Words by Beth R. Holland

June, 2017

Over a year ago, I was invited to contribute to a collection of essays edited by David James and Ian Warrick entitled World Class: Tackling the Ten Biggest Challenges Facing Schools Today. Each chapter addresses a different question through essays provided by educators, professors, and thought-leaders from around the world. Given my research exploring how technology can extend learning and impact teaching, David and Ian asked me to share my thoughts on What technology should we use in our classrooms? You can read my essay here and purchase a copy of the book from Routledge.

Computers have fundamentally changed the world since their introduction in the 1960s. According to American economists Autor, Levy, and Murnane, over the past few decades as computers became cheaper, smaller, and faster, they have replaced many of the routine jobs that people had previously completed placing new intellectual demands on today’s workers in the knowledge economy. And yet, despite the ways in which business and society have embraced the capabilities of new technologies, many modern classrooms still closely resemble those of the past.

What is the nature of this challenge facing schools today?

In their 1995 book, Tinkering Towards Utopia, authors David Tyack and Larry Cuban describe the challenge of breaking the intrinsic “grammar of schooling.” Speak to most individuals, and they can present a mental image of school:  age-grouped students, the presence of a teacher, desks facing forward, whiteboards (whether analog or interactive) at the front of the room. This vision has permeated society and presents a unique challenge to schools. Though the world no longer looks the same outside of the school house given the rapid influx of digital tools over the past twenty to thirty years, education remains relatively static. With technology becoming ubiquitous, the challenge lies in the opportunity rather than the device. Currently, most schools consider technology as a utility rather than an opportunity to shift the culture and behavior of learning.

Take something as vital to learning as school itself – note taking. In the past, students acted as scribes, furiously writing down information so that they could later recall it on an assessment. However, today’s teacher neither represents the sole source of information nor the only expert. Through their devices, students have constant access to both a global library and a global audience. In this new economy of information, a task as simple as note taking assumes a new connotation. Rather than serving as a means to preserve information, it becomes an opportunity to build deeper connections, synthesize ideas, and draw diverse conclusions with or without input from others. The access not only to information but also to people presents both an opportunity and a challenge. However, to take advantage of this new capability, schools will have to break away from that intrinsic “grammar of school” and embrace more student-centered, inquiry-based classroom practices.

How can schools overcome it?

Too often, schools begin with the solution — a new device, application, or system — and then look for a problem to solve. In these instances, the change can be met with frustration and even resistance as it represents one more initiative absent of coherence with the rest of the school environment. In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes that we have to “begin with the end in mind.”

Both the processes of Design Thinking and Improvement Science have emerged as potential strategies to overcome these challenges. They assert that to successfully complete either process requires school leadership to ask three core questions:

  • What is the specific problem that I am trying to solve?
  • What change might I introduce and why?
  • How will I know whether the change is actually an improvement?

By working through these questions, school leaders will ultimately articulate a vision for learning and justify how available technologies may support those goals. Once schools establish a common language and vision about the role of technology in the classroom then stakeholders and educators can begin to form new mental models about what student learning could look like.

How is this challenge likely to develop in the future?

As technology develops faster and replacement cycles become even more compressed, schools will need to adapt and adjust even more rapidly. Without a common vision for learning and a language about the role of technology, then these rapid changes could become destabilizing, confounding, and even destructive to school culture. In his book Future Wise, Harvard professor David Perkins raises the question, “What’s worth learning in school?” New technologies and devices bring this question to the forefront of every educator’s mind. They shift the fundamental nature of what it means to be a student as learning basic facts no longer necessitates a teacher or a classroom. If the focus stays on devices, and not on their impact, then schools will continue use new tools in old ways rather than harness their power to create powerful, innovative learning environments.

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