First Five Lessons

What did you learn this summer? I’m going to be reflecting on this for quite a while. But here’s my first attempt at documenting the things I’ve learned (or re-learned) in my Teachers Without Borders – Canada experience this summer.

team-at-jfkWe’re working on common problems.

When asked what the major challenges are facing effective technology integration and use in schools, teachers in both South Africa and Kenya put access to technology, professional development, and time at the top of the list. If I asked my teachers in Ohio the same question, they’d come up with the same list. We don’t have enough technology. We need more, better, sustained professional development. And there’s never enough time to learn new things while handling all of the other responsibilities that teachers have. The same solutions that we’re trying in North America — extending the life of computers, using online professional development, and encouraging professional learning networks — may be applicable in many situations, but these are still major challenges for everyone.

Technology in schools is more than just technology in schools.
I think iZAC explained this most eloquently when I was frustrated with trying to plan technology workshops for teachers who don’t have electricity. Using technology effectively, especially without a 1:1 model that provides a computer for every learner, requires a cooperative learning model. We have to get away from using schools to disseminate information to note-taking students silently sitting in rows. In many places, the change in how we teach came at the same time as the introduction of technology. But these are actually two different things. We can use backward design to plan units, and employ rubrics for assessment, and adopt an inquiry model for teaching without using technology at all. We can apply Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory and take yet another look at the various interpretations of Bloom’s Taxonomy. By focusing on all of these other things, and de-emphasizing the technology itself, we managed to go a long way toward empowering these teachers to use technology in their classes without actually using the technology all that much. That’s important, because when they do finally get the technology, they’ll be better prepared to take advantage of it.

Focus on one thing at a time.
These communities have an overwhelming list of problems. There’s a critical housing shortage in Cape Town. There’s a shortage of safe drinking water in Kenya. Utility infrastructures need work everywhere. Aids is a collosal problem. But we’re focusing on technology in the schools. And within that, we’re concentrating on teacher professional development. We want to empower the teachers and supporting organizations to build self-sustaining professional development models. That’s what we’re here to do. So while we see the other problems, and we recognize their severity, we can’t get sidetracked by them. If we did, we would lose focus on our goals, and not get anything done. We have a finite amount of resources and energy. If we try to solve all of the problems at the same time, we’re not going to make a difference with any of them. This lesson applies to teachers within classrooms, schools and school districts, governments, aid organizations, and just about everyone else who’s trying to solve problems.

Sometimes, things change.
When we arrived in Cape Town, I felt we were completely unprepared. Sure, we kind of had a schedule for the first week of workshops. We had (on the plane) mapped out a rough draft of how the first day should go. But that was about it. It reminded me of the first year teacher, who spends all summer focusing on the first day of school, only to realize when it’s over that the learners are coming back tomorrow. As it turns out, though, this was a blessing. In every workshop we did, there were major changes to the schedule at the last minute (sometimes, literally the last minute). For us, in this situation, flexibility was the key. Know your stuff. Be prepared, sure. But also be ready to throw it out the window and start from scratch. This approach required us to really know what we were doing, but in the end it provided a much better experience for the attendees. The reality is that the needs change, details change, and if we don’t change with them, we become irrelevant.

The network has limitations.
I’m a strong proponent of professional learning networks. I think the most valuable professional development I’ve ever had has come from interacting with other professionals in my network through podcasts, blogs, Skype, Twitter, and the like. Because our team was geographically separated (from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia), it was impossible for all of us to meet before going to Africa. We used the online tools to do our team planning. We set up a Moodle site to organize information. We used Google Docs to collaborate on schedules and plans. We emailed a lot. We had a weekly Skype conference. And there was always a text chat going on. We spent about eight weeks planning like this before leaving. But we got precious little done. Sure, we came together as a team, we developed a great rapport, and we were all old friends before we physically met. That experience was invaluable. But when it came to actually nailing down the schedule, signing up for leading sessions, organizing resources, and getting ready for these workshops, we weren’t particularly effective. I’m still trying to figure out why this was the case. I’m sure there were models we could have used or procedures to employ that would have made us more productive, but we spent a lot of time working without much to show for it.

I’m sure there will be many more lessons from this experience. I’m just starting the process of decompressing the experience. Stay tuned for more…