Be like Jon Stewart

As educational technology continues its evolution across the world, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: Building people’s capacity is an important–maybe the most important–professional task.

For too long the field of education has been a lonely place in which to work. Classrooms have traditionally been islands, and districts rarely partner with neighboring districts. Fortunately, the tides have begun to turn regarding this traditional lack of communication and support. I’ve seen more teacher to teacher and district to district collaboration this year than I have in the last ten years. Part of this is because technology makes communication easier (ex: Google Hangouts, Skype, LMSs, etc.). A potentially bigger reason is that the only way to learn all the new technology being developed is to band together and use collective expertise to thrive.

This is why building the capacity of others is so important. We’ve always lived in a world where people develop certain skills, and those skills benefited the whole community. Farmer, blacksmith, merchant, cobbler, seamstress, doctor… individual skills have always been valuable for the good of the whole.

Today you need a lot of skills in order to bring value. A teacher needs to understand not just his or her subject area, instructional practices, and curriculum, but also must possess a myriad of tech skills. This also goes for administrators. That’s why it’s so important to focus on making others better at what they do. Too often we’re focused on how “I” can get better, and we forget about ensuring the advancement of those around us. An educational community in which everyone is helping others (not just students) will reap better results.

Enter Jon Stewart–current host of The Daily Show. Stewart is a talented individual when it comes to comedy, but he’s also been adept at nurturing the talent in others. Stephen Colbert. Steve Carell. Ed Helms. John Oliver. Noah Trevor. All of these people have honed their crafts at The Daily Show. When Stewart took a hiatus from the show to direct a film, he allowed John Oliver to take the helm, which eventually led to a gig for Oliver at HBO. Many stars wouldn’t have given Oliver this opportunity–or they would have done it begrudgingly. Stewart saw it as a win-win situation: Oliver gets some exposure, and I get to make my movie.

Stewart didn’t care that the audience would laugh at Oliver instead of him, or even–heaven forbid–like Oliver better. As Stewart did before for other comedians, he wanted to help build Oliver’s capacity so he could leave The Daily Show and continue a thriving career elsewhere.

We can learn so much from this mentality. Unfortunately, many people hold their cards close to the vest. They provide little information, keep communication vague, and compartmentalize others within job titles. This is bureaucracy, and unfortunately education sometimes fits this mold. In the cases where it doesn’t–where teachers and administrators actively pursue the advancement of others’ knowledge–the transformation is inspiring. Students deserve adults in their lives who have everyone’s best intentions at heart.

Be like Jon.

Crowdsourcing in education

It’s not easy setting up a 1:1 environment across a whole school district–even if it’s a small school district. Some of the necessary steps include purchasing devices and carts, configuring devices, running cable, installing access points, constructing a system for damaged computers, troubleshooting, and much more.

The good thing about all these tasks is they result in outcomes that clearly show whether or not the objective was met. The devices are either purchased and configured or they’re not. The cable and access points are either installed or they’re not. Being able to pick up and fix damaged computers occurs or it doesn’t. The effects are tangible and easily quantified.

This isn’t the case when you want teachers to use devices in their classrooms. There’s no magic number of PD sessions necessary to win over a teacher’s affection for web based programs. There’s no special place or time in which PD sessions can be held that will foster the effects you’re seeking. One-size-fits-all approaches are obviously useless, and so are many of the consultants who promise to build ‘capacity’.

You can create a perfect technological infrastructure, but you can’t make people use it–this is true. So what do you do?

You find individuals who see value in the technological possibilities at each school site. You then pay those people as much as possible (even if it’s a measly stipend) to serve in two functions:

  1. Provide communication to each school regarding everything from device maintenance to instructional best practices.

  2. Teach teachers how to blend student learning.

Those are straightforward objectives and wonderful ways to start this portion of the deployment. Here’s something that’s very important to remember:

As these technology leaders perform their duties, they will naturally develop niches about which they’re passionate. Some will geek out over Google products. Others will become cliff divers and explore the new programs that are continually being created. Some will discover tricks and tools of which you’re not aware and begin sharing the information with colleagues. When this happens, your 1:1 deployment is finally getting started.

This is because no school or district can have one all-knowing sage who is an expert at every technological tool. Even one tech/instructional coach with no family who sleeps, eats, and breaths edtech can’t keep up and master every product out there. Because of this, it’s extremely important for the instructional leaders at each school site to build their niches and be the go-to person for that particular specialty. That way when teachers have questions, they can be guided to the answer by someone who has a depth of knowledge concerning the pertinent hardware or software.

Crowdsourcing is accomplished in many fields, and education is no different. If anything, crowdsourcing can be done most effectively when learning is the objective. The internet makes this possible, of course, but so does the disparate skill sets and interests all teachers possess.

Purchasing 1:1 devices is straightforward. Building up leaders isn’t, and that’s why people are the best investment.

The classroom as infrastructure

I recently finished a short and fun read by Elizabeth Wurtzel entitled Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood. The book focuses on the U.S. Constitution and how it gave rise to much of the creative and entrepreneurial success of America. One of my favorite sections discusses invention–specifically, how invention requires infrastructure. Wurtzel points out that Silicon Valley is necessary for the development of technology because there needs to be a place for techies to congregate, for collaboration to ensue, for VCs to locate prospects, etc. Likewise, Hollywood functions as the infrastructure for films to be made. Producers, scriptwriters, studio back lots, actors, and more are all on hand to contribute to the movie-making process.

Just as technology needs Silicon Valley and movies need Hollywood, so does learning need a classroom; it’s the infrastructure for acquiring knowledge. In a classroom, students develop social skills, collaborate, produce essays, solve problems, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. The teacher is there too, of course, assessing students’ needs, providing direct instruction when necessary, and guiding students through project based learning and the use of technology.

The classroom is important infrastructure, and this is why students will never be able to most effectively learn at home while attending virtual schools. Of course, some young people may need to learn at home in front of a computer due to circumstances, but the majority of students require the classroom in order to navigate life in the 21st century.

Flow in education

I just finished reading Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment. The book is wonderful, but one of the most enjoyable parts was the authors referenced by Wiliam. He mentioned Robert Pirsig, which prompted me to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He also wrote of John Wooden, Malcolm Gladwell, Barry Schwartz, and Marianne Williamson. You can be confident that an educational author who includes these people in his or her book is on to something.

Most interesting was Wiliam’s inclusion of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi describes ‘flow’ as being so absorbed in an activity, you’re not even thinking about it. It’s someone who’s attempting a task that’s interesting and challenging. Wiliam explains it this way:

When the level of challenge is low and the level of capability is high, the result is often boredom. When the level of challenge is high and the level of capability is low, the result is generally anxiety. When both are low, the result is apathy. However, when both capability and challenge are high, the result is ‘flow.’

That sweet spot of high capability and challenge is what all teachers should strive to implement in their classrooms. An example of this is Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is used by STAR Reading and Accelerated Reader to help students pick books that are challenging, but not too challenging. A book within a student’s ZPD may not be easy, but the goal of finishing it is not out of reach. Likewise, the objectives a teacher introduces in class must mirror this type of ZPD criteria. Student buy-in is highest when the objective is challenging and the student believes he or she can learn it. When this occurs, classes hum along with the sounds of student inquiry and productivity.

Putting technology in a classroom is like starting a fire

The landscape is forever changed once a fire has devoured everything in its path. Trees may grow back over time, but nothing will be the same as before.

Introducing technology into a classroom is the same way. Laptops and tablets are tiny sparks, and the conflagration begins once the teacher allows students to freely use them. From what I’ve observed, a teacher’s classroom is altered once the fire begins. Desks in rows go up in smoke, and groups blossom in the aftermath. A teacher-centric model disintegrates as student-centric learning blooms.

Ideas have done this throughout history. Sometimes it takes a certain person to start the fire, but once the flames engulf people’s minds, change is coming. I’ve spoken to multiple teachers this school year who told me they could never go back to a classroom without devices. They weren’t joking–they really never want to teach without laptops or tablets again because 1) the classroom wasn’t as exciting before and 2) there are so many wonderful ways the students can learn and produce.

The effects of this edtech renaissance we’re presently experiencing have yet to be fully realized, but there’s one thing we know for sure: Everything will change once students have access to the internet and can create and produce with devices at their fingertips. 

If you care about your work…

Stanley Kubrick, the great director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining, cared deeply about the tools of his trade. This was exemplified when he filmed Barry Lyndon with two ultra-rare Carl Zeiss primes. These 50mm and 35mm f/0.7 camera lenses were originally created for use in the Apollo space program and were later modified for Kubrick to use with a Mitchell BNC camera. The lenses allowed Kubrick to film portions of Barry Lyndon by candlelight, something that was unheard of at the time (and is still extremely difficult to accomplish today). You can see an example of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon work, and read more about the lenses, here.

Every field requires tools to do a job well. Of course it’s possible to complete your work with subpar tools, but this oftentimes results in subpar results. This underscores a very old saying: If you care about your work, you care about your tools. 

This can be applied to education–especially in today’s classroom. Educational tools will never be more important than a good teacher, just like a lens isn’t more important than a gifted movie director. But just as Kubrick took a very expensive lens and made a masterpiece like Barry Lyndon, a teacher can take a Chromebook, iPad, or SMART Board and enhance student learning.

Unfortunately in education, we don’t talk about the quality of our tools very often. We discuss how this device or that web based program can get the job done, but there’s very little said about jettisoning computers, websites, apps, or curriculum because they’re crappy. There should be. Kubrick would’ve never suffered tools that didn’t help him make quality pictures, and teachers should be no different.

We’re all technology specialists

I’m a ‘technology specialist’ in a school district, and I think the job title conjures a lot of different emotions within educators. Some teachers hear technology and feel anxiety. Others feel indifference. Some teachers are excited about the burgeoning web based tools available and want to share the latest, greatest software programs they’ve discovered.

My role has different titles depending on the school district. Sometimes it’s ‘Teacher on Special Assignment’ (TOSA). Other times it’s ‘technology coach’, ‘instructional coach’, or even ‘Chief Technology Officer’ (CTO). Whatever the name, the main purpose should be the same:

The point of a technology specialist within a school district is to diminish while teachers’ technological expertise increases. 

My position isn’t temporary, but I think it won’t be necessary forever. The same goes for all the other tech specialists out there. There are a couple reasons for this:

  • As teachers learn, they don’t need as many official or ‘district-sponsored’ professional development sessions because they’ll all learn how to learn about technology on their own.
  • Web based programs are making it easier to create teacher accounts and populate classes with students. Eventually, it’ll be possible for most software platforms to be populated by teachers and students (ex: Kahoot, Edmodo, Socrative, Google Classroom, Front Row, etc.).

It’s possible that at some point, all teachers in my school district will be able to manage their own students’ accounts, use the programs effectively by blending their instruction, and answer each others’ questions. Heck, maybe they’ll even put on professional development sessions for each other during prep periods, PLC sessions, or after school. Meanwhile, I can transition back into the classroom, knowing that I used my time as a technology specialist effectively so the ultimate result occurred: All teachers have become technology specialists.