I have the good fortune (and challenge) to work as an educational administrator in a capacity in which I constantly question our mission and think about how we might improve our teaching practice as an institution. This goes with the territory of being a "technology" director in this information age of the internet. Expertise with the tools of this new era has cast tech directors in an interesting role in independent schools. We bridge the gap between technology and teaching, seeking to help schools derive educational value from large investments in the tools of digital technologies. I go to work every day thinking about how these tools can impact classroom practice. At the forefront of all our initiatives, I keep one question: "How does this help the learning of our students?" which prompts several others... "What does it mean 'to learn'? What does good learning and instruction look like? What demonstrations of learning do we ask of our students?"
I wonder if technology educators grapple with these questions in a way that is different than other school administrators, because we are in a field that is constantly re-inventing and evolving the way people communicate, with exponential growth in the availability of information. In the technology business community innovation and risk-taking are valued and rewarded. This approach to, and pace of, change is somewhat antithetical to the incremental culture of change at independent schools, so there is a tight-rope that must be walked.
So as I think about re-envisioning teaching and learning, I ask myself what really matters...What truly has an impact on a student's learning process, and where does technology fit into this puzzle? The classroom that I want to see is a place that students come together with a master teacher who shares his/her passion and expertise in a field of study. It is a place in which students are visibly interested and engaged with that subject matter, in which they are actively manipulating and sifting through ideas, information, facts, and concepts. I want to see them sitting around a Harkness table or clustered in small groups taking part in the privilege of education. I don't really like seeing individual desks in rows, with students only half-engaged with the teacher, however heroic his/her lecture might be. Certainly, there is a time and place for lecture, but research and my own experience tell me that most students don't learn much by listening. They need to be discussing, distilling, and evaluating the complex web of information inherent in any field of study. Within the walls of this idealized classroom, students use technology tools to record the wisdom of their mentors, to access information, to communicate, and to collaborate. In fact, the technology is transparent, because it is the communication that matters. Classrooms in which the technology is the focus instead of the tool are equally at fault.
The other yardstick by which I measure our efforts as educators is the learning products that we ask our students to produce. Learning products are the items that demonstrate a student's learning
. The great majority of these seem to be essays and multiple choice tests. This seems quite sensible as coherent expression of ideas, and the ability to recall and apply facts are key elements of learning. But I think we're missing something rather important that is evidenced by the widespread perception among students (and teachers) of the worthlessness of these learning demonstrations, once they've been graded. In other words, it is the rare student who cares to keep and cherish her graded essays and tests. Once the course is over, it seems inevitable that the vast majority of these papers end up in the recycling bin [if we put it close enough to the trash can.] How much more engaging can we imagine an educational system if the end result was a body of work which a student did cherish? What if students were producing learning artifacts of which they were proud enough that they wanted to keep them? To me, this is where an electronic portfolio has immense potential. Much of our students' work is already produced digitally. We could easily implement a system to store and retrieve it with commenting. At simplest, all a student would need would be a blogger account. Going down this road we might also implement a wider variety of learning artifacts, especially given the plethora of "web 2.0" tools that allow people to CREATE all kinds of interesting media like VoiceThread, videos, and other mashed up multi-media.
We need to get past the model of students sitting in rows listening to a lecture, producing a paper, and taking a multiple choice test as the predominant vehicle of education. We need students to embrace the pursuit of knowledge by their own volition, not because we are measuring them on a scale of A to F. To tap into intrinsic motivation we need to do more "backwards design
" of our curriculum so that students see course content as something that matters in a bigger picture within the context of their life. Yes it's flowerly language and a lofty goal, but I see the alternative as becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world that values innovation, creativity, independence, collaboaration, and self-motivation.
This is what really matters (to me). How about you?