We spend billions on ed tech; let’s work on making better use of it

Note: I have teamed up with Andrea Wilson Vazquez (master of makerspaces and coding) to offer Make Tech Matter design-thinking workshops with a tech focus. Interested in scheduling one for your school or organization in 2019? Email me at Martha.Rush@neverbore.org.

What is one critical problem facing your community?

My colleague, Andrea, and I led a design thinking sprint for teachers at the TIES Education Technology pre-conference in Minneapolis last weekend, and here is the problem our participants came up with:

How do we encourage more self-directed/inquiry based authentic learning experiences in our schools?

Every teacher at our workshop shared the frustration that despite a wealth of technology resources in their buildings, too few staff members were willing to change their pedagogy — and their administration was unwilling to lead the charge.

It’s a strange disconnect, isn’t it?

Our schools are willing to invest billions in technology — $14 billion in K-12 this year alone — but unwilling to change actual teaching and learning in the classroom. I don’t think this is unique to Minnesota.

One participant said his school has four drones that no one ever uses. Never mind the idle 3D printers.

Why are we educators so quick to buy shiny new gadgets and so unwilling to use them?

I think I know the answer. Buying is easy, but implementation is hard. (My cynical side says: Why bother when all you need to do is display the goodies on open house night?)

Our discussion Saturday made me wonder: What would it take to actually change instruction in a way that meaningfully incorporates tech?

For one thing, it would take training. Not training for the few, who get to attend ed tech conferences and workshops, but real hands-on training for the many — the classroom teachers — whose tech PD is often limited to a dog-and-pony show about the latest gadgets and apps.

The training would have to address the teachers’ needs, not administrative or tech department needs, so some design thinking would have to go into the workshop planning. (Meaning: Ask teachers what they want and what barriers exist.)

The training would have to help teachers see the potential: what students can learn from innovation, what they are actually capable of creating, and how it impacts their motivation. If teachers understand, they are much more likely to buy in.

A transformation like this would also require providing teachers with the time and ongoing support to develop new authentic lessons; for example, a geography inquiry that actually uses those drones to measure forest cover in a community or a civics lesson that requires creating online surveys and petitions.

Finally, it would require energy and excitement. School leaders (and community leaders) need to champion classes where students get to apply problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity in authentic ways. They need to signal to parents that these skills are just as important — if not more so — than a 4.0 GPA and traditional academic skills.

That’s a lot to ask for, I know.

One of the challenges of using design thinking with students, which I’ve been doing for a few years now, is that students love dreaming up new ideas but hit a barrier of fatigue and frustration when it comes to actually building and pitching their solutions.

It’s hard work to guide them through the low points — some entrepreneurs call this the “trough of disillusionment” — but that’s where the real learning happens. That’s where students’ communication skills and creativity are put to the test.

At the other end, if they persist, is an incredibly gratifying feeling of accomplishment and efficacy. I’ve seen students create educational apps, market water-soluble bags to replace plastic, design products and games that their peers will buy, plan fundraisers — and have a genuine impact on people in their communities. It’s the kind of learning we want and the kind of learning they won’t soon forget.

I think we, as educators, are in that trough of disillusionment with our tech tools right now. What we need is dedicated leadership to see what’s possible, push us through the trough and make that technology actually matter in our teaching. 

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom