Sunday, May 3, 2009

What if?

What if...teachers were part of the discussion?
It’s great to see OPSBA, the umbrella group for school boards in Ontario, taking a look at the future of technology in our classrooms. But, I found that a role and voice for teachers is mostly missing. Who do they actually think is making these changes happen? I guess at our school we’re just a “bubble of excellence,” not a group of teachers. The final pages of the report call for input from students – but no similar recommendation mentions teachers.
The discussion paper is called “What If?” and was released late last week to teachers in the NNDSB. It’s filled with comments of varying quality from administrators and trustees from across the province, presented in random sidebar fashion, as well as a core text that seems to be aimed primarily at getting the provincial government to take a greater leadership role in funding and prescribing the use of IT in schools. There are no classroom teachers mentioned or quoted in the document.
I have a great appreciation for the advantages of “students taking control of their learning in the ‘connected’ classroom,” fostering student engagement through the use of IT, and promoting student retention. I hope that I do this daily in my classroom. But maybe in order to get attention and funding, OPSBA feels it has to show a need, and in the report that need seems to be embodied in the image of teachers stuck in their ways and not open to using IT. Could it be that the “system is broken?” and the government needs to fix it? Hmmmm.
See how we learn
One of the best analyses of the role of teachers and their progress in using IT comes from Diana Scales, District Principal, TLDSB. She talks about the successes of some teachers as well as what is holding us back; in a short paragraph with no jargon, her comments are down-to-earth and full of common sense.
The report also contains a number of broad statements about teachers that are either not substantiated or are incorrect. For example, on page 10 it states that four years ago IT was not part of teacher training at faculties of education. Nonsense. I went to Nipissing 10 years ago and we certainly had IT as one of our courses. It was a great introduction to common applications and also covered some OSAPAC software and the IEP composer.
One of the points I disagree strongly with is on page 13 and concerns the issue of job-embedded learning. Teachers take note. The report states, “We talk of anywhere, anytime learning for students and the same is true for teachers. This involves having online professional learning programs rather than event-based congregated professional development. The latter is shown to have little return on investment; the former models what learning today and tomorrow looks like.” There is no data included to back up this astonishing statement.
I can contrast this with the two-day TLLP conference in spring 2008, where the keynote speaker from a highly regarded U.S. education think-tank stressed to us that much more needs to be documented and quantified about how teachers learn best. In other words, the jury is still out. The “L” in TLLP is for “learning” and dozens of projects are ongoing across Ontario at present to investigate this. We were told by Kathleen Wynne, Minister of Education, that we were the leaders of this task, breaking new ground in thinking about how educators can learn most effectively. As well, consider the trend to PLCs. These are the opposite of “45-minute online webinars.”
My personal observation is that teachers will gladly accept help and new information from a human, either a trusted colleague or an engaging and non-judgemental guest. Few can relate to print documentation, and we all like “congregated” PD that involves a presenter to guide us through our learning and answer our questions. In fact, our work on the TLLP has shown a tremendous return on a relatively small investment, by funding group learning and congregated PD.
Invest in tech in elementary schools
The only mention of allocation of resources comes in a sidebar submitted by Peel DSB, which recommends one computer lab for every 400 elementary students, and one lab for every 170 secondary students. What a joke. The whole report is focused on bringing more tech into schools, whether by teachers or by students themselves in the form of i-pods and phones. It notes correctly that students are moving ahead in the use of technology on their own, because it’s part of their world, and that this starts when they are toddlers. It states that loss of student engagement becomes a serious factor in Grade 6 through 8. So, to point out the obvious, we need more at the middle school level, not less. It’s a fantastic time to capitalize on student readiness to master more complex tasks by teaching them how make and use blogs, wikis, podcasts and movies, and to master office and graphics software tools as well as equipment such as cameras and audio recorders. More equipment at school also helps us smooth out socio-economic disparities early, enabling kids from all families to have access to the tools that they will need in the future.
I hope that as OPSBA processes responses to the paper, it incorporates the experiences and views of teachers. We have a lot to contribute to this discussion.
I am planning other posts on teacher learning and the recent report by Kathleen Yancy of the NCTE on “Writing in the 21st Century,” so I’ll stop for now…

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