Thinking About Process Change (Part One): Contextualizing Technology Use in a Progress Culture

From Wednesday to Friday I attended, along with three other Westminster folks, the AASA Leadership Symposium in Boston, led by Alan November, and since we finished, I have been thinking about the cosmetic changes schools traditionally undertake versus the possibility of what November called process change. The conversation we had overlays my ongoing reflection on two questions: how do we create learning experiences where students are so engaged that learning is compelling and focus is easy? And how can we create a school with a curriculum and a schedule that allows our students to get to that place of deep engagement more often, for longer, and with greater focus on our mission, our vision, and our strategic plan?  This is not to say that such experiences do not exist in schools–in fact, at Westminster I have seen myriad examples of teachers and students who get to this place often.  I am saying, however, that I believe that we can do better and we can do more.

The educators at the AASA gathering focused attention on the role of technology as a requisite ingredient in finding answers to the sort of questions I have been asking about student engagement. Side by side with fascinating examples of technology use in student learning, November presents his message with a sobering counter-balance. I can summarize his thinking this way: unless there is Process Change in a school—a fundamental rethinking of how we do what we do, computers will deliver nothing to us but an expensive bill to pay. 

Just as problematically, we should note that unless we combine thoughtfulness and boldness in our steps forward with technology in schools, we risk ceding necessary control to a tool rather than to the people using it. That is, technology may well provide us with the most powerful set of learning resources the world has known, but technology is not geared to be a surrogate for school administrative and faculty leadership.  There is a risk that we will continue toward a sort of cultural Attention Deficit Disorder in which we can’t decide where to go next because we are so busy sampling different mechanisms, apps, and platforms. As I have argued before we need to create a Progress Culture in our schools–spinning our wheels will not do. The risk is that as the technology around us becomes smarter, faster, as well as more diffuse, we will become slower and less able to mobilize the tools under our direction toward the good work of helping students become lifelong learners and passionate, empathetic adults.

Nuanced by the specific technology focus of the conversation we had over the last three days, a different question is tugging at my sleeve: how can we teach skills today that will outlast changes in specific technology tools? By addressing and answering this question, we will position the dialogue where it needs to be. As of now too much of our teacher technology training is about the tools—how to use this or that rather than looking at what we want to do and how we want to help students become engaged in the learning we can offer them. Most importantly, we should look first and always to our core beliefs regarding our purpose in working with students.  When we do this our use of technology will have necessary context, and we will be ready to take meaningful steps forward.

(I wrote the bulk of this blog and the blog to follow on the plane back from Boston on Friday. As I wrote I listened to Bonnie “Prince” Billy …his classic MASTER AND EVERYONE and the recent THE WONDER SHOW OF THE WORLD, a recent release, which is excellent.  You should get both of them.)

Some Thoughts Regarding Seamless Digital Integration

          In a conversation by a neighborhood pool on a recent Saturday evening in Atlanta, I found myself trying to put language to something I have been troubled by for some time.  As we find technology integration becoming more and more seamless, and as information becomes increasingly integrated through the funnel of a very few mechanisms, we are pulled powerfully in opposing directions.  In order to preserve our freedom to connect quickly, efficiently, and meaningfully and in order to gather what we need through digital means, we have to surrender much of our ability to operate privately on-line.  I worry about how I will find the right balance between the freedom web-based resources offer and the privacy that is diminished each time I add content to the cloud. 

           On one hand the convenience and apparent inevitability of having everything in our lives pass through Google, Facebook, or Twitter, is lovely, and it promises to be convenient, manageable, and understandable; however, on the other hand, I struggle because of our increasing inability to separate business from personal digital footprints.  Having our entire digital lives held in the hand of a few entities that will continually mine whatever of value they can gather is frightening.  Not surprisingly, thinking about this issue can quickly begin to sound dystopic; however, I am not inclined to start borrowing too much vocabulary from 1984 or Brave New World.  Not yet at least. 

          My greatest fear is cultural apathy—have we become a society that will thoughtlessly sacrifice independence and privacy bit by bit?  Irony abounds here for educators in particular, for as we strive to be and to create independent learners, we risk creating dependence on the means (i.e., the platform and search engine) that facilitates access to stunningly powerful technological tools.  Every step forward (and there are many that lie ahead for individuals, businesses, and schools) seems to involve a bit of surrender.  Will we be aware enough or reflective enough to make the hard decisions regarding how to move forward without sacrificing too much?  Or will we be like the pony that can be led astray by sugar cubes left one after the other until he has gone over the hill, across the pasture, and finally off the farm?   

          Working in a school on the threshold of bold steps forward, I am immersed in different versions of this conversation, and I am aware of the presence of strings of sugar cubes on the hill and across the pasture.  Approached thoughtfully though, the digital tools now available to us are not all sugar cubes, but rather they are something far more substantive…something that has the potential to become an extraordinary set of learning tools.  I believe the role of teachers in this moment is to make sure we are helping students discover and use these tools to make meaning, to communicate articulately to a wide audience, and to learn how to participate in the conversations they will engage as adults.