When it comes to edtech, be like Siddhartha

One of the conundrums within the field of education is the schizophrenic understanding of best practices. All you need to do to get a taste of this is create a Twitter account, follow a whole bunch of teachers, and read their tweets. Better yet, follow along during a Twitter chat. Edtech platitudes are plentiful.

There’s nothing wrong with teachers tweeting at each other in 140 characters or less to share ideas, but it sure is confusing when you sit back and try to decipher what our best practices should be as educators.

Should we spend time learning how to be better presenters, or should we become more accustomed to a student-centered, project based learning (PBL) approach? Is “play” important or is it better to squeeze each instruction minute through the use of Direct Interactive Instruction (DII)? Is spending money on 1:1 devices essential for students to learn in the 21st century, or should we listen to studies that say technology isn’t an important factor? (Side note: Many edtech proponents have marginalized the use of “Studies say…” when arguing against technology in the classroom. Unfortunately by doing this, these edtech proponents are doing a harmful spin job.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I think there’s a lot of truth to this sentiment, and maybe that goes for education as well, but it sure is hard as a teacher to always feel like you should be doing something other than what you’ve planned to do. This is why the advice of edtech gurus is so attractive right now.

I’m weary of the edtech experts out there who claim to have the solution for student learning. I’m reminded of Siddhartha, who came to the realization that truth isn’t going to arrive from any one enlightened person. Teachers must view the plethora of edtech opinions through this same lens, even if it’s uncomfortable. In this way, the Twitter cacophony can be harnessed effectively.

Yes, we have a lot to figure out in the field of education, mostly because every student is his and her own universe. My only suggestion is to avoid making gurus out of people who have Twitter accounts.

The Antifragile Teacher

The term antifragile, coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, has slowly begun dominating my outlook on everything–including how I invest, whether I should take statins for high cholesterol, and the efficacy of US foreign policy. I’ve written about antifragility before, but in this post I’d like to focus on ten ways a teacher can become antifragile.

1. Learn as many skills as possible. Becoming well-versed in Direct Interactive Instruction (DII), knowing how to embed formative assessments continually throughout the school day, and successfully blending technology into your teaching are just some of the valuable strategies that can help your students and strengthen yourself for whatever is thrown your way. Skills equal value, and valuable teachers become antifragile because they’re desperately needed at school sites and within districts–especially in stressful times.

2. Read, read, and then read some more. Reading fiction can help promote empathy, and nonfiction will help build your skill set, which needs to continually grow to remain antifragile. Caution: If you’re reading good books, your brain will be brimming with ideas, many of which you’ll want to implement in the classroom. Avoid this temptation; you should deploy only a small fraction of what you know when teaching. Throw too much information at kids (or even adults), and you’ll slide down the spectrum toward fragility.

3. Avoid negative talk and complaining, especially in the teachers’ lounge. Your words can trap and weaken you, thus making you fragile and susceptible to worry, broken relationships, and a pessimistic outlook that can corrode your will to help students. It might sound corny, but cultivating a generous spirit is the only way to sustain a lifelong career when teaching kids. It will also make you antifragile in the face of pink slips, textbook adoptions, admin changes, and general uncertainty.

4. Don’t continually introduce new technology to students. Less is more. Let them master programs and apps so that they can then dig into the actual content they should be learning. Teaching students algebra is much more important than throwing the newest math website at them. Put only the best educational software products in your tool belt and discard the rest.

5. Build intervention into your instruction. Intervention blocks created within a bell schedule can waste a lot of time and effect student learning. Intervention embedded in a lesson is powerful because you as the teacher know your students better than anyone else at the school site. It’s important to remember that intervening within systems can weaken organizations and introduce fragility; this needs to be considered when altering a school’s schedule in order to provide safety nets for students. Reteaching is important, but intervention blocks may not be the answer.

6. Don’t rely on things you can’t control, like wifi. If your students need to write in Google Docs and the internet is down, adapt and have them type in a word processor that’s installed on the computer. Full reliance on technology can expose you to fragility. Because of this, all lessons with a heavy dependance on technology must be backed up with a non-tech version. Pencils, paper, and books will not suddenly disappear on you. When the wifi drops, and from time to time it most certainly will, revert to your tried-and-true teaching methods. Remember, antifragility means that you become stronger when calamity strikes. This means an antifragile teacher becomes better when uncertainty and chaos are injected within the school day. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but when you start to consider how failing technology can make you stronger, you’ll come up with some interesting ideas.

7. Keep a perspective on the whole child, and don’t drill and kill him or her because of one low number on a test. This will just frustrate you and the student.

8. Learn to work well with what you’ve got. Remember the movie Apollo 13 when NASA had to build an air filter with only the items on the ship? Here’s an excerpt from a previous post:

NASA had to solve a problem with a limited number of resources in order to bring the astronauts home. Failing this objective was not an option because the stakes were too high. They did everything they could to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem. It wasn’t easy, but through hard work they figured it out.

So your student has a tough home life, large gaps in his learning, and is absent half the time? If astronauts can make a filter out of a bunch of random items, you can provide effective instruction when the student is with you.

9. Begin recognizing antifragility around you. Governments, companies, and people make unwise decisions that will weaken them when tension, confusion, or catastrophe strike. Sometimes, doing the opposite of what pundits say on TV will make you stronger. Take this page from Warren Buffett’s playbook:

Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.

Yes, antifragility will not only help you in the classroom, but also in all areas of life, such as investing.

10. Read the book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He’s much smarter than I am, and his ideas can change your perspective on the world.

And isn’t that what good books are supposed to do?