Memo to Idaho: Don’t expect teachers to embrace technology if you haven’t helped them learn to use it well.

Let’s talk about an article in yesterday’s New York Times: Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Idaho Schools. In the article, we learn that last year, Idaho’s state legislature “overwhelmingly passed a law that requires all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, and that the students and their teachers be given laptops or tablets,” all in an effort “to establish Idaho’s schools as a high-tech vanguard.”

The story has everything I’ve come to expect in articles about education reform efforts: quotes from teachers who hate the idea, quotes from teachers who love it, and plenty of tired cliches that speak to a general misunderstanding about the current state of life in the classroom.

Among those cliches is the oft-repeated idea that teachers see technology as a threat to the authority they have in the classroom. Such phrasing irritates me to no end, first because it primarily serves to depict teachers as people whose chief concern is ensuring that they are the center of attention at all times, rather than as people whose primary goal always is to educate their students in the most effective ways. Second, this classification also reveals a general lack of understanding about how teaching and learning occurs in the classroom of today. Take this bit, for example, from the article:

And the plan envisions a fundamental change in the role of teachers, making them less a lecturer at the front of the room and more of a guide helping students through lessons delivered on computers.

*Big sigh*. Alright … first, most modern educators are being trained–and have been trained for at least the last fifteen years–to be facilitators of learning, rather than authorities who talk at students instead of engaging them in the work of discovery. And guess what? We’ve known about this theory of education for a long time. Check out the work of Lev Vygotsky, who died in 1934, but whose ideas about collaborative learning still guide teacher training programs today. Computers are not a threat to a teacher’s “place of authority” in part because a good number of teachers already adopt a style of learning coach rather than professor in the literal sense of that word.

I get that reporters might not know this. They might not have been in enough classrooms to see how often students are not sitting in tidy rows listening to the teacher, but rather are working in groups to discover answers, perform research, or wade through difficult concepts together. But it is concerning when school superintendents seem to lack such an understanding, as is the case with Idaho schools superintendent Tom Luna, who had this to say about the coming changes to Idaho schools:

The role of the teacher definitely does change in the 21st century. There’s no doubt. The teacher does become the guide and the coach and the educator in the room helping students to move at their own pace.

Again, this is not new to the “21st century.” Teachers have been playing the role of the “guide on the side” for years. And if Mr. Luna has teachers in his district who aren’t doing that, he should address that problem first before he worries about getting a laptop or tablet into the hands of every student at the school.

The frustrating thing here is how these kinds of articles so often play into an anti-teacher sentiment that appears to be creeping across the country. Once again, teachers are portrayed as merely lazy autocrats whose chief concern is for their own job, rather than for the educational well-being of their students. Are there some teachers who fit this description? Most certainly–just as every profession has people in it who appear to care little about being good at what they do. But the majority of teachers I know are people who are creative, innovative, passionate and dedicated, and who continually evolve their practice in order to serve their students better.

Obviously, as someone who is a huge champion of technology in the classroom, I think there is great potential here for Idaho’s schools to help their students become technologically literate as well as academically proficient. To me, this is not an either-or proposition. But the superintendent and others charged with implementing these changes seem to have made the classic mistake of forcing them on educators without a clear plan as to how they will help teachers make use of the new hardware and software with which they will soon be equipped. According to the Times, the details of how teachers will be trained in best practices for working with technology “were still being worked out.”

Hmmm … Well, if technology is Idaho’s number one priority going into the next academic year, my advice would be to start with focusing professional development days on technology. It’s clear some teachers have followed their own passion for these tools, and they could be the professional development leaders for their colleagues in their respective disciplines. Have a science teacher in your district who uses Google maps to chart sightings of native and non-native bird species? Great! Have her lead a session on that for the other science teachers in the district. Know an English teacher who uses Twitter to teach parody? Fantastic. Have him help colleagues learn how to use Twitter so they can then understand its implications for teaching.

Without good training, teachers who have not yet adopted technology and explored its uses in the classroom will continue to harbor fears that they won’t know how to use it or that it has no purpose. As educators, we should understand well what is at the root of people’s resistance to change–we see it all the time with our students, and we know at its core is often a simple fear of failure. If we empower educators to use technology well, they will do so.

I haven’t even addressed Idaho’s plan to require that all high school students take online courses for two of the 47 credits required for graduation. Perhaps they could begin with Code Academy, which provides free interactive lessons on coding for anyone, anywhere. High schools everywhere often lack the resources to offer coding classes, despite the fact that this skill is one that will likely seep into all manner of jobs in the years to come–not only those once referred to as “webmaster.”

The times, they are a-changin’–and they’ve been changing for quite some time. What hasn’t changed, sadly, are they myriad ways that those outside the classroom talk about change to those who work on the inside. Maybe Idaho’s superintendent Luna can find an online course somewhere in effective relationship-building and organizational management. From there he can lead by example, while also hopefully learning a few techniques to get teachers under his leadership to embrace technology rather than resist it.

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