Matthew Renwick

Principal or Asst Prin - Elem

Mineral Point, WI

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 1 Year ago
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Maximize Learning, Not Technology

One constant that teachers have in schools today is time. We cannot control whether our students had a good night’s sleep, or if they have the right amount of support at home, or if they are able to have quality time with family on a regular basis. We get around 180 days a year and approximately 6.5 hours each day with them. This estimate doesn’t account for standardized testing, fire drills, and all of the other outside factors that as a principal I do my best to minimize but still have to address.

So when we have our students, what do you believe is the best way to spend this time? I believe it’s the student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and student-with-self experiences that are the priority. Digital tools have a place, but it should not be the focus. If technology is the form, then pedagogy is the function. We need to ask ourselves why we want to use technology with a learning initiative, instead of what the technology is or how it can be used. This post is not to put down the role of technology in education, but to offer a different perspective – my own, as a frequent observer of teaching and learning in my role as an elementary principal.

When Technology Is Necessary

We implemented mobile technology into our school when a dozen teachers agreed to incorporate one iPad into their classroom as a pilot. They attended a number of after school trainings and shared what was going well and what wasn’t. This worked for us. It was context-specific and on a timeline people were comfortable with, myself included. There was no pressure to “upgrade” our instruction. Just try it and apply it.

This technology proved itself to be necessary as the year progressed. For example, primary teachers were recording student performance assessments, such as book talks and oral reports, using the iPad and then posting it online for parents to see. Intermediate students were introduced to digital word processing and blogging. They dove into high-interest literacy activities, such as collaborative story writing and providing feedback using what the web had to offer. We explored new ways to make literacy and learning go live.

Reports of these early successes spread. Even before this pilot was completed, other teachers were asking when they were going to get an iPad too. Fastforward to today: Each classroom has 5-6 tablets at the K-3 level. There is an iPad cart and a Chromebook cart available for our 4th and 5th grade classrooms. Just today, a 4th grade teacher was telling me how her students were going to culminate their personal narrative writing unit by creating a visual version of their stories using Explain Everything, and then posting them in FreshGrade, our digital portfolio tool, so families could see and hear their published work.

You may have noticed that we are not a one device to one student school. I am not sure we ever will be. This stated fact is not to suggest that this set up is not effective in other contexts. Not to repeat myself, but it’s what works for us. Our students get enough screen time at home. We are a Title I school, with two of our every three students living in poverty. Plus, kids come to school to be with their friends. Plugging them in may only serve to create distance between their important relationships. This leads into my own experience as a classroom observer who tried to maximize technology in my own practice without giving much thought to the pedagogy.

When Technology is Nice

I have been conducting instructional walks for a number of years now. These short and informal observations serve to provide feedback and affirmation for teachers and their current instruction.  In the past, I would bring in my iPad and a stylus, open up a note taking app such as Notability or Noteshelf, write what I observed on the tablet, and then save my notes in Evernote. As I left the classroom I would also email the teacher a copy of my digital notes.

After many conversations with teachers and taking time to reflect on the process, I realized that the technology cart was leading the instructional horse. Form was not following function. For instance, my time maneuvering the iPad and applications caused me to be distracted during the instructional walks. It distracted the students, too. Also, I wasn’t providing a tangible artifact for the teacher after a visit. Yes, they could print out my observational notes from what I shared with them via email. But that was one more step they had to take in an already busy schedule.

So I have dialed down technology during my instructional walks this year. I replaced my tablet and stylus with a notebook and pen. Technology did not totally disappear: I still use my smartphone to scan in my observational notes into Evernote. I’ve also explored using a Livescribe pen and companion smartphone app. While I write, the pen “talks” to the application via Bluetooth and transcribes what I write into a digital file. Both seem to work well. At this time, I’ve completed 50 instructional walks in classrooms. Last year, when my instructional walks were completed with an iPad, I did a total of 75.

Again, I don’t want to blame technology for my experiences. In different circumstances, a stylus and note taking app might server a user really well. What mattered for me is the purpose of my visits: To observe daily instruction and serve as a collaborator and colleague with our teachers in this process. Technology was getting in the way, so I got it out of the way.

Schools have arrived at a point where access to online/digital learning is no longer the main issue. Instead, how access is thoughtfully and smartly utilized by educators will make the difference in students’ learning lives going forward.

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