Voices in Education

Tech Is Changing Teaching, Finally
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 30, number 6). Copyright 2014 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

The news comes fast, and breathless, with each passing week: a major school district will spend tens of millions of dollars to buy computing devices for every schoolchild. Other teachers are asking students to watch short videos on the subject matter at home and to come prepared to work in the classroom on what would normally be considered homework.

Still others are encouraging students to post to blogs, text each other, or create social media profiles for famous people. Some schools are allowing students to bring their own devices, such as smartphones, and even do work on them.

As the calls grow for integrating technology into the classroom in ever more impactful ways, it behooves us to look at what the teachers who are recognized in this regard—and for their teaching overall—are actually doing in the classroom. With technology so woven into life, and with so many teachers developing, exploring, learning, and instructing, using some form of technology—from smart boards to smart pens—an examination of these teachers’ experiences in adopting and integrating technology into their practices seems timely and needed.

So from February through December of 2013, I interviewed nine award-winning teachers working at different grade levels, in different parts of the country, in districts both large and small to find out: How did they become so expert in using technology? With the myriad of tools, apps, and programs out there, how did they choose what to learn and incorporate into their practice? What did they learn about themselves and their students in the process?

These are not teachers with vast technology budgets. On the contrary, many have struggled to obtain the technology they are working with, and their acquisition and upgrade efforts have often been slow and incremental. But one way or another they have acquired it, or at least enough of it to begin using it on a regular basis. In addition, all of these teachers have solid and widely available Internet connections, as well as a growing collection of hardware that in every case approximates, if not in actuality, a class set of devices. All control some form of accessible, virtual space for use in teaching.

What I found from these interviews was surprising—and not so surprising.

Advancing Their Pedagogy

Rather than using technology as an end in itself, these educators are using technology to advance their pedagogy, which includes all of the foundational pillars that one would expect of good teachers: solid introductions, scaffolding of materials, modeling, hooking their students’ interest and engaging them in the material, varying instruction, and other such aspects.

In much the same way that someone with a kitchen outfitted with the latest gadgetry is not, de facto, a great chef, neither do these teachers rely upon technology to be superior teachers. Instead, they are superior teachers using technology to affect learning, and to amplify their underlying pedagogy and exceptional teaching skills.

In Columbia, S.C., for example, Christopher Craft uses the guided experiential learning approach to help students in his sixth-grade STEM class build their own apps. The students have built apps to capture the progress of soccer teams, the work of a local dance academy, and the world of Little House on the Prairie, the series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Still, technology is secondary to his relationship with his students, he says. “It’s never about the technology, it’s about the learning,” says Craft. “The more efficient we teachers can be, the more we can focus on kids and custom-tailoring the learning to our kids.”

I found that many of the teachers organized their teaching, and their use of technology, around a number of similar tasks—some of them standard teaching tasks, such as assessing, and some more in tune with Common Core standards, such as fostering collaboration and communication among and between students. Virtually all of these teachers value instructing their students in digital literacy skills.
Interacting with Content

One important task—fostering interaction with the content itself, rather than passive consumption of it—is ubiquitous. Many of these teachers, if not all of them, would reject the idea that they are spending time consciously integrating technology, as opposed to looking for more compelling, engaging, and efficient ways of delivering instruction and content. They see themselves as providing their students with the venues and platforms—along with the motivation—to interact with that content.

“I’m really interested in how students communicate and collaborate,” explains Joshua Silver, who has won multiple awards for his innovative teaching in New Mexico. “I don’t want them to be downloaders; I want them to be uploaders, which requires them to produce something, and that product is something to share with other people.” Silver’s students use technology as well as paper to produce their own public service announcements for a unit on words and influence; Facebook pages for the character Macbeth; and effective, clearly written instruction manuals for an item chosen from one of the texts they are reading.

“I think it’s important to note that my curriculum is often very traditional. In the eyes of many, probably too traditional. We read lots of classic literature, as I’d imagine many classes are doing. With that, though, I find ways to use the technology. So, my core curriculum hasn’t really changed. What has, though, is the delivery method,” says Silver.

Similarly, Amber Kowatch attributes her evolution as a teacher to the iPad. Second graders in her Ludington, Mich., classroom use their iPads to answer questions on how they learn best, to test their math skills with games, and to upload sentences using vocabulary words and book reports to the class wiki or blog, among many other things. Prior to the iPad, “I never gave my students a chance to show what they knew. I wasn’t that kind of teacher,” says Kowatch. “This is how much the iPad has changed me. My kiddos have opportunities they never had before.”

Teaching is changing, where it stood stock-still for many years.

The rueful joke about the retired doctor entering a hospital after many years and finding it to be unrecognizable, while the retired teacher finds school to be utterly familiar, may soon lose some of its currency, if the practices of teachers like Craft, Silver, and Kowatch spread further and wider.

About the Author: Dave Saltman is a teacher and writer based in California and the author of Teachers Talking Tech: Creating Exceptional Classrooms with Technology, published by Harvard Education Press in November 2014.