Tag Archives: teacher education

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.



(One More) NCTE Thought: the common core

I didn’t capitalize the second half of the title out of solidarity. As Mr. S from TPG points out, the common core don’t deserve the status nod of capital letters.

In the days since the convention, I’ve been desperately trying to catch up with my life, which left me behind for two weeks as I first went to NCTE and then came home to a turkey, stuffing, and a couple much-needed days off. Because I’ve been trying to grade unit calendars that my pre-service teachers just turned in, and because I need… need… NEED! to finish this memo so that I can be done with the prospectus, I haven’t been following my feeds or blogs besides an occasional check here and there to see what’s new. But today, it’s back to the normal routine, which means Monday lunch at home in front of my RSS feeds, which usually means a blog post. What I’m noticing today? A lot of frustration with the common core standards. If you don’t know about them… you should. Click here.

Note: as I’m writing this, an email came into my inbox from the NCTE teaching and learning forum entitled “Deadline for Commentaries on the Common Core Extended…” I can’t seem to escape these standards this week.

Mitch Nobis’s post on the ccss and their prevalence at the conference caught my attention, along with Mr. S’s post above. Mr. S came away with a slightly more upbeat take on the standards rhetoric from the conference, but I have to say, like Nobis, I was pretty startled by the prevalence of talk about the common core and the degree to which common core rhetoric is becoming so prevalent in conversations about English teaching. Nearly every third session at NCTE this year was about the common core. What is going on here, folks?

But, on the other hand, it sort of makes sense. This is what teachers are doing in their classrooms and departments right now, and those are the voices we hear at NCTE. And I regret to admit I’m part of the problem. I participated in a group here at UM that put together a common core book series, Supporting Students, with NCTE. I’ve given presentations at CEE and NCTE on working within and beyond the common core in the ELA classroom. When I struggle with my own demons, I usually end up concluding that things like standards and tests are (or at least appear to be) here to stay, so what else can I do but figure out how to work with (around?) them?

As soon as I think that (or worse — as soon as it come out of my mouth), I get angry. Nobis voiced his frustration with the thousands of people who keep saying “I know they’re standards, but they’re not that bad.” I’ve said that, and the fact that I’ve said it makes me mad. At myself. At textbook companies and corporate lobbyists who convinced the federal government that tying these standards to important funding was an ethical thing to do (see post from last week). At myself again. Because isn’t it my job to draw on research and what we know about teaching and learning in my work — not on the common core? Isn’t it my job to push the frontiers of education forward… isn’t that what research is for? By the time it’s all said and done, I’m just mad at everything. I sort of want to scream “WHY ISN’T ANYONE LISTENING TO US?”

So that’s where I am with things this Monday. Now on to this memo, which I really, really, REALLY! need to finish.

The Only Thing I Will Post About the Election

I have intentionally remained quiet on this blog lately because of all of the election rhetoric that is clogging both my facebook and rss feeds. Well, that and I defended my prospectus this week and have been unable to string a coherent thought together. However, with the defense out of the way and my brain able to process other things, I feel like I need to say my piece here… and then leave it alone.

I’ll be transparent. I’m voting for Obama. But I refuse to turn this post into an uncritical liberal rant about how awful one candidate is and how awesome another one is. When it comes right down to it, both men are human, and both are flawed. Their ed policies are a prime example of this truth.

As this fact sheet from USC notes, Obama and Romney’s policies are not very different. They both support charters. They both want to change teacher evaluation to be at least partially dependent on student achievement as measured by students’ performance on “objective tests.” However, Obama is definitely the lesser of two evils when it comes to ed policy. Check out this graphic from USC’s fact sheet:

Romney, in true businessman fashion, trusts our economic system (you know, the broken one) so much that he will turn over low-interest government college loans to private banks, won’t regulate diploma mills like University of Pheonix and the millions of other examples of rip-off higher education institutions, and will potentially push a revision of NCLB that will be “more transparent” (for the record, NCLB was pretty transparent already — every school in America will fail by 2014. The end.).

He also hopes to eliminate “unnecessary certification requirements” for teachers, and while I don’t know what that means exactly, I can guess. My bet is that this will enable unqualified, untrained individuals to become teachers through alternative certification routes (that will be even easier to move through than TFA) and that it will cause schools of education, which are already struggling with enrollment, to suffer even more. As a strong advocate for quality teacher education, the rant for which is an entirely separate blog post, I can’t vote for someone who is even more willing than Obama to turn our nation’s schools over to the private sector.

So while I don’t like some of Obama’s education policies, I like all of them better than Romney’s, and I found this fact sheet a helpful way to compare the candidates on an issue that has remained in the shadows throughout this process.

And that is the only thing I will post about the election.

This Nauseated Me

Which shouldn’t have surprised me, because the title of Ravitch’s post is literally, “Read This and Share my Nausea,” but still. Read it. Misery loves company. Or don’t, and spare yourself.

I spend a lot of time and thought trying to find ways to stick up for the knowledge veteran teachers bring to the classroom through my actions, my research, and my work with pre-service teachers. We have much to learn from teachers who have dedicated their lives to becoming lifelong learners. I know they know their… well, you know. I know this because I spent the few short years I was blessed to have in the classroom learning from teachers who had a lot more experience working with teens than I did. I learned more about who I was as a teacher from my colleagues, which sometimes meant learning about things I might choose not to do. Many times, though, I piggy-backed on experimental unit plans, asked for advice when I just didn’t know how to teach poetry (I suck at all things poetry), or brainstormed with a colleague during passing periods. I spent a lot of time talking to people who knew more than me about our chosen profession, hungry to be a better teacher every day. Most teachers share that hunger, regardless of how many years they’ve been in the classroom.

I don’t really have time for a lengthy commentary tonight… I’m tired, and I Ravitch’s post just made me a little more tired. Tomorrow’s goal: find something a little less depressing to post.

Superteacher and Superman: Equally Mythological

The following video, which I came across in a teacher blog that’s new on my radar, Roxanna Elden describes her desire to be a “super teacher” when she first started teaching — a sentiment I can both relate to and have seen echoed both in media representations of these so-called “super teachers” and in the eyes of new, ambitious, and excited first-year teachers. Watch her video — for those of you who just started a new school year, I imagine these words will resonate strongly. They did with me.


[vimeo 43565010 w=400 h=300]


My favorite quote: “The great teachers of the future know they’re not great yet.” Acknowledging our weaknesses in ways that don’t pull us down into deep depressions but instead serve as learning tools is KEY. This is still true for me today, as I stare down a semester of teaching a course I’ve wanted to teach since I started my graduate career: English teaching methods for future teachers. I know I don’t have it all figured out yet. Since this is the first time I’m teaching the course, I know I have very little of anything figure out and will learn much in the coming semester. I spend a lot of time reflecting on the parts of my job and the aspects of my teaching that I feel are my greatest weaknesses. It’s part of the work of teaching. It’s what makes me get better. This truth holds regardless of discipline, level, or institution… good teaching is a practice in constant and sometimes painful self-reflection.

But it’s so easy, when you’re new to this profession, or even if you’re not but you have a bad day in the classroom, to beat yourself up about a failed interaction with a student, a failed opportunity to take advantage of a teaching moment, or a lesson plan that just plain flopped. Keeping in mind that what helps us grow is knowing that we’re not great, and that no teacher is great all the time, helps put these rough moments, these beginning-of-the-school-year anxieties, and these concerns about the skills and strategies we are still mastering to good use.

Best of luck to my teacher friends starting a new school year. May it be the best one yet :)