Monthly Archives: August 2012

Why We Must Embrace Disruptive Technology

There is more to Sustaining and Disruptive uses of educational technology than the opportunity to improve education and to reach more students. There are risks involved. But this isn't from embracing Disruptive uses, but rather from not embracing them. David Thornburg:

When kids who are that fluent with these tools encounter an educational system that is predominantly driven by the awesome power of a sheet of slate and a stick of chalk, then they're in trouble. Or the teacher is in trouble, more appropriately, because the student will just tune [the teacher] out and do this project at home. [He'll say,] “It's not worth my time to try it here, I don't have access to the resources. I'll just get through the day.”

In fact, the whole Sustaining/Disrupting idea comes from the world of business and the writings of Clayton Christensen, who “focuses on the critical distinction between sustaining technologies that enhance current trends in an industry and disruptive technologies – innovations that herald the wave of the future.” He argues that even well managed companies fail if they don't respond to innovation in a timely manner. It is adaptive organizations that survive and thrive in the presence of disruptive technologies. (See a summary here.)

That doesn't mean that it's easy. In fact it can generate a lot of fear. That's because Disruptive uses can fundamentally threaten well established practices. When graphing calculators first came out in the late 1980's, I bought one because I knew they represented great potential for teaching math. I showed it to a close friend, who was also a math teacher. Her first words were, “Wow! This is great!” But, without missing a beat, she went on to say, “I hope none of my students have one!”

David Thornburg had this to say about 1-to-1 computing, perhaps the biggest disruptive innovation facing schools in along time:

There's a realization that when you go below 4 to 1, as an educator, your world changes. I think that the teachers and administrators who are resistant to one-to-one computing definitely do understand the implications. These are very bright people. They know that the world of education as they know it will end. …

How can we help schools adapt to disruptive technologies? And more importantly, how can we take advantage of the “wave of the future” to improve schools and reach more students?



Do Something Different: Disruptive Technology

There are really two ways to use technology for teaching and learning. Johnson and Maddux refer to it as “Type I” and “Type II” (see here, for example). Alan November refers to it as “automation” and “infomation” (see here). Others refer to them as “sustaining” and “disruptive” (see here).

The bottom line is that Sustaining (Type I) approaches simply automate conventional practice – they support the ways teachers currently teach. Disruptive (Type II) uses are those that allow students and teachers to do things that they couldn't easily do before, or perhaps couldn't do at all. Business recognizes that although Sustaining uses of technology make work more efficient, there is only incremental improvement and benefits. It is with Disruptive uses of technology that real gains are to be made.

For example, the typewriter is Sustaining since it makes writing more efficient (it's neater, and with practice you can type faster than you can write). The word processor, however, is Disruptive because of the ease of revision. If you need to revise or edit a paper, there is little advantage to having a typewriter over having a pen and paper. In both cases, you have to start over with a new copy. With a word processor, you simply make your changes to the existing copy and print a new one. In fact, writing teachers have noticed that young writers no longer do separate, distinct drafts of a paper (1st draft, 2nd draft, etc.). Young writers now simply do a single rolling, evolving draft. They may print a new version (or submit a new electronic version in a drop box!) at certain points of their work, but each of these is not an end product of work on a specific draft, but rather a snapshot in time of the single evolving paper.

Other Sustaining examples include drill and practice software, student response systems (“clickers”), and SMARTboards. Each of these are more efficient ways of doing what teachers have done for a long time. But, since we aren't really changing what teachers have done – we aren't changing eduction – they won't mean that we will reach more students than we have in the past or that our schools will achieve anything they haven't done in the past. There's an old saying that if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten – even if you're doing it more efficiently.

Keep in mind that what matters most is how the technology is used, not which technology is used. For example, PowerPoint to create slides for a presentation is a Sustaining application, but students using PowerPoint to create multimedia documents to teach others about a topic they have been studying could be a Disruptive application. Using a graphing calculator in a math class with the traditional Algebra text is a Sustaining use, but using a graphing calculator for modeling real (messy) data and studying functions is a Disruptive use.

Other Disruptive examples of using technology in education include digital storytelling, WebQuests, or using blogs, wikis, and podcasts to build community and literacy. These uses have been shown to get students excited about learning, to learn basic skills, to use and develop higher order thinking skills, and to motivate hard to teach students. These tools have the ability to change education.

David Thornburg puts it this way:

All too often, we see teachers who are using technologies today trying to do the same kinds of things they did in the past, only more efficiently. I'm not going to go back to using a typewriter now that I use a word processor. But those are examples of what I'd call doing things differently–and the real power comes when you do different things.

Technology is expensive. I'm not sure it is worth that expense, if we are only going to use it to do what we have always done. But it could be well worth the cost if it brings productive changes in learning to our classrooms.

What is the change in learning you'd like to see in our schools?


Leveraging Learning: iPads in Primary Grades – Registration Opens Thursday!

Last November, Auburn successfully hosted their first Leveraging Learning Institute, focused on iPads in primary grades. We will be hosting the Institute again November 14-16, 2012. Sessions will appeal to those just starting and veteran implementers, as well as, those new to our conference and those who attended last year!

We expect the Institute to fill quickly, so please know that registration opens Thursday, 8/23 at noon (Eastern time).

Come gain insights into:

  • How to design and implement an iPad initiative to customize learning for students
  • Structuring professional development for continuous improvement
  • iPads for formative assessment, and special education, and as a creativity tool, and more!
  • Which apps should you use?
  • Leveraging data and supporting your initiative with thoughtful research
  • iPad and iOS management, and large-scale tech implementation
  • Managing apps and iPads in the classroom
  • and more!

Classroom visits will be available as optional pre- and post-conference sessions under separate registration (which also opens Thursday at noon!).

“The quality of this conference was extremely high. …the information was both pertinent and useable immediately.” Kevin Howe – Board Member – Lakeside Union School District – Lakeside, CA – LL2011 Attendee

We look forward to seeing you in November!


Keep the MLTI RFP Focused on Maine: Talking Points

As with other issues around the new MLTI RFP, I have had good exchanges with folks since I wrote about my worries about the new RFP having an option for other states to buy off of the terms of our contract. Some of you have asked what you might say to the Commissioner, if you wanted to express that you felt similarly.

Based on my experience working both in the private sector and the public sector, and on discussions with business people about this possibility, here are my talking points:

  • The possibility that the price would be lower because the vendor could sell more units is unlikely. A vendor is more likely to give an attractive price to a single showcase initiative.
  • Our RFP should be based on the changes in learning Maine would like to see. This doesn't apply to other states.
  • Even if other states are allowed to buy using our terms, the vendor has to do a separate contract with each state. The legal hassles of this mean that vendors will choose not to submit proposals to Maine.
  • If you take a second to imagine a vendor that you would like to see submit a proposal, there is a very good chance that they will not.
  • Please, make it clear in the RFP that submitted proposals will only apply to Maine.


Keep the MLTI RFP focused on Learning: Talking Points

I have had some great conversations and email exchanges with many of you since posting my concerns about keeping the new MLTI RFP focused on learning. Some of you have asked if you wanted to reach our to the Commissioner to express similar views, what might you say?

Here are my talking points:

  • Instead of tech specs, the RFP should describe what we would like to do with the devices (what is the change in learning that we would like to see?)
  • Technology is expensive, and we should not invest in it if we are simply going to use it to do what we do without it (what is the change in learning that we would like to see?)
  • Looking at the work in Maine, perhaps that change in learning should be Customized Learning and the Education Evolving recommendations
  • In keeping with the components of Customized Learning, the learning activities described should include both those for low level learning and for high level learning.
  • Low level activities (recall, understanding, simple application) could include the following: access to online resources, information gathering, note taking, communicating, studying, accessing online educational tools, etc.
  • High level activities (non-routine application, analysis, evaluation, creating) could include the following: creating simulations, project-based with multimedia, coding and programming, writing for a purpose and audience, digital storytelling, engineering and design, etc.


Tone of Voice Matters (In Surprising Ways)

In one of the schools I worked with a while ago, we were working hard to implement an engaging, project-based curriculum with hard-to-teach students, the hardest in the city. As with many hard-to-teach students, ours could be challenging. But where some of the teachers found that to be true, others seemed to have little problem with them.

I did a series of classroom observations to see if we could learn why. What could we learn about how different ways of interacting with students impact student behavior?

It became clear from the observations that there are generally three kinds of tone of voice teachers use with students and that the (hard-to-teach) student reaction to each was fairly predictable. My experience in classrooms since then has confirmed this pattern. Granted, easy-to-teach stidents will have much less reaction to tone of voice, but easy-to-teach students aren't who we're struggling to reach and trying to develop more success strategies for.

Disappointed Voice
It is no surprise that the classroom observations showed that teachers who used the “disappointed voice” (a tone that indicated that the teacher was disappointed, upset, or angry with the student) generated the most difficulty with students. Students who might have been calm and compliant would quickly become loud, defiant, and oppositional. Students who where already acting up generally became worse.

Interestingly, feeling angry (and perhaps showing it in your voice) is human nature when students act rudely or are persistently off task or disruptive. Wanting to subtly assert your authority is perfectly understandable. Grabbing an object a student won't put away seems a normal reaction. But actually doing any of these was totally counterproductive.

The disappointed voice did not necessarily happen only when students were off task or misbehaving; in at least one case, it had more to do with the teacher's natural tone of voice than it did with how the teacher was feeling. I was further surprised that some teachers were not aware that they were using the disappointed voice, showing how important it is that we be very conscientious, deliberate, and intentional about how we interact with students.

Teacher Voice
It was student reaction to “teacher voice” that surprised me the most. Teacher Voice is that voice that has just a little formality in it, or says I'm the teacher and you're the student. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the teacher voice. Such a tone seems completely appropriate, and I doubt that any principal or colleague would even notice during an observation that a teacher was using it (it's that normal and natural).

But it certainly caused problems with our challenging students! Again, it drove them to act up and be confrontational.

I think, where many children simply hear an adult tone or a formal tone, many hard-to-teach students hear authoritarianism or standoffishness (even a little “I'm better than you”), attitudes that they seem to take as confrontational and aggressive. Teachers certainly didn't mean any of these and I suspect that the teacher voice is fine for easy-to-teach students and some underachievers, but these observation certainly suggest that teachers will be more successful with their hard-to-teach students if they avoid that formal tone. Rather than debate whether students are right or wrong in their reaction to the teacher voice, I think we have look from the perspective of what works and what does not.

People Voice
It was interesting to see (and perhaps no surprise) that the teachers who seemed to have the best rapport with hard-to-teach students talked with them as people – they used what I have come to call the “people voice” (as if they were just talking with another person – I think some teacher educators call it the adult voice). There was no positional authority in their voice. Emerick (1992) reported that teachers influential with underachievers were willing to communicate with the student as a peer. That was certainly confirmed during these classroom observations.

The teachers who used the people voice still drew the line with behavior, set expectations, and intervened when students weren't doing what they were supposed to. In other words, even though they didn't wield their authority through in their voice in general, these teachers still used their authority when appropriate and necessary.

Ironically, in the past, I was a middle school teacher and had very good luck connecting with my students. But later I was moved to the high school and had a really horrible year before moving to the university to work with preservice teachers. I realize now that I had used the people voice with my middle school students and the teacher voice with my high school students. In light of these much more recent classroom observations, I can't help but wonder if using the teacher voice had had something to do with the quality of my year…

Tone of Voice Matters
Some of these differences in teacher behavior can be explained as stylistic differences. For example, some teachers relate more informally with students while others are more formal, and some teachers are more straightforward about their content, while other teachers work to make it more fun.

Although various behaviors, approaches, or reactions are natural, logical, understandable, or one's personal style, they can still be nonproductive or counterproductive. Much of this blog is about teachers being strategic, deliberate, and intentional in using productive behaviors, approaches, and reactions, even over those that are natural or otherwise “appropriate” but less effective. Teacher behaviors and approaches have to not just be “ok,” they have to work.

Clearly challenging students are very sensitive to the teacher's tone of voice, and teachers should avoid both the disappointed voice and the teacher voice in favor of the people voice. It would appear that using the people voice is a much more effective way of dealing with hard-to-teach and underachieving students


It’s Not About Blaming Teachers, It’s About Locus of Control

I keep writing about, and presenting about, how teachers need to teach differently… Pretty soon you'll start thinking that I'm blaming teachers for the challenges in our schools…

Most of what I write about in this blog is educational change, usually focused on instruction and/or technology integration (which, of course, is just a subset of “instruction”). But when you talk a lot about changing expectations for teaching and learning, and how teachers teach, and paradigms, and getting them to focus on the right thing instead of the wrong thing, and supervising for those changes, it's easy to start to think that I believe that teachers are the reason that schools aren't changing or that more students aren't learning.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

First off, I write about the changes that need to happen and how to help teachers make those changes because they are things that most teachers have not experienced before themselves.

I believe that the rules for education have changed. The world of work has changed and we now need every child to learn in school what we used to only need the college prep kids to learn (well, actually what has changed is that we now need every kid to be college prep!). Second, new tools (laptops, tablets, cell phones, iPods, information access, personal broadcasting, the read/write web, multimedia, etc.) have changed how kids work, necessitating changing how schools have students learn (or risk becoming irrelevant to students).

As I described when Bea McGarvey came to Auburn, she points out that schools still do industrial age education, when we need an educational system for the information age:

During the industrial age, schools’ goal was to sort out talent and make the rest compliant. We got really good at that. But for this economy, the goal needs to be to develop talent in every child. That’s why we’re so frustrated: we’re trying to meet one goal with a tool that was designed for another…

It doesn’t matter how much we agree with the burning platform that our schools need to work for all our children, or how well we understand that the root problem is how our goals have changed and it isn’t “the teachers’ fault” (Bea says, according to Deming: 95% of the problems are not with the people; they are with the structure), the fact is, at some point teachers understand that they are good at a system designed for an old goal, and that they might not know how to do the system for the new goal…

So teachers are now working in an environment they didn't really experience as students themselves, and probably weren't trained for professionally. Even if teachers need to be the ones making most of the changes, the reason is that the rules have changed, not because they weren't doing a good job.

But even more importantly, we focus on teachers making the changes because teachers are the ones who can solve our challenges. They have the power, the locus of control. When we look at all the factors that impact our students being successful, the one we (schools, educators) have the most control over is teacher practice: what happens in the classroom.

And if teachers have to make changes for a new environment they haven't experienced or been trained for, and if they are the ones who have the power to make the changes, then we have to be very, very clear that we don't blame teachers. Nothing could be more inappropriate, nor unproductive for achieving our new goals.

Instead, what we need to do is support the heck out of teachers.

We need to provide teachers support to a level like we never have before. Side by side with an expectation to teach in ways so all students can learn a high status curriculum, and that makes use of the modern tools for intellectual work, we have to be making a promise to support teachers in this work, making clear we believe in our teachers, and that we know that they can do this hard work. We have to provide training, resources, and time. We have to let teachers try, and allow them to make mistakes, and also to get better – and hold them harmless in this important work. That includes sticking up for them and their efforts, even when (maybe especially when!) it doesn't go well the first time.

If we don't, we guarantee failure: for our schools, for our teachers, and for our students.