d be unprepared for schools which gave homework down the road.  (I did not have the chance to ask her whether her son was assigned videos or readings in place of the packets she obviously thought he should be doing.)

I admit I wilted a little bit, and this experience has left me with a couple of questions.

1.  Assuming the “no-homework” model is a good idea (as I have described it above), how do we sell it to parents who almost always will have grown up under a very different scholastic paradigm?

2.  Keeping the same assumption in mind, what do we say when such objections are raised?  Would I, indeed, be doing a disservice to my students by setting up an environment which, as I see it, is better for their learning, yet out of kilter with the way things are done, still, in so many schools today?  If they wind up in some of these other schools, will they be at a disadvantage?  If so, how can I counteract that disadvantage?

I have serious doubts that telling anxious parents “the System is outdated and needs to change” will do anything to assuage fears (of which there are a lot, aren’t there?).  So what do I say instead?