I came across a great article in Slate, – Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator by Konstantin Kakaes. The argument, in simple terms, is that what we really need to teach math is paper, pens, an old fashioned blackboard, and a textbook that is at least a decade or so older than the students. As a key example of this, Kakaes points out the story of Vern Williams, a celebrated super teacher who may very well be the John Henry of Math Educators. Williams refuses to use newfangled devices, and feels they are a menace to real education. Reading this, I found myself smiling, somewhat taken aback by the utter nonsense of it all.
I’m sure Vern Williams is a superstar teacher. But Vern Williams is just a singular being, he is not legion. Of math educators, he may be the LeBron James, or Michael Phelps, but in being that, there then is the reality that there is something he is not – your everyday normal educator. Indeed, in highlighting Mr. Williams special nature, Kakaes even spends time telling us cherry picked anecdotes of examples of technology uses in the classroom he has witnessed which, no surprise, failed to blow him away.
In a classic example of thunder without lightning, bark without bite, Kakaes ends up making three critical errors in his argument.
First, he sets up a straw man. He chooses the example of teachers who are not yet fully trained in how to use technology in the classroom, and holds their example up as proof that technology in the classroom is all just a waste of time. An argument worthy of William Jennings Bryan.
Next, Kakaes forgets something that is the root of all mathematics – logic. You cannot scale a single person. Vern Williams may be an amazing educator, but you can’t clone him by the tens of thousands. The only thing that can bring Mr. Williams wisdom and methods to the masses is the very thing being demonized in the article – technology. To wit:
But drawing up a lesson plan is itself educative: A teacher who plans his own lecture is forced toward mastery of the material, but one who downloads a PowerPoint presentation doesn’t have to know anything beyond how to download the presentation. It is a mirage of efficiency: empty calories.
Drawing up a lesson plan my be educative, but using a lesson plan prepared by a master teacher is far more so. The same goes with the materials, exercises, and examples they create and curate. Great teachers can be hamstrung by poor materials, but those who are merely average to good can often be sunk by them.
The final error in this piece is that Kakaes is essentially arguing against something he plainly knows nothing about. He tried a few programs and didn’t like them? Read a few studies he didn’t agree with? Saw a few teachers who didn’t blow him away? Plain as day, every example he puts forth as proof of his claim is so utterly weak that it is laughable. This is not someone who knows the theory and practice of flipping a classroom, or how to leverage the interactive properties of technology to enhance engagement, or how teachers can effectively extend their classroom into their student’s own homes and give students the kind of individual support that until now only the wealthiest families had access to.
What eventually brought about a final snort of derision from me was this gem near the end of the article –
Technology is bad at dealing with poorly structured concepts. One question leads to another leads to another, and the rigid structure of computer software has no way of dealing with this.
Clearly Kakaes has never heard of social networking, or learning management systems like Edmodo, which exist to promote discussion, and do not operate according to some strict, linear paradigm; tools which are as useful or not according to who uses them and how they are used.
I don’t often have this sort of reaction, but at the end of the article, I was nearly yelling at my screen. If this 20 year old math text is so great, why isn’t it digitized! If Vern Williams is so great, then why isn’t his every lesson plan, self created resource, and descriptions of his methodology online? Is the 0$ price tag of Google Docs too much to handle? Does clicking the “upload” button present in insurmountable challenge? And how is it not better for students to have access to the lessons and wisdom of their teachers wherever they are, over only seeing them a few times a week?
The truth is, Kakaes argument is one that I have found all too common, in my experience. In another time, Kakaes and those who think like him would react to seeing automobiles drive past by doubling down on horses and carriage makers. What is so plainly obvious to someone like me, is glaringly not obvious to those like him. Which begs the question, why?
Permit me, if you will,a few preliminary thoughts on the matter.
Why So Many Teachers Resist eLearning
1) A key stumbling block is conceptual. The vast majority of teachers I work with don’t really grasp the breadth and scope of this paradigm. All our teachers were encouraged to embrace 1:1, but efforts in that regard seemed to be viewed more as a faddish bureaucratic requirement. Like putting up posters of student work before an observation. Changing this mindset is not impossible, but it does require patience, effort, time, and a plan.
2) The next issue is generational. It’s like a technological KT boundary. Those that are early thirty-ish and under generally get it, and those over, generally don’t. I can’t remember where I took this analogy from, maybe Scott McLeod or someone in that educational travelling visionary set, but in my training sessions I generally open things up with this statement – To teachers, a computer, is a tool. It is something you use for your job. It has a purpose and a function, like any other tool. To students, a computer is their environment, their ecosystem. It is not just something they use, it is something they use for everything. Friendship, love, entertainment, school, personal exploration, commiseration, engagement, all of it, everything, is mediated by a computer of some sort. Whether it is a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone, doesn’t matter. They are all doors and windows into this world that overwhelmingly informs everything they understand about everything around them.
The average teacher doesn’t have the frame of reference to truly grasp this. They talk about kids being “addicted” to their cell phones, or their computers, or their video games. They see the behavior as an aberration, a deviation from what they perceive is the norm. What they don’t understand, or can’t accept, is that the behavior is not a deviation, or an aberration, it is the norm.
3) The third problem, in my opinion, is behavioural. There are a variety of reasons teachers will resist change. For example, they may not want to spend their own money on buying technological tools. I used to work construction. I bought my own tools, my own gear. This is how trades work. Chefs buy their own knives. Artists buy their own brushes and paints. I buy my own microphones, and cameras, and cables. But for some reason most teachers I know feel that their employer has to pay for these things. If I walked onto a construction site and said “You gotta buy me some tools” I’d fast be finding someplace else to be. But teachers seem to see things differently. Perhaps this may be because teachers don’t see these technological things as tools of their trade yet, but as esoteric extras.
Also aligned within this behavioral subset is attitude. Teachers who are burned out, or just don’t care, won’t bother. Teachers with ten years or less until retirement don’t see a compelling reason to change their practice. Then there are the teachers who are just hanging on by their fingernails, barely able to control their classes, unsure about whether they picked the right profession, and just don’t have the wherewithal to take on something that seems so alien and insurmountable.
The above are all reasons why other teachers are resistant to this model. They. Them.
But there is, strongly feel, another, bigger reason – us.
In every school there are a handful of techie types like myself, comfortable with technology, conversant with it, who proselytize constantly, spreading the digital good news. But how do we look to everyone else?
How receptive are you to the guy on the street corner telling you to repent now? Because that is how we can seem to our colleagues. The faithful, the converted, shouting out our news, our truth. The problem is that we are telling, but rarely ever showing. I get excited about cool new tools, as many others do. We’ll ohh and ahh, and just gush with effervescent imagination like a hippe Carl Sagan who’d just chugged two shots of Atomic Jello laced with LSD.
“Oh it’s amazing! You could snargle! With the burgleforg! And then zaxxan the piffleburp!
Listening to us “Terds” speak (Teacher-Nerds… though on reflection perhaps that is an unfortunate amalgam…Teeks, anyone?) is like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher.
What’s worse, not only will the un-digital not understand us, but we will often be impatient with them. Our every expression and action will appear to scream “What kind of moron are you? A two year old can do this!”
It doesn’t matter that none of what they perceive is true. It doesn’t matter if you truly are a helpful person, who holds their colleagues in the highest of esteem. The actual, bedrock truth doesn’t matter. Only what is perceived to be the truth does.
I learned this the hard way. Full of energy, positivity, ideas, and a willingness to expend effort on behalf of others, I found myself constantly being sideswiped by politics in the workplace. Accusations, insinuations, lies, and some insanely mean comments. I kept being yanked into the principal’s office, and more than once thought I’d be out of a job right then and there. I had to really step back, and evaluate what I was doing, and how I approached what I did.
That was when things started to change for the better. Before I suggested something to someone, I’d put myself in their shoes, and think about how it would fit into their practice and skill level. I learned patience. I kept my door open, and any time a colleague came by, whether I was teaching or not, I’d wave them in, listen, and see what I could do.
It amazed me how fast things began to change. All I had to do was wait for the right openings. Instead of pushing solutions on to others, I’d wait until someone came around with a problem. When my department started having a mess of marks as spreadsheets got fired back and forth, and people did or did not copy and paste correctly, I set up a Google Spreadsheet, shared it, and the problem was solved.
It is not a fast process, but I found that the key was to look at small things that saved others time, frustration, and effort. Small things that did not require much of them, and offered instant, observable benefits. That’s the gateway drug, the gateway tech. That’s where it starts.
Over time, with patience, and humility, I think we can effect the change in other teachers that we seek.
And then, once we open their eyes, we can start taking the good and the great, the best practices, the amazing resources, collecting them, collating them, and promoting their use.
We don’t tell scientists to invent their own scientific method. We don’t tell architects to draw up their own building codes. We don’t ask doctors to whip up their own medicines. Professionals, including teachers, work best by building on what has come before, by implementing best practices, and not re-inventing the wheel each and every day.