For the first decade of my career, we talked a lot about “technology integration.” At the time, we knew technology was important. We knew that it would have a dramatic effect on society and the ways in which we interact as part of our communities. We knew that our students need some experience and expertise with technology. And we knew that it would have an effect on how teaching and learning happens.
We didn’t know what that effect would be. And, really, we didn’t worry about it that much. Ambitious efforts were undertaken to wire schools for Internet connectivity and put computers in classrooms. At the turn of the century, Ohio was spending more than $100 million per year on edtech at the state level, and that was a small fraction of what the schools were spending from local budgets. Almost all of these resources were focused on buying hardware. We’d figure out what to do with it later.
That train hasn’t really stopped. Even now, it’s much easier to get funding for tangible stuff. “We need new iPads for fourth grade.” “We have to upgrade the wireless network at the middle school.” We make choices and plan ahead and live within a budget, but these are all possible. Getting the technology isn’t the difficult part.
Now that we have the technology, what are we going to do with it?
In the early 2000s, U.S. schools participating in the eRate program were required to have state-approved, federally-mandated technology plans. These plans asked schools to define how technology would be integrated into each subject area at each grade level. How is technology integrated into the 5th grade social studies classroom? How are you going to increase that integration over the next three years? How will you measure that progress? We spent a lot of time answering those questions. There were many conversations about possibilities. What can we do to enhance learning in 9th grade Spanish with a computer in the classroom?
Because they were driven by compliance, these efforts were pretty superficial. Students can read about civil war battles online instead of relying on their textbooks. Teachers can use PowerPoint to create Jeopardy! games to help their students remember and recall content. Students can use the “writing lab” to word process their papers and practice proper MLA citation formats. At the elementary level, learners can practice math facts and spelling words using the computer.
At the time, the goal was technology integration. That is, make technology an integral part of learning in as many classes as possible. Use a Smart Board instead of an overhead projector. Use clickers to get feedback from students instead of having them raise their hands. Point them to web sites instead of printed resources. Connect students with video-based distance learning, so they can watch their teachers present content remotely.
But like most incidents where the term “integration” is used, it’s an artificial, top-down mixing of disparate things without too much thought into how they fit together. Racial integration “solved” the inequity problem by busing black students to white schools. In a special ed context, integration referred to mainstreaming special education students without worrying about the support they need to succeed in the regular ed environment. In physics, integrating acceleration gives you velocity. Okay, so maybe that one doesn’t quite fit the pattern. But integration does lose an order of complexity. Maybe integrating wisdom gives you knowledge. And integrating knowledge results in information (plus a constant, of course).
Technology integration can’t be the goal of educational technology. If that’s all there is, we’re wasting way too much time, money, and effort on this. Instead, it helps me to think of technology as a catalyst for instructional change.
It’s no secret that our students need more than content. When you look at schools’ “portait of a graduate” work, they list things like innovative thinking, creativity, connection to community, growth mindset, and resiliance as important characteristics of graduates. Those aren’t in the content standards, and they’re not on the standardized tests. But they are among the characteristics employers say they’re looking for in applicants. And they align with the “21st century skills” that we’ve been talking about for nearly a generation now. They echo the ideas that we focused on in my teaching methods classes as an undergrad. Johnny Hill taught us, all those years ago, that teaching mathematics requires us to focus on critical thinking, communicating in the language of mathematics, and the curation of connections between mathematics and other areas. He threatened to retroactively revoke our teaching credentials if he ever saw us just teaching kids how to plug numbers into formulas to solve story problems.
We’ve been at this a long time. Teaching students to remember stuff just isn’t good enough.
Fortunately, technology really can help. But instead of replacing resources and tasks that we’ve always done, it helps to think about how technology can transform the roles of teacher and learner. If the teacher is no longer the source of knowledge in the classroom, students are not limited by the availability of the teacher or the information that’s in her head. Students can pursue their own interests (within the context of the course goals) without the teacher needing to be an expert in everything. Teachers can work with students on an equitable basis instead of an equal one, providing the support each student needs. In the same class, students can study the same concepts with varying degrees of rigor. So while some students may be exploring content and summarizing it, others may be combining it with existing knowledge, or applying it to different contexts, or using it in innovative ways to solve real problems. And instead of completing multiple choice tests that demonstrate acquisition of knowledge and processes, students can create projects that demonstrate their learning. Technology makes all of that easier.
In many places, our teachers are already doing this. But they need support, encouragement, and freedom to deviate from the traditional cultural expectation of what “school” is. They need principals to smile when students are active and loud instead of that stern look that suggests that the class is out of control. They need administrators who aren’t so hyper-focused on test scores that every lesson becomes a preparation for answering questions on the end of course exams. They need colleagues who share and fail and ask for help and try again, teachers who are willing to be vulnerable with one another, so they can all become stronger. And they need instructional coaches.
They need someone who is also a teacher. Someone who has been in the classroom, not all that long ago, who understands the challenges and the pressures and the goals. This is not the person who comes in each week with the latest shiny gadget that’s going to reinvent schools. Teachers need someone to run interference when they want to try crazy things. They need someone to suggest the crazy things to try. They need someone who is willing to ask the hard questions about what we’re trying to accomplish here, and how we work toward those goals. They need someone who can hold them accountable to themselves and their profession to do right by kids. They need someone who isn’t evaluating them and isn’t judging them and is just there to help. They need someone to be, for them, what they want to be for their students.
Instructional coaches are the key to moving beyond integration. With a focus on instruction rather than technology, they bring the resources to the classroom as they’re needed. They help teachers leverage the technology in new ways to solve innovative problems. Just like their students.