I guess I’m a “techy” teacher. I finally accepted the label – given to me by co-workers – sometime in the past year, but I’m still a little surprised by the fact. After all, I had never been on the Internet until after I received my undergraduate degree and it wasn’t until I started teaching (about 7 years ago) that I really began to learn about computers and technology.
How did I get to be here?
Now technology is completely integrated into my life, and more importantly, into my instruction. How did this happen? I never took any classes about how to use technology in class, I never read a book on the subject, nobody sat down with me and walked me through the steps of how to use a blog (or a wiki, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). So how did I learn all of the technology I use in my instruction and in my online collaborations with teachers? I learned it on my own.
Well, kind of…
I have had minimal PD (professional development) on how to integrate technology into instruction, but much of that has been superficial, focusing on how to adapt old lessons into “new” ones using some specific web tool. However, one technology PD session did have a big impact on me. David Warlick spoke to the entire faculty a few years back and the main idea I got from his presentation was this: Students are using the internet to learn how to do anything they want to do. He was speaking primarily about middle school and high school students, but I figured the same would be true for me as well. So, I started using the internet to learn how to do what I wanted to do – blog, make videos, make podcasts, publish student work, etc. Of course it wasn’t easy, but I wanted to learn it so I did. (That is key – my learning was self-directed.)
I quickly realized that if I had a question about how to do something, chances were that thousands of other people had already had the same question, and perhaps a dozen or even hundreds had left tips and instructions that answered my specific question. I just had to use critical thinking skills to locate the information on the Internet. In that way, I wasn’t actually learning on my own, I was learning from hundreds of people that I had never met.
Now, after a few years of tinkering with technology, I’m involved with a few committees that are looking into ways to increase technology integration into instruction. The thing that occasionally surprises me about these meetings (and about tech integration in general) is how often everything comes back to PD. If we are talking about the possibility of using Edmodo (just as an example – it could be wikis, blogs, etc.), inevitably the response is, “Well, the teachers need PD first.” Why? I don’t get it.
Why can’t teachers transfer their learning?
I think it’s safe to say that all teachers, regardless of the state or district, have had PD in some web 2.0 tool. Maybe it was blogging, or wikis, or even just how to use the school’s email account. My feeling is, if a teacher can do a few basic computer skills (format in MS Word, copy and paste, attach a document to an email or upload a photo, and perhaps add a hyperlink) they should be able to transfer that knowledge across various internet programs.
Teachers sometimes express surprise when a student can’t write a response to a question that is virtually the same as one they answered the day before simply because it is worded differently. Yet teachers can’t apply what they know about Facebook (or shutterfly, gmail, youtube, etc.) to use edmodo or a wiki? I’m not saying they should be able to master a new program immediately – like anything new it takes time, but they should have the flexibility of thinking to apply what they already know. If teachers can’t transfer their knowledge, how are they going to teach students to do so?
I understand that time and countless other responsibilities are often the hurdles for teachers to integrate more technology into their instruction, but that’s a topic for another time (Kathleen Morris has a great post about overcoming obstacles to tech integration.) What I’m wondering is whether we teachers know how to transfer our technological knowledge and use the Internet to actively seek answers to questions on our own. In other words, are we independent learners?
Dependent on PD
I suspect that the main reason many teachers don’t transfer their knowledge and actively seek answers to their questions about tech is that they simply aren’t very interested in learning it. The key to David Warlick’s statement is that people can leverage the internet to learn anything they want to learn. But let’s put that aside for now and assume for the sake of argument that teachers need to learn how to use tech whether they want to or not. Why do they often profess helplessness and state that they can’t learn it without PD?
If we expect our students to use “critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making” (ISTE student nets 4) and “apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes” (ISTE student nets 1.a), shouldn’t we be able to do the same as teachers? If we can’t apply these skills in our own learning, how can we teach our students to use them?
Besides the lack of time and/or motivation, I’m beginning to wonder if teachers really know how to learn new skills independently. We come from a system of education where everything was fed to us. As a student (even through my master’s degree), if I was told I needed to learn something there was a clear process I had to go through to learn it; sign up (and pay) for the right course with the available expert, buy some textbooks, go to class, follow directions, and collect my credits to show that I had learned it. Most PD follows a similar process (although greatly abbreviated).
So that is the paradigm that teachers have for their own learning – they feel that they need to be taught something in order to learn it. I’m not sure that they know there is now another way to learn, especially where learning about technology is concerned. But how would they know this new way of learning if it’s rarely been modeled for them? And if this is how they view their own learning, can we really expect them to teach students how to be independent learners?
A different kind of PD?
So perhaps instead of endless PD sessions for each “new” technology or different web application, teachers need PD on how to be self-directed learners. I’m not exactly sure what this would entail, but it could start with learning how to do an efficient web search – not just Google, but YouTube and other video sites for tutorials. I think it is also vital that the similarity between applications is emphasized so that teachers begin to understand that they can transfer their learning. I think specific skills such as these are necessary to help teachers begin to become more self-directed learners, but ultimately it is a shift in thinking.
Learners are no longer dependent on learning directly from an expert, the information is literally at their fingertips, they just need to know how to access it. And most important, learners of all ages need to be the drivers of their learning. Just like our students, teachers need to seek answers through active exploration. Again, if we are not independent learners, how can we expect our students to be?