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Technology is a Tool

This post is part of a series for Leadership Day 2010 that aims to help school leaders who need help with technology use in their schools.

Next fall, I will start leading three new learning experiences: I will be teaching both sides of an aligned English/Global History course on world history and literatures to 11th grade students; I will also facilitate a Peer Learning Group at my school for fellow teachers on Technology and Teaching. All three experiences will share one common understanding:

Technology is a tool.

In the history class, we will looks at how technologies have altered how people live and interact with each other, from the new agriculture techniques of the Neolithic Revolution through the Internet. In English class, we hope to help students to learn how to use the various tools available to them to support the writing and revision process. In both these classes, we will help students learn how to find information, sort through it all to identify what is useful, assess the information for validity and bias, and finally use it in some meaningful form. With my peers, we will explore how technology can make them better teachers, and how they can use technology to better help their students learn. I’m really excited to use all three venues to help students and teachers improve their practice.

However, in honor of Leadership Day, I want to focus on the converse of the above understanding:

Technology is not an end.

My first year teaching, my Assistant Principal came and observed my class and was satisfied with 90 percent of what he saw. I don’t remember the exact lesson, but what he probably observed was students working in small groups to analyze complex historical documents, perhaps an excerpt from Hammurabi’s Code, before having an all class Socratic Seminar where we inquired what the code told us about class relations in ancient times and what parallels we saw to society today. He liked what he saw: Students were actively constructing knowledge; they were developing their reading and critical analysis skills; and they were using a social constructivist approach to creating knowledge for their selves. His only suggestion was that I find a way to incorporate technology into my lesson. He suggested that I go observe another teacher in the school who “did great things with PowerPoints.” Always looking to improve, I happily obliged.

The classroom I observed could not have been more different from mine. Students were all focused on the PowerPoint at the front of the room. The teacher provided them with printouts of the slides, with some keywords removed and replaced with underlines. The students’ task was to listen to the teacher and fill in the missing words. They were then told to take the notes home to study for a quiz the following day, where they were asked to fill in the same blanks using a word bank. In this classroom, students were passive vessels who existed merely to be temporally filled with arbitrary knowledge which they would regurgitate on command, and then likely forget soon after. They were not asked to take risks, be critical, use what they have learned in anyway, or connect history to today.

My supervisor’s mistake was seeing the use of technology as an end in itself. He did not considered what was being built with this tool. And what is built with this tool is all that matters. I’ve seen this same mistake made by countless teachers and administrators since.

I am a huge fan of using technology in my life, and in my classes. I blog and am on Twitter because I want to connect with other teachers to get ideas and feedback so I can improve as an educator. I have my students “publish” their work online because it adds an extra layer of accountability and gives them a real audience, which motivates them to improve their writing and deepen their thinking. I will encourage other teachers to find ways to use technology to make their classes more inquiry-based and student centered. But technology is merely a tool in all these situations. Technology, in itself, will not make you a better teacher or make students better learners. I encourage administrators to give their teachers all the tools necessary to help their teachers succeed in their classrooms and engage students. At the same time, technology, like any other tool that teachers have at their disposal, is only valid and useful if it’s being used to help students become better writers, readers, thinkers, and people. It is these ends that matter, regardless of how we reach them.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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