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.