Teachers Trump Tools

Teachers Trump Tools

We need to stop giving tools the credit for engaging our students and put the focus back on teachers.

Written by Jeff Gerlach on Thursday, 04 September 2014.

“What does it take to run a blended classroom?” The question came from across the room during a recent PD session that I was leading. I paused, taking time to think of a thoughtful response. Deep down, I knew what this teacher was asking but I took advantage of his vagueness and said,

“Well I think you always start with content and pedagogy. What are your learning objectives and what is it that you want students to do to master those objectives?”

He clarified, “No, I mean all the kids are going to need a computer in front of them to do the kind of things you’re talking about right? We don’t have a one-to-one school. We have labs.”

I got it. Others do too.

Chris Stanley (@StanleyTeach), a high school English and 21st Century Literacy Teacher at Fraser Public Schools, recently visited our office in Lansing and it was awesome to pick his brain about online and blended learning. In Chris’s leadership role with his school, he promotes good, sound blended learning practices among his colleagues. He’s an advocate of the hybrid classroom, and does a wonderful job of sharing his experiences of implementing blended learning in his own teaching.

Fraser also happens to be a 1:1 iPad district and to say that this had zero impact on Chris developing of his blended classroom would be ridiculous. Heck yeah, having enough devices for every single student to use and keep with them at all times opens up a world of possibilities for blended learning. But I hate that so many think having devices for every student is the start and endpoint of building a blended learning environment.

When I talk with Chris or Mary Wever (@WeverWorld) or any of a number of the blended learning standouts in our state, we talk teaching and learning. Once, I observed Mary’s class and the only direct technology use I saw in the classroom was a small group of students watching a video that the rest of the students had watched the night before. Why? Because Mary had a tactile geometry lesson planned for that day. Physical shapes were desired over simulating them on a screen. Would a PhET style simulation still be of value? I bet Mary might consider it to support absent students or as an extension, extra practice or review activity. But see … now we’re talking teaching and learning again.

I firmly believe that these 1:1 initiatives empower leaders like Chris and Mary immediately, but a district’s belief that buying things will empower every teacher is foolish. Chris and Mary would be outstanding teachers in 1920. They know how to set objectives and construct learning environments to support their students in reaching those goals.

In a balanced and thorough article entitled What it actually takes for schools to ‘go digital’, Margaret Ramirez (@margwriter) describes several districts that have implemented wide sweeping 1:1 adoptions. It’s a fantastic look at the fiscal commitment that schools are making to these initiatives and the mixed bag of successes and failures that have resulted.

Unlike a lot of articles on this topic, Ramirez shares stories from the classroom. I so want to visit some of these classrooms where teachers are clearly TPACK literate even if they’ve never heard the term before. One quote, from someone who is clearly a great blended teacher, hit me pretty hard:

“This is the first time in my 12 years of teaching that students said writing the research paper was their favorite assignment … and I know it was due to the laptops.”

We need to stop giving tools the credit for engaging our students in positive ways and put the focus back on teachers and students doing great things by any means. Unfortunately, a big side effect of 1:1 initiatives is that it develops a sense of powerlessness. Teachers who don’t have 1:1 feel that they don’t have the power to try blended learning because they can’t guarantee that their students will have 24/7 access to the internet. So we’ve created this situation where we either throw up our hands, starting sentences with “If we only had enough laptops for every student we could …” or where administrators point to million dollar technology purchases as success itself. Educators who feel they lack the tools to implement blended learning need to know that intermittent internet access is normal and far from paralyzing, and that blended learning strategies are flexible to learners’ realities.

There are many models of blended learning and even more tools that could prove useful to teachers in creating their blended learning course. We need to do a better job of promoting tenacity in our teachers and students to utilize the technologies they have. Excuses, no matter their legitimacy, should never keep us from implementing best practices. Teachers trump tools every single time.

About the Author

Jeff Gerlach

Jeff Gerlach

Jeff Gerlach (@JGer1) is an instructional design coach for Michigan Virtual University. He works with teachers to design blended learning experiences for students through presentations, school partnerships, online courses and 1:1 coaching. He holds a master's degree in educational technology from Michigan State and has experience as a face-to-face teacher in the metro Detroit area where he blended his classroom for six school years.

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