It’s gut-check time in our schools and our education system writ large. We need to invest our resources in people first, and things, if they help advance our vision, second.
Assistant Principal, New Hyde Park Memorial High School
Since the ed tech game began, superintendents across the country have dispatched their very own Indiana Joneses to scour the furthest reaches of Silicon Valley in search of the perfect mix of technological tools—the holy grail.
This holy grail promises to eliminate inequity, terminate uninspiring instructional practices, and catapult schools to their interconnected, hyper-collaborative, post-Industrial Age destinies. But, there’s a catch, as the Grail Knight warns: “Choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.”
To make matters more complicated, the true Grail does not exist. Well, not in Silicon Valley at least. So, why does the chase continue?
A major reason districts are in hot pursuit of what’s new and shiny in the ed tech world is because they have yet to robustly define how they plan to educate learners in the 21st century. They let the technology (and the itch to keep up with the pallets of tech rolling in to neighboring districts) define it for them, which is most often created in response to the needs of a bygone era.
Rather than continue with this misguided search, what if we upgraded the hardware that will far outlast any tool we purchase? What if we chose to upgrade our teams (and ourselves) with a next-generation operating system so that we could provide powerful learning opportunities where technology was appropriately integrated to support those opportunities (rather than be seen as the opportunities themselves)?
Honoring the Tenets of Powerful Learning
In his book, The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman brilliantly summarized the theoretical underpinnings that should define learning in the 21st-century. His theory is represented by a simple equation:
The combination of a young person’s curiosity and passion will prove more valuable in a fast moving world than their intelligence alone. Knowing a static set of facts and figures is no longer the ticket that leads to future success. The requirements have shifted to a much broader and more complex array of critical thinking, rapid innovation, and the ability to develop new skills on demand. In short, “knowing” has been replaced by “the ability to learn” as the ticket that leads to a lifetime of fulfillment.
Learning is a phenomenon that occurs through things like inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and discourse. And, if curiosity and passion are at the foundation of that exploration, the motivation to engage goes through the roof.
Building the Human Capital to Provide Powerful Learning Experiences
The foundation upon which the 20th-century industrialized classroom model was constructed is crumbling—and that process has been monumentally accelerated due to the current pandemic. While some may advocate using heavy duty duct tape to hold together the crumbling infrastructure, it is wiser to lay a new foundation, upon which a modern education system may thrive. And, in particular, a system that redefines the roles of the adults in that system.
If curiosity and passion are to be cultivated, we must abandon our singular obsession with curricular content—and the subsequent deluge of assessments that have become false idols to which many continue praying. And, instead, design learning experiences that pique interest and cultivate discovery. Discovery of knowledge, of skills, and of self.
The reality is that content knowledge is not what teachers are most needed for any longer. When a person wants information, they ask Siri or Alexa. But, teachers are absolutely still needed. In fact, they are needed more than ever, as millions of parents realized when their kitchens became remote learning classrooms in March.
Designing lessons that motivate and engage is the conventional way of making learning meaningful and interesting to the designers (i.e. the adults)…What if instead educators provided opportunities for students to make learning meaningful and interesting for themselves?
Assistant Principal, New Hyde Park Memorial High School
Today’s learning spaces need educators who inspire children to uncover their innermost potential. These educators need to be experts in relationship building—getting to know kids for who they are as individuals—and able to model what powerful learning looks and feels like.
When the conventional school day begins, regardless of its location, are students excited to be there or have they resigned themselves to the helplessness associated with a compulsory education? The answer often has to do with how learning is motivated and the subsequent activities that are designed to maintain engagement.
Designing lessons that motivate and engage is the conventional way of making learning meaningful and interesting…to the designers (i.e. the adults). Of course, it is done in the hopes of being compelling to the students, but it is the educator who chooses the materials, the duration, the questions, and every other element of the lesson.
What if instead educators provided opportunities for students to make learning meaningful and interesting for themselves? This is where the integration of technology can stoke the flames of curiosity and passion, opening doors to meaningful learning opportunities for all.
Integrating Technology into this New World of Learning
Two thousand years ago, Greek mathematician Archimedes, used his mastery of science and math to become a master of war. He famously quipped, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.” Today, educators have the longest lever ever devised in the form of web-enabled devices. Yet, in many classrooms the world remains unmoved. Was Archimedes wrong?
If I may paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our Chromebooks, but in ourselves.” Although technology has given us a lever the length of the world’s circumference, we have misplaced the fulcrum.
In a learning environment, the fulcrum represents how we teach, engage, and inspire. And, where we place it, in relation to the lever, makes all the difference. Let’s first examine where we’ve been placing the fulcrum in the conventional classroom:
When teachers simply utilize instructional technology to share things, they are essentially conducting wireless transactions. These methods have been the hallmark of remote learning for years, and they are a major reason why it has failed to engage students over the long haul.
Now, transactions are not without merit. Transactions provide an element of efficiency, a reduction in required resources (paper, ink, binders), and access to a wealth of information.
But, as you can see from the graphic above, it does not provide the full potential of the lever. There isn’t enough information sharing in the world that will provide the force needed to launch young people into dynamic and fulfilling lives.
For educators who are clear on what makes for powerful learning experiences, they notice if they move the fulcrum to the left, they can maximize the leverage technology provides. In other words, they can use their digital tools to transform learning, rather than simply make it more efficient.
By emphasizing transformation, educators can use technology to stoke the fires of engagement, ownership, and individuality. Isn’t this exactly how people instinctively interact with their devices when they are not required to sit in parallel rows in conventional classrooms? We explore what’s of unique interest to us. Integrating what’s instinctual supports powerful learning and just makes sense.
Engaging critical digital literacies, such as composing multimodal demonstrations of knowledge and learning, not only meets students where they are, but maximizes leverage by exponentially increasing the instructional power of the tools. The end result is the establishment of meaningful and personalized learning experiences—the drivers of authentic learning.
Fulfilling New Visions for Learning
It’s time to call back our Indiana Joneses and first imagine what makes for a powerful, relevant, and meaningful learning experience in the 21st-century (a century that is already twenty percent over, so we might want to get going).
Once our vision is established, we must reimagine the roles everyone plays within the system—and, recognize how much more we can empower educators to lead young people in discovering knowledge and skills that are representative of their curiosities and passions.
Finally, we must take advantage of the leverage technology provides in making this transformation in learning a reality. The sooner educators ease into these technological changes and grow tech mindsets, the more comfortable they will become and the more dynamic they will be.
It’s gut-check time in our schools and our education system writ large. We need to invest our resources in people first, and things, if they help advance our vision, second. If you’re ready to be a leader of future greatness, rather than a manager of past practice, the time to act is now.