Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Keeping a Level Head in a Changing Educational Environment

I think it's fair to say that the expectations for the school environment--at all levels, from Kindergarten through college--are shifting in this day and age. Technology has certainly had an impact. But pedagogy still has a role to play--and I would argue that strong pedagogy is perhaps even more important in a high technology environment.

In just a few days' time, I have had a variety of things come across my iPad that conflict and jumble together and have me thinking about the classrooms where we are teaching and learning today. It's an exciting/scary/strange/invigorating/frustrating/wonderful time to be an educator! Let me share three things that are stirring my thinking right now, and then I'll give a few beginning thoughts on how I am sorting them out.


First, this interesting piece, shared by a friend and fellow professor on Facebook: "Message to my Freshman Students." I hope you'll read the piece yourself, but I found it really interesting how the author expresses the different expectations for students and learning in high school and in college. One quote that I found fascinating:
"Up to now your instruction has been in the hands of teachers, and a teacher's job is to make sure that you learn...At university, learning is your job -- and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you."

Actually, a pretty interesting conversation between several of our faculty ensued. We discussed the role of lecture in higher education, information transfer theory, whether colleges are becoming glorified high schools, and the difference between "teaching" and "professing." (This last point, in particular, is interesting to me, because I think of myself as both a "teacher" and a "professor"...and I had previously lumped these together as being one and the same, and now I'm not so sure...)

Image by kaptainkobold [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Second, this piece which I came across as I browsed on Zite: "Teachers Using Pens and Paper in the Classroom 'Not Fair' to Students, Microsoft Official Says." How is that for a provocative title? Again, I encourage you to read the piece, not just the title. I would say that the title is not misleading, but there are a few interesting ideas tucked in to this piece that did get me thinking. Again, one quote:
“Why do you expect a kid to go to school and sit in the same seat everyday with pens and paper?...When they come home, they’ve got all these devices and they’re gaming and they’re doing all this great stuff online, and the expectation at school is to do something radically different. Would you want to do it? I wouldn’t want to do it.”
Now, I have some real concerns with this attitude, honestly, but I think there is some truth here too. This Microsoft official is clearly pushing a product--of course she is! (Everyone is selling something...) I think she's right that students are using technology in very different ways at home and in the classroom. However, I'm not fully convinced that is a bad thing. School technology use is (or should be?) for formal learning. That's not to say school is the only place students learn. (Obviously!) But learning outside of school is likely to be informal, and if technology plays a role in that learning, the tools and approaches used certainly might look different than they would in a formal learning situation.

Image by baldiri [CC BY 2.0]

A third thought-stirrer for me, which was retweeted by one of my Twitterfriends: "A Teen Take on EdTech." The article--written by a pretty sharp high school student--includes a breakdown of many of the tech tools commonly used in schools today with an unvarnished, honest assessment by this member of the millennial generation. She notes that some of it is good, and others are rough at best, and actually get in the way of learning. But she wraps up her piece with this insight:
"I truly believe that the most memorable parts of my education have come when a teacher has taken the time to sit down and talk me through an equation, or given an impassioned speech on how sodium and chlorine become salt. The next step for EdTech is to foster and enhance those memorable moments in school, get teens excited to learn, and make students feel invested in their education anew."
Isn't that a thought? Emphasizing the role of good teaching, and then thinking about whether tech tools could be an enhancement, a means of motivation, a way of connecting students more deeply with their education?

Image by Anna Briggs [CC BY-NC 2.0]
Michael Fullan has said, "Pedagogy is the is the accelerator." In his book, Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge, Fullan reminds us:
"Technology is not a panacea. Not all technology is good for pedagogy. And great pedagogy can and will exist without technology. We have, however, greatly miscast and underutilized technology's power. When we enlist technology in the service of exploratory learning for all, watch out! On the other hand, if we plod along...using technology only as a prop, we will get what we deserve: a higher level of tedium." (Fullan, 2013, p. 78)

Change is hard. How do we keep a level head teaching in a changing educational environment?

I am still thinking about this. Right now, I will say five things:
  1. I believe learning happens in community, and we need to teach communally. The role of an educator is to create a space where learning happens. Can this happen in a technology-barren direct-instruction-via-lecture environment? Absolutely. Can this happen in a technology-rich collaborative learning environment? Definitely.
  2. We can't just use technology because it's there. Using technology in teaching "just because we should use technology" is--I think--FAR more detrimental than not using technology at all.
  3. We also can't NOT use technology because we fear change. We have to be mindful of our teaching practice, and ensure that we are teaching well first of all. But we need to consider when and where we are teaching: in North America in the 21st Century means we need to address digital technologies as tools for teaching and learning.
  4. Focus on pedagogy first. Good teaching is still good teaching. Remember that technology can be used as a crutch to prop up shoddy pedagogy.
  5. All educators must be learners. We need to understand our students, and learn more about who it is we are teaching. We need to keep up with developments in our disciplines, for sure. We also need to keep up with changes to technologies. (This is hard!) And, we also need to continually reflect on our teaching practices. (This may be harder!) 


Fullan, M. (2013). Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada.


  1. Thanks, Dave. I especially enjoyed the quote about the difference between K-12 teaching/learning and what we do at the college level. I had a recent graduate tell me something similar to that professor's quote. It surprised me but also pushes me in a direction I was starting to consider.
    One other thing: I get nervous when I hear/read "Good teaching is good teaching." It seems to imply to many people that everyone knows what good teaching is so we don't have to identify what good teaching is. That's not the point you're making, but I admit that it still makes me nervous.

    1. I'm so glad you brought up that point about WHAT makes it good teaching. Because "good lecturing" is different than "good collaborative learning," which is different than "good problem-based learning," which is different than "good socratic dialogue," which is different get the idea.

      The converse is also true. John Van Dyk once warned me against the danger of "simply teaching." I think what he was getting at is that we need to be continuously mindful of not just what we are doing in the classroom (what I call our "moves") but WHY we are doing them (what I would call our "mindset") and to what end (what I name our "motivation.") And I think this is true of teachers at any level, from preschool through grad school!

      Thanks for the comment, my friend!

  2. Thanks for this post Dave. Great thoughts which will lead to conversations with my students and colleagues at Trinity Christian. There are so many good points made. I think I'm going to be purposeful in applying your last point made. ~ Joy Meyer, Director of Teacher Education.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Joy. Grateful for the feedback!