ISTE Leadership Forum: How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Some 400-500 educators came to Indianapolis last week for ISTE’s inaugural conference focused on leading school change.  It was a solid first effort, illustrating ISTE’s growth over the past decade from a “techie” group to perhaps the most vibrant overall K-12 organization in the country.  Attendees included superintendents, district CIOs, principals, a good leavening of teachers; 40% new ISTE members, another sign of healthy mission expansion.

Presenters combined theory and practice; breakouts provided opportunities (though not enough, in my view) for peer discussions and networking; materials included a framework for developing an action plan, and tools, both paper and digital, to document and share it.  I expect attendees overall felt it was time well spent – the first reaction I’ve seen, from instructional technology director and speaker Steven Anderson, is a case in point.

Yet from the beginning I heard an ambivalence about where to focus, how to start.  Do we adopt new technology to drive school change, or do we adopt a plan for school change that includes technology?  Or is it both at once?  And, to reflect Yeats’ question (appropriately enough from the poem “Among School Children”), how important is it to distinguish the part from the whole, the beginning from the ending?

Educational change authority Michael Fullan, whose introductory and wrap-up presentations book-ended the conference, cautioned strongly that technology can be seductive and must not outpace pedagogy.  Yet he presented a model (slide #5 if you want to look at his first presentation) that shows pedagogy driving technology driving change driving pedagogy, in a continuous loop that implies the three elements are equal and must work together.

When asked the question directly, attendees seemed to agree: “You start with educational goals.  Technology is just a means to an end.”  If that’s true, is a discussion focused on “technology” even the place to start?  And is that the way most implementations are really happening?

In the breakouts I attended, it didn’t sound like it.  What I heard mostly from districts was schedules for introducing 1:1 devices to their students.  They had careful and well-reasoned discussions about what kinds of devices, whether to do BYOD, whether to start with all grades or just a few at a time.  But I seldom if ever heard anyone say: Here are specific pedagogical goals we need to set, here’s the specific technology that will support those goals, and here’s how we will introduce that technology along with instructional strategies to meet the goals.

One district tech coordinator recounted how his superintendent, having proudly acquired iPads for all teachers, asked him to develop a plan to get the devices into use.  “What do you want them to do?” he asked.  She looked at him blankly.  “They’re iPads,” she replied.   The assumption that the thing in itself will automatically improve education would be laughable if we hadn’t heard that assumption so many times before – about whiteboards, projectors, calculators, computers, flexible seating arrangements…fill in the list from your own experience.

1:1 technology can certainly be a change agent.  One assistant principal told me that after going 1:1 the end of last year, her district this year simply threw out all textbooks and went “cold turkey” to a total e-curriculum from one of the major publishers.  Evidently her superintendent decided that the “burn the boats” strategy was the only way to get everyone to buy in to a new approach.  And maybe he’s right, in his situation; I don’t know.  I do know it’s a great way to encourage the sale of e-curriculum.  But is that the point of the exercise?

One thing this story illustrates is hunger for change, coupled with the absolute need for some structure despite, or during, or on account of, that change.  Publishers of e-curriculum stand ready with one type of ready-made solution; I’ve heard several similar (though less extreme) accounts.  For the increasing number of districts that seem to want to create, or at least assemble, their own curricula, the Common Core provides a structure but at the same time a host of additional requirements.  Solutions for some of those requirements – such as integrating writing across the curriculum or increasing non-fiction reading – that use technology should be in increasingly high demand.

For those schools or districts who want to think through Fullan’s pegagogy-technology-change model fully before pulling any triggers – what aspects of technology are most likely to support pedagogical improvements?  That depends, of course, on the pedagogy in any specific instance, but here are some possible answers: collaboration (among students, between student and teacher, among teachers), mobility (“Principals, get out of the office and into the classrooms; the urgent messages will find you on your iPhone”), immediate feedback, community creation (both inside and outside the school), interactivity.

Interestingly, almost all of these have to do more with technology as communication than with gee-whiz graphics or fancy effects.  One of the most effective implementations I heard described – from Nashville and the incoming president of ISTE – involved 1:1 computers, mobile technology, blended learning, a partially “flipped” classroom approach – but also hands-on science demonstrations and an entire classroom wall coated with whiteboard paint, inviting continuous dynamic but low-tech interaction.

There is a reason why ISTE’s name says “technology in education,” not “technology and education” or even “educational technology.”  Just because the “T” comes first doesn’t mean that’s the way we should plan or implement.  Maybe we need more services or tools that help planners distinguish between dancer and dance, while keeping in mind that they’re both essential to a successful performance.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

About mhbaumk12

Mike Baum has 40 years of experience with all types of direct marketing, has run several companies, spent 25 years as a consultant in franchising and in K-12 education, and currently helps companies find solutions to growth challenges.
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