Pretty Rocks

While hiking in the park the other day, we encountered some Sharon conglomerate. In our area, almost all of the rock is sedimentary shale and sandstone. Conglomerate is pretty rare. It’s composed of bits of quartz bound together by sandstone. It looks a lot like old weathered concrete, with chunks of aggregate rock integrated with a cement. It’s all one rock, but you can see that it’s made up of different kinds of components mixed and fused together.

Conglomerates are primarily useful in ornamental applications. Their composition and strength can be unreliable, but the variation in material makes it beautiful when cut and polished. You don’t want to build a cathedral with it, but you might tile the floor or use it to cover less attractive — but more structually sound — brick or stone facades.

Sharon stone (but not THAT Sharon Stone). Image source: Wikimedia commons.

For me, the conglomerates illustrate the problem I have with integration. Integration suggests bringing disparate things together and making them part of a whole. The quartz bits are integrated in the sense that they are adjacent to one another, and they’re bound by the sandstone. But it isn’t one kind of rock; it’s a combination of several kinds of rock. This is a great metaphor for plurality and social integration and the very American idea that we can all maintain our individual heritages while also being unified by the common values that make us Americans. It’s a much better way of looking at it than the metamorphic melting pot that requires us to shed our heritage to be accepted. But it doesn’t work when we talk about using technology in the classroom.

Around the turn of the century, schools in Ohio were required to have 3-year technology plans. There was a state-mandated format for the plans, and an online tool for creating them. The plans had to be approved at the state level, and were tied to federal and state funding. They were primarily a way for politicians to justify the significant investments in school technology that were available at the time.

I chaired the committee that developed three of those plans, and they were horrible. The primary focus was on “technology integration” in every content area at every grade level. Where are we? Where do we want to be? How will we get there? The implication was that technology would make learning wonderful in every class, if we’d just use it effectively. We were strongly encouraged to pursue full integration of technology in all subjects at all grade levels. We used words like “enhance” and “enrich” to describe the effect of technology on learning. After a bit of hand waving, we inevitably concluded that using technology would make test scores rise. We measured learning with standardized tests, and if the scores didn’t go up, we were just wasting money.

Asking how technology enhances instruction misses the point and focuses resources where they’re not going to have much impact. Sure, we can find ways to use shoehorn technology into every class. But that’s a lot of effort to do many of the same things we’re already doing. If we ask teachers how they can integrate technology, they’re going to come up with ways to “techify” their lessons. Maybe they’ll use an online textbook instead of a printed one. They’ll turn to online apps to practice vocabulary words and math facts. They’ll use a document camera connected to a Smart Board instead of an overhead projector or chalkboard.

The question we really should be asking is this: How does technology help you do things you can’t do without it? I’m not talking about self-grading multiple choice tests or taking notes with a stylus on an iPad instead of writing on notebook paper. The advantages come from looking at the instructional challenges and finding ways to solve them, rather than trying to figure out where the technology fits. How do I engage my learners and make this content more insteresting and relevant for them? How do I meet the individual needs of each student? How can I leverage information abundance to spend more time with individuals or small groups who need me the most? How can I increase rigor, encourage critical thinking, and foster inquiry?

If we really want to leverage technology in education, we have to stop focusing on the technology so much, and instead concentrate on the learning. What do we want our students and teachers to be doing? What should 21st century school look like? What are the barriers to realizing that vision? Then, how can technology help us overcome those barriers?

Technology isn’t the bits of quartz bound together by the sandstone of teachers and school and technology integration coaches. It isn’t even the sandstone that binds together the bits of rock that represent our instructional values. It’s one component of a whole new kind of rock.

One thought on “Pretty Rocks

  1. This really hits home. I’m asked a lot, “how can I use xyz tech?” and the person gets ticked at me when I say, “You’re asking the wrong question.”

    “What problem are you trying to solve?” or “Where are your students having difficulty?” are better questions.

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