Category Archives: The Instructional

What Innovation Means

definition of innovation, per google.

the definition of innovation, per google

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we mean when we talk about “innovation” in education. Being the language geek I am, I of course looked up the detonation and etymology of innovation. When considering a concept, I like to think about what the words surrounding the concept actually mean, before they get loaded down with all of the meaning we bring as we do the “work of innovating” in today’s classrooms and schools.

Gotta love Google, Data Mogul of the 21st Century. A quick search tells me that the use of the word “innovation” has exploded in the past 50 years, right alongside the tech industry. Interesting — we’ll come back to that.

Back to the #wordnerd fun: if you break the word innovation into its component parts, as I used to teach my high school students to do, you find “in,” which means “in” (sometimes language is straightforward), “nov,” which means “new,” “va,” which means “go,” and “tion,” which means “to do” or “action of.”

So, quite literally, innovation is the act of doing something new.

This is not surprising, but it is interesting, considering that when we “innovate,” we must do so with the experiences and work of our predecessors whispering to us, providing the wisdom and expertise of years, decades, centuries, eons of experience and research upon which we must build the “new.” By definition, we cannot “do something new” without drawing on “something old.” And yet, in the etymology and denotation of “innovation,” there is no trace of the “old,” of what came before. There is only the promise of newness.

And newness is intoxicating.

As an administrator in educational and information technology, I am struck by the intoxication of newness on a daily basis. Promises of new and better ways of doing the work of living are often delivered by new technologies, and this has been true since the dawn of humanity; from the pen to the compass to the printing press to the microwave to the computer, that which is new has always captivated us, drawing us to spend more money and time than we would/should/could on “innovative” devices/practices/approaches that entice us to imagine a life free of whatever limitations, struggles, and inefficiencies may plague us.

Innovation is really about that: imaginationa defining characteristic of humanity. Others would posit that language “makes us human,” or memory, or our ability to use and develop tools. But imagination has always struck me as a uniquely human trait, one that drives our obsession with innovation and fuels the inevitable “march of progress.”

Given the above, the etymology and denotation of the word innovation gets us nowhere close to its actual meaningwhich includes a word’s connotation, the experiences and cultural weight we bring to a word when we hear it. Connotation is everything. Words are loaded with meanings that are rarely coded into their component parts. Such is the case with innovationHere are three important things I’ve come to believe about innovation in education:

Innovative educational practices are rarely “new.”

One of history’s most innovative educational thinkers, in my estimation, was John Dewey, but his philosophy was hardly novel; he believed we learn through inquiry and experience, through doing and building and making and seeing and exploring. Today, the innovative-but-already-becoming-passe “maker movement” promises the same sort of experiential learning, but in the context of new technologies that allow students to imagine something and then 3D print it instead of molding it out of clay. The only thing “new” about this is the available technology, and even then, the librarians in my city would argue that you don’t need a 3D printer to have a makerspace — you just need a few leftover cardboard boxes, some glue, and maybe a little string.

In a classroom that has embraced a “maker mindset,”

…one will find engaged students, often working on multiple projects simultaneously, and teachers unafraid of relinquishing their authoritarian role. The best way to activate your classroom is for your classroom to make something.

The whole point of this “innovative” approach to teaching and learning as experiential and exploratory meshes well with and even echoes Dewey’s philosophies surrounding ethics, morals, social interaction, and experiential knowledge-building:

…the appropriate method for solving moral and social questions is the same as that required for solving questions concerning matters of fact: an empirical method that is tied to an examination of problematic situations, the gathering of relevant facts, and the imaginative consideration of possible solutions that, when utilized, bring about a reconstruction and resolution of the original situations. Dewey, throughout his ethical and social writings, stressed the need for an open-ended, flexible, and experimental approach to problems of practice…

In essence, many of the “innovative” approaches to working with students that we champion today are engaging them in the kinds of experiential, inquiry-based, challenge- and problem-based approaches to knowledge-building and learning touted by philosophers in the early 20th century, if not (likely) before then.

Our lack of relative “newness” in our thinking, however, does not mean we are not being innovative when we imagine and implement a new-to-us approach to teaching and learning in an effort to improve students’ experiences in our schools. Innovation in education may be less about “doing new things,” and more about doing “new-to-us” things with the resources we have available: repurposing, remixing, and reinventing ourselves as we reflect upon what is working for the kids in front of us, and what is not. Which brings me to my second point.

Innovative practices require reflective practitioners.

If innovation is less about “doing something new” in education and more about reinventing in our local contexts, then innovation requires a reflective approach to planning and collaboration. It requires us to be flexible. Self-critical. Quick to adjust. Pensive.

Embarrassing truth: sometimes I talk to myself in the car at the end of my work day.

I have colleagues who do this into a recording device, as a way of capturing their reflections, which makes them perhaps a little less crazy than me, because I do not speak my reflections into a recording device (because I know I would never go back and listen to them, so why take up the storage space on my phone?). I don’t always talk out loud to myself, but most of the time when I’m driving, I’m in the middle of a conversation with my thoughts. I imagine most educators are like this, mulling over the success of a day’s lesson, a professional development session, an observation, a meeting with colleagues.

This embarrassing truth is a step towards reflective practice. But it isn’t enough.

I’ve worked in six public school districts and three higher education institutions in four states, which I think almost gives me enough experience to say this with confidence: truly reflective practitioners do more than talk to themselves in the car on the way home. They also seek out feedback from colleagues and students, and they welcome critique. They learn as much, often more, from moments when they are challenged than they do from praise. They never do the same thing the same way twice. Reflective practitioners truly, and sometimes annoyingly, enjoy a healthy debatebecause it forces them to reconsider their approach and philosophy, and because they aren’t actually disagreeing with you, they are trying to understand your perspective and are coming to a new understanding of their own perspective. They write about it, read about it, and talk about it“it” being whatever they’ve been turning over in their minds, or out loud, in those car conversations.

And finally, innovative practice has nothing to do with technology.

Okay, that’s not entirely true, because the literal definition of technology (as we’ve established, I’m into definitions) is “a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.” To break it down further, logy means “to study,” or “study of,” which means technology is all about inquiry and questioning, which as I’ve established, rests at the heart of innovative approaches to education. So to say innovative practice has nothing to do with technology is not denotationally true. But it is connotationally true.

Because when you hear the word technology, you think of your smartphone. And innovation has nothing to do with your smartphone.

Or an iPad.

Or a Chromebook.

Or a Smartboard.

Or the latest app.

Being innovative might involve these things; you might use them in a new way in order to make your work more efficient, to make your lessons more engaging and relevant, to reimagine a unit or a project. You may use them to search for new ideas, to blog about your practice for a public audience (like I’m doing now), or to record successes and struggles, all of which would be reflective practice, and in service of innovative practice. But you do not need shiny new technologies to be an innovative educator. See previous comment about makerspaces that require no more than cardboard.

Innovation is about mindset and approach. It is about flexibility, about building curriculum, lessons, collaborations, and learning experiences around the needs of the students in front of you, and about learning from one implementation to the next, improving and adjusting along the way. Innovation does not require doing something new, but constantly doing your work, for your students, in your context, in ways that challenge and inspire youth to interrogate and solve the problems of our ever-changing world.

On (Multi)literacies

The Scene

Sometime in the not-too-distant past, an email came across one of the group lists to which I subscribe. The author of the email was encouraging members of the community – in this case, the school library community of the Commonwealth – to provide feedback on a survey related to possible changes to licensure requirements in the state of Massachusetts.

I completed the survey, but that’s not what this post is about.

One of the proposed changes to current licenses in Massachusetts is in response to the new Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards that were recently developed and passed. The standards, IMHO, are excellent. They require us to consider how we are (or in most cases, are not) developing students’ computational thinking, digital ethics and citizenship, and digital literacy skills. They are also tough – demanding that kindergarteners be able to explain complex human-computer relationships and that 5th graders be able to articulate how technology can create or bridge socioeconomic divides – and I’ve never been one to stand down to a challenge.

The email author, at one point in her message, referenced a shift in possible instructional technology teacher licensure, which requires technology specialists to have some expertise in computer science (at least enough to teach the fundamentals to students). This has implications for teacher preparation programs, and also for other specialists – like library specialists such as herself, who for decades have taught digital literacies right alongside information literacies and “regular old” literacy… which I know one can define in a million different ways, but by which I basically mean reading, understanding, and hopefully enjoying written text.

She wrote something to the effect of “digital literacy is ours.” Ours, meaning librarians’.

This struck me. Enough that I immediately emailed our library lead teacher and #librarybrain extraordinaire to get her thoughts on it. It struck me because it made me think about my definition of digital literacy, which I haven’t questioned in a long while. It made me think about the definition the state of Massachusetts is giving digital literacy by sticking it in a set of standards that includes computer science. And it made me think about “information literacy,” and what that is, and how it is distinct (?) from digital literacy or other literacies.

The Point

This year, our district has been piloting a model that combines “information literacies,” “digital literacies,” and “content literacies” into a single “Research and Digital Learning Block,” which is way too long of a title so it ended up getting shortened to “Research Block” and next year it will be “Integrated Literacy Block” (it has an identity crisis, but I promise it’s awesome). We piloted the model in three schools, but by the end of the school year, all six of our elementary schools had heard about “research block,” and next year, it will expand to all six of our elementary schools.

Integrated Literacy Block is all about multiliteracies. It’s all about layering literacies. The whole point is that “information literacy” can’t be teased apart from “digital literacy” can’t be teased apart from “content literacy.”

Integrated literacy blocks look a little like this: content area teacher, library teacher, and digital learning teacher all find a time, once a week, and block their schedules. At this time, no matter what is happening in the regular literacy curriculum, either information literacies or digital literacies and standards are incorporated into that content. If you’re a visual thinker, here’s a cool diagram:

litblock

I like diagrams like this one. They are neat and clean and indicate conceptual boundaries between things that might not actually have sharp lines separating them. Diagrams like this make a vague world coherent. But what that post to that email list in the not-so-distant past did for me was throw into sharp relief the problematically distinct conceptual line I had drawn between “digital” and “information” literacies as we had conceptualized, and then implemented, our “Integrated Literacy Block.”

As we developed this framework for integrating technology and information literacies, I had to draw lines that would distinguish the roles and expertise of the individuals who were participating: classroom teacher, library teacher, tech teacher. Each of these individuals would essentially “own” a “literacy” in our new instructional model:

Content teacher: content literacies. 

  • Decoding texts
  • Bringing contextual knowledge to texts
  • Comprehending and navigating texts
  • Identifying and navigating many types of texts
  • Synthesizing and connecting content across multiple
  • Creating and writing texts

Library teacher: information literacies. 

  • Generating compelling questions that texts can answer
  • Finding digital and paper-based texts that will address those questions
  • Assessing texts for validity, reliability, and bias
  • Synthesizing information from multiple texts or text types

Digital Learning Teacher: digital literacies.

  • Comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts
  • Comprehending and navigating multimodal texts
  • Creating multimodal texts
  • Accessing appropriate devices and software to engage with digital texts

These distinctions made perfect sense to me as I created the diagram above, but even as I sit and write about these literacies, I struggle to tease them apart cleanly. Certainly, there are discreet skills associated with decoding versus accessing the Internet, navigating a database versus making meaning from a paragraph, creating a podcast versus conducting a keyword search. However, the lines blur in a classroom where students are conducting research about the exploration and conquest of the Americas; creating collaborative Google slideshows that feature maps, images, and information gathered from library databases and print texts; generating questions about explorers; and presenting what they learned to their classmates. Suddenly “assessing texts for validity and reliability” is wrapped into a series of lessons that includes “comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts” and “bringing contextual knowledge to texts.”

But also – that’s the whole point. None of us can “own” these literacies, because they rely on one another; one can’t develop an effective multimodal text without a firm grasp of how various modes (audio, visual) contribute to one another, how audience expectations shape the text, or how information is gathered and conveyed in multimodal texts. Which means, as educators with expertise in various pieces of the literacy puzzle, we (should) rely on one another.

In my dissertation, I defined digital literacies as “socially organized practices one enacts in digital, often online, spaces using digital or non-digital symbol systems to produce or otherwise interact with texts.” That’s a relatively fancy way of saying “literacy: but, now.”  Today’s literacies require us to be comfortable learning about and teaching with texts that are exceedingly complex. 

Today’s texts, in contrast with “yesterday’s texts” are:

  • Coming to us constantly and from all angles. Our phones. Our TVs. Our computers. Our bookshelves.
  • Filled with distractions. Clickbait. Videos. Ads. Links to other texts on the same topic.
  • Personalized, thanks to big data. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
  • Condensed. Think 140 characters (or less).
  • Global and local, all at once. As are our students.

I reject the notion that anyone, regardless of their role in education, can “own” or be solely responsible for any piece of the literacy puzzle, because I struggle to see how the pieces are easily teased apart. Certainly, I make the effort to distinguish the realms of expertise among teachers in our district, if for no other reason because no one person can be responsible for the entire literacy domain in today’s complicated web of text, hypertext, multimodal text, and multiauthored text.

I do not write this to undermine the aforementioned email author’s point of view; to the contrary, I appreciate that her perspective threw into such sharp relief my own beliefs on the matter, forcing me to question the lines and definitions I had drawn around “info/digital/literacy.” Her post has helped me to (re)consider and articulate my own perspective: that to clearly distinguish literacies, and especially to claim any sort of “ownership” over them, is to undermine today’s complex literacy landscape.

Today’s literacies are multi. So must we be.

The Role of Educators in Keeping Digital-Age Kids Safely Connected

Last week, I participated in a Screenagers panel at one of our district’s middle schools. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is an hour-long documentary about the impact of screentime on child and adolescent development: social, behavioral, and cognitive. If I had to sum up the film’s argument in a single sentence, I believe it was telling parents to “beware screentime,” because excessive device use can lead to addictive, antisocial, and academically deleterious outcomes.

The film’s screening for a group of 300 of our parents was well-timed for me, both as an educator and as a new parent. As an educator, I have been thinking a lot about how to embed curriculum that will engage students in critical conversations about their online actions and identities, how they curate and develop those identities, and how they keep their data safe from predators, hackers, and others who might do them harm online — or, frighteningly, in “real life,” as a result of their online actions. As a new parent whose toddler is already intrigued by screens, I wondered how exposure to screens, and especially how my own use (overuse?) of screens might impact my daughter’s development, and I considered ways to set limits on my own device use in order to set a positive example for her.

I could wax poetic on the reflections this has sparked for me as a parent, but for this post, I want to focus mostly on the role of educators when it comes to keeping digital-age kids safe online.

First, I think it’s important to understand that kids like screens because screens provide social connection. As contradictory as this may seem to adults who have watched groups of teens sit in a circle staring at their phones, it rests at the core of why teens and pre-teens love tech. The film, and the panel of teenagers that I had the honor of sitting alongside after the film, made the point that digital devices help them feel connected. To their friends. To the lives and experiences of others. Even to their far-flung families. When today’s 3rd and 4th graders begin asking their parents for phones, it is so they can feel connected.

In this effort to feel connected, kids sign up for Instagram or Snapchat accounts. They follow celebrities on Twitter. They snap selfies and post pictures of themselves all over the Internet. They harass and bully one another. They naturally, and concerningly, use things like “likes” and “follows” as tangible evidence that their social circle of peers approves of them. Natural, because other types of social interaction provide no such concrete data. Concerning, because one’s self-worth should not be measured by a tally of “likes” on Instagram.

Enter every parent’s and educator’s fear about today’s kids and students: they will turn to these ephemeral spaces for validation (or devastation), and because the spaces are in so many ways hidden from our view, we will not be able to step in to protect, intervene, or educate before something terrible happens.

I have firmly believed, since my first day of teaching, that one of the major roles of education in our society is to develop decent citizens. Quality humans. As simply as I can put it: Education Exists to Make Good People. People who can invent, build, create, salvage, save, scrutinize, analyze, and interrogate. People who can collaborate, inspire, and innovate.

And today’s good people have to do all of that in work, academic, and social worlds that are both-and: 

  • Both on a screen and face-to-face.
  • Both global and local.
  • Both digital and analog.
  • Both connected and disconnected.

A parent asked me an excellent question at the end of the film. She apologized for “putting me on the spot” later, but she shouldn’t have, because it’s one of those questions I wish people asked me more often. She asked:

In light of all this research about the negative impact of screens and screentime on kids, why the push in the schools for more access to things like laptops and 1:1 devices?

My inadequate response, since I had very little time to respond:

It’s incredibly difficult to teach students how to make smart decisions with digital devices if they don’t have access to digital devices in school.

The better response I would have provided, given more time: It’s also difficult to teach them how to be safe online, how to protect their data and privacy, if they do not have dedicated time in the curriculum and dedicated teachers who can help them understand things like:

How the Internet works (and what, exactly, the Internet is).

What a digital footprint is, and how to manage yours. This seems like an easy enough thing to teach, but it’s not. Could you explain to a child:

  1. How companies work with the Internet to provide services to consumers, and the data they collect in order to provide those services (have you ever signed up for a Snapchat account? They stop just short of asking for your third cousin’s middle name)?
  2. How “third-party companies” gain access to data you’ve shared with other companies, and how they are able and allowed to use that information about you?
  3. How Amazon knows you’d like to buy a bike?
  4. How Google knows you’re in Massachusetts?
  5. How Twitter knows who you might know and want to follow?
  6. The role of big data in developing and maintaining your digital footprint?

What cloud computing is. Do you know?

What computers and machines can do. What they can’t do. And how humans can use them to do things we can’t do.

When to use a device to talk to someone. When not to. How to use a device to talk to someone. How you talk to someone differently on a device than you do in “real life.” How to be kind to someone when you talk to them with a device. How to use a device to talk to someone in order to get something done (digital collaboration). How to combine devices with analog strategies to get things done. This list only gets longer.

What it is safe and ethical to (not) do on a computer. Again, one of those “easy things to teach,” right? You just make sure kids know the “never” list:

  1. Never give anyone your address
  2. Never give anyone your phone number
  3. Never give anyone your full name
  4. Never agree to meet up with someone
  5. Never talk to strangers
  6. Never open an email from someone you don’t know

…but have you noticed that this list of “nevers” is similar to the nevers we heard as kids in the 80s? #5 basically covers it, right? Wrong. Because in this day and age, “knowing” someone is not cut-and-dry. Running into strangers online is easier than running into them in a crowded shopping mall. And  address, phone number, and name aren’t the only data points someone can use to hack into your accounts or local devices and run amok. Furthermore, this list of nevers doesn’t even touch ethical computing: fair use, copyright, and intellectual property is a different game in the digital age.

Some may argue that parents can have these conversations with their kids, but I think that relying on this serves to widen the digital divide and to perpetuate issues that have risen to the surface in recent years as kids are handed cell phones as early as 3rd grade.

Some parents — the ones who majored in computer science — are tech-savvy enough to have regular conversations about all of these things with their kids. But most are not. This is not a commentary on today’s parents, it’s just the reality of a world in which technology changes faster than we can blink. We grew up playing with Legos and VTech “computers.” Handheld Nintendo Gameboys. Atari. CD players. Dial-up. Our kids’ world is different. Teaching them how to be safe, aware, and strategic in it is difficult.

Most (but again, not all) parents ARE able to set boundaries that the film discussed: have a device curfew. Require access to your child’s accounts. Keep technology in a common space, and require that it be used in common spaces, not in isolated areas like bedrooms. Talk to kids about the concerns you have about their technology use, and about how they think it impacts them socially or academically. Here are a few other ideas. However, implementation of these strategies requires parental presence, which is not always a given depending upon work schedules.

All parents can ask their child’s school what they are doing to educate students about computing, the Internet, keeping information safe online, engaging in ethical online practices, and connecting with others positively, in ways that don’t disconnect them from the “real world.”

A Reflection on Access to Academic Research

I’m writing this quickly, my fingers flying across the keyboard in a quiet room on a Sunday afternoon. I hope my daughter doesn’t wake up from her nap before I finish, and I know that my time is limited. I’m excited to have a few stolen moments to write here, in this recreational writing space I so rarely visit these days. Today’s topic: a reflection on a most privileged kind of access: access to academic research.

I’m doing research this afternoon on reading and writing in digital environments. I’m doing this research so that I can discuss plans for introducing more digital reading and writing tasks into middle school curriculum with our district’s ELA director. This is research I’ve conducted before, both within and outside of my doctoral program, and I am thanking my former self for saving few PDFs in the archive.

I’m glad I saved PDFs because as I conduct my search, I am reminded that I lack the privileges once granted by my affiliation with a major research institution. The University of Michigan, Purdue University, and The University of Illinois boasted library collections and databases that gave me access to… well, anything I wanted. If I didn’t have access through my university, I had access through the robust Big Ten Interlibrary Loan network, and when that failed me, I could ask my trusty School/College of Ed librarian to consider adding a journal or database to the collection (which they often would).

When I was associated with a major research institution as a graduate student, the research process was pretty simple. I searched library databases. I found excellent articles in prestigious or lesser-known research journals. I downloaded a PDF and saved the citation. The end.

Today, my process looks a little more like this:

  1. Search of old stuff from my own archive, because let’s face it, start with what you’ve already done. But most of this stuff is from 2013 or earlier, so…
  2. Google Scholar Search, editing parameters for only those articles that include an openly available full-text version.
  3. Google Scholar Search v.2, eliminating the extremely limiting PDF parameters, and archiving citations using Zotero for future search in our High School databases.
  4. Extremely frustrated break for lunch.
  5. Remember the Directory of Open Access Journals and comb it for education journals that are open access. Bookmark these journals for later searching.
  6. Academic OneFile Search (we subscribe to this database for our high school students) for articles for which I already pulled citations, in hopes the journals are included in that database. Very few of them are. Note to self to check public library databases later.
  7. Regular Old Google Search, which turns up an article from Scientific American (okay yes, it’s a media outlet, but it often does a pretty good job offering up “digested research,” IMO). Archive a few citations from this article, repeat steps 5 and 6.

I can navigate this process in part because I know how to navigate our district and public library resources. I know how to do this in no small part because of my background in research and my former affiliation with large research institutions, and because I am pretty good at navigating the Interwebs and conducting strategic keyword searches. So it’s fine that I need to do all of this, if a little frustrating, because I have the information literacy skills needed to find the 345 workarounds I need to gain access to rigorous academic research.

But I will not walk away with all of the articles that I want, and I will spend a long time finding the ones that I do finally gain access to.

Access. We ask teachers to engage in research-based best practices, but they (and sometimes we — leaders of these teachers) do not always have the access we need to the research that helps us understand, study, and develop these practices.

Access. Even when we do have access, we sometimes need to understand how to use that access — we need the information and digital literacy skills to navigate online databases and search engines.

Access. I never realized how much access I had to the brightest minds in the world until I suddenly had extremely limited access.

My time runs low, so I’ll end my reflection here. I know many newer journals are open access, embracing the call of many in the academic community to embrace the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement, and I hope I more scholars will support this movement by submitting to these journals too… not always the journals that make a lot of money because of their high impact ratings (which also get professors tenure, and grants, etc.). I understand why some journals are proprietary, but I can’t help but find myself, a k12 educator and teacher leader in search of excellent literacy research, a little disheartened and disappointed by today’s search.

 

From Pedagogy to Tech (and Back Again)

Since my first day on the job as a Digital Learning Specialist here in Boston, I’ve had a mantra. My colleagues know it, and it might annoy them sometimes (because they can usually hear me thinking it before it ever comes out of my mouth): it’s not about the tool

What does this mean? A few things:

  • Effective practices matter more than the tech tools you use to enact them
  • Goals for student learning matter more than getting devices into kids’ hands
  • How a teacher teaches matters more than the tech they use to teach
  • Development of strategic literacies matter more than knowing how to use a tool

Or to boil it down to basics, practice and pedagogy should always trump tools and technology. Teachers, school leaders, and all educators should think first about what their goals are for student learning — not about the tools available to them for teaching. Just because a chromebook cart sits in your school doesn’t mean you should use it every day. Just because your school has adopted Google Apps for Education doesn’t mean students should compose solely in Google Drive. And when learning about new technologies, understanding the tool isn’t nearly as important as understanding how teaching practice can benefit from (or be hindered by) its use.

This belief comes from my research and the research of many in the field of educational technology. In my observations of and conversations with teachers, I have found that teachers won’t adopt a new tool until they see a reason to do so — a reason that is transformative for their practice and that is tied into their existing goals and teaching methods. Other studies have found that teachers need to be introduced to a new tool “just in time” — in the moment that they want or need to use it — not “just in case” they happen to need the tool in the future.

Because this is my mantra, I try to design digital learning opportunities and resources in accordance with it. This means I loathe (yes, that is strong language — that’s why I chose it) creating how-to tutorials and linking teachers to how-to guides. I try to avoid listing links on websites to “cool new apps for (storytelling/writing/feedback/course management/quizzes/games/etc.).” Because it’s not about the tool. It’s about the practice. Instead, I (and my team) work to start with practice, and go from there — what to you want to do? what are your goals? what can this teaching approach do for you and your students? And from there — what are some apps that might work for you? Pedagogy first… then tools. 

I’ve tempered the mantra a bit this year, giving in to occasional moments when a “how-to” is simply the best and only way to go in the moment. I’ve also found that my approach is unrealistic for some educators, who will get “hooked” once they are using a particular tool. And this makes sense! I didn’t become addicted to video editing until I was playing around with iMovie. I didn’t become a fanatical (if novice) web designer until I built my first website in college. Through tool play, I learned to love technology — and from there, I built and honed my pedagogical approach to integrating technology. So maybe I have this backwards? Or maybe this relationship is dialogic…

A Google Drawing Brainstorm During the Writing Process

A Google Drawing Brainstorm During the Writing Process

And as I think about it more, of course it’s dialogic. Digital tools and teaching practices are mutually transformative, so it follows that learning about both should be a dialogic process. My objection comes in when new tools distract — when the shininess and newness of a new digital something attracts us, but also detracts from meaningful teaching and learning by making us forget, usually only temporarily, what we were trying to do in the first place.  Or when, in our obsession with being proficient users of a tool, we start worrying more about “how to use it” than about “why to use it.”

In professional development settings, this happens often. School leaders want their teachers to know “how to use” Google Drive, not necessarily why and when to use Google Drive. Teachers, too, want to know how to use Google Sites, Weebly, or WordPress, not how best to use sites to improve student learning and access to content. If I’m not careful, my job quickly becomes a training mission instead of a learning mission as I’m called upon to make sure educators across the district know how to use our tools… but who is teaching them when, why, or to what ends to use these tools?

I find myself in a space where I can’t avoid being a little bit tool-focused on a daily basis. In a spring series, my colleague and I covered four Google apps in four weeks of very tool-focused online and face-to-face workshops. In our Hangout Broadcasts, we’ve talked about (and shown how to use) specific tools, and when we do face-to-face workshops, we spend much of our time getting teachers oriented to a new tool… sometimes at the expense of discussion about what that tool might add to (or even subtract from) their practice. It seems inevitable, at times, that technology/tool will trump pedagogy/practice, but I refuse to give up the mantra.

However, I lack effective models of “good PD” looks like when practice is placed before tool — with the exception of work done by the National Writing Project and some comprehensive research studies (which are, on a team that features only two people in my position for an entire district, entirely unrealistic) to serve as models, I don’t know what “instructional technology district support” that places practice before tool looks like. But maybe, just maybe, it includes the following:

Collaborating with curriculum departments. This is key. TPACK tells us that content, pedagogy, and tech need to be intertwined. Common sense tells us that today’s disciplines — how we employ literacy and mathematical and scientific and historical knowledge in the real world — is changing by the day as new technologies transform our interactions with disciplinary content. Curriculum and technology are not, and should never again be, separate.

Eliminating lists of links. Stop it. Just stop it. Stop listing links on your websites. Stop, I said! Sure, the interconnectivity of the Internet is the super-coolest thing since sliced bread. But I’ve seen so many school websites with lists of resources that fail to address the why — the pedagogy — first and in the same breath as lists of new tools. Pedagogy separate from tool is not okay.

Striving for “just in time.” The one-shot workshop thing just isn’t cutting it, and yet I find myself doing it anyway. This is in part because I just can’t say no when a school leader asks for help getting their teachers to use technology more effectively and efficiently — of course I’ll help! But I’ve stopped walking in with much of an agenda. Instead, our team tries to walk in and figure out where everyone is, what they need to know right now, what is most important for them in this moment. This is a little scary — it means walking into a PD without much of (but maybe a little bit of) a plan. But it is consistent with research that shows that teachers are more likely to keep using a tool if they learn about it at exactly the right moment — right when they’re about to use it or need it.

I’ll keep adding to this list… in the meantime, tweet me (@lizhoman) with your thoughts.