Barkin’ Dawgs and Miserably Poor Policy. . .

You know, it’s been a helluva’ week for me and I’m fixin’ to drop a bit of a rant here on the Radical. To put it simply, I’m tired of the combustible combination of whiny teachers and ineffective policymakers. 

Where’d this rather offensive conclusion come from? 

The seemingly never-ending negative reactions to my string of entries about new digital tools. (See Delicious, Twitter #1 and Twitter #2). In nearly every conversation that I’ve had away from this blog, teachers have groaned about how they "haven’t got the time" to learn to use new tools or that "technology is an over-rated distraction" in classrooms. 

Mike’s recent comment is a pretty good reflection of the sentiment expressed by colleague after colleague:

Twitter. Hmm. Sorry to rain on the parade a bit, but in the daily rush of trying to teach sufficient material, grading, lesson preparation, etc. I find such diversions to be a luxury for which I don’t have time, rather like video games, etc. Yes, I know Twitter isn’t a video game, but the issue is time and usefulness.

Luxurious (and useless) diversions from reality, huh? 

Those kinds of responses—which will resonate with anyone who has tried to introduce new technologies to teachers—always leave me completely bewildered because technology is essentially designed to save users time or to enhance the quality of their lives. Washing machines replaced hand wringers and saved housewives (sorry for the sexism) hundreds of hours. Impatient with the stove top, we invented the microwave. Tired of the donkey and the horse-drawn wagon, Ford and Edsel whipped up a newfangled motorized buggy. 

The card catalog was replaced by the computer database. The typewriter by the word processor and then the computer. Fireplaces by gas logs. The 15-Kb modem (didn’t those stink) by high speed connections.  The video rental store by instant downloads and pay-per-view. The inkwell by the ball point. The charcoal grill by the George Foreman. The attendance lady by the absolutely miserable online program that I wrestle with every morning.    

Do I need to go on any further? (Actually, I’d love to add to the list.  Got any ideas?  Leave them in the comment section.)

And that is exactly the role that tools like Pageflakes, Twitter and Delicious can play for educators who are willing to do a bit of exploring. Essentially, each of these services provides users with immediate access to content that they are likely to find valuable. Someone in one of this weekend’s Educon sessions described these tools as a way to have content of interest pushed directly to them—eliminating the all-too frustrating experience of sifting through thousands of search hits after Googling.

When users find a "network of learners" who share similar interests, digital tools that facilitate collaborative discovery are an incredible time saver. Consider that while I was reading the morning paper and eating a few sausage burritos at the McDonald’s this morning, I found a great free tool that will help me in a presentation I’m making later this month and a wiki that links digital tools to the research of Robert Marzano

While these types of resources may not be valuable to you, they’ll be invaluable in my work. And I did NOTHING to learn about them except turn on my computer and listen. Had I tried to search for similar resources on my own, I suspect that it would have taken me far longer. (Heck, I just Googled "Marzano, Digital Tools" and came up with 7,150 search results to sift through. Ready to start digging?)

So I get my hackles up when teachers try to tell me that they "don’t have the time" for technology. If anything, it should be the first thing that they make time for because anyone can "plug in" to a network and learn together efficiently. It’s collective intelligence at its best. 

Now, as frustrated as I am with the whiny-ness of teachers, I also know exactly where they’re coming from. After all, I’m a full-time classroom teacher. I’m not sitting back in an office Twittering away my day and playing with my feed reader. Instead, I’ve got 60 kids at my classroom door every morning, a thousand papers to grade, parent conferences to have, and (yes, Mike) even lessons to write. 

Time is simply the resource that’s the most limited in every school, yet everyone beyond the classroom seems to hold on to the hurtful perception that the work teachers do away from kids is irrelevant. Few people truly recognize just how much time our work really takes. 

No where is this misunderstanding more evident than in the results of the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey—where the amount of non-instructional time available to teachers (or lack thereof) has been linked to higher rates of teacher turnover and to lower rates of student achievement. Time is regularly the area that surveyed teachers express the most dissatisfaction with—and where school leaders look the most clueless. 

Consider the results of this question: "The non-instructional time provided for teachers in my school is sufficient." Percentage of teachers who agreed with this statement:  45%. Percentage of school leaders who agreed with this statement:  76%. 

Crazy, huh? Talk about a gaping maw of misunderstanding! 

And that misunderstanding is understandably frustrating.  As policy makers and parents continue to demand more from teachers (gotta love an accountability culture, don’t you?), they continue to fail to provide the kinds of support—especially time—necessary for meeting new expectations. That’s a failure, plain and simple.  As my boy Richard Elmore says:

Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance. This is the principle of "reciprocity of accountability for capacity." It is the glue that, in the final analysis, will hold accountability systems together (Elmore, 2000).

So where does all of this thinking get me? 

To the following two conclusions:

First, teachers must confidently embrace a bit of change: Our profession has earned the reputation of being the "Boys who Cry Wolf." At every turn, we throw the "I-don’t-have-the-time-or- resources-to-do-my-oh-so-hard-job-well-and-that’s-your-fault-so -woe’s-me-woe’s-me-it’s-just-unfair-we-simply-can’t-do-it- because-we’re-overworked-and-underpaid" card on the table. 

To lose that stigma—and to regain professional credibility again—we simply must stop shooting down every suggestion and find the capacity within our ranks to improve our own conditions. We’re not as helpless as we like others to think that we are.

Second, policymakers must step up to the plate: My grand-daddy always used to say, "If the dawg’s barkin’, there’s probably a pine cone in his paw." Great saying, right? His ol’ hound dog was one tough cookie. When it got ornery, there was generally some real issue that needed to be resolved. 

The same can be said for teachers. There are real challenges that need to be addressed to enable teachers to succeed in their work. First and foremost, we need to increase the amount of non-instructional time that’s available to every teacher. Yes, this is going to cost a small fortune—but to overlook the need to invest in a teacher’s ability to grow as a learner is pretty short-sighted, isn’t it. 

We also need to invest in the right kinds of digital professional development. Tomorrow is a different world—one that is driven by technology. The rate that content is being created simply outpaces our ability to learn it—which requires a different approach to "mastery" on the part of teachers and students. 

Mastery in the 21st Century is primarily about learning to use technology to retrieve, evaluate, synthesize and manage information—and (more importantly) to network with other learners. "Digitally prepared children" will know how to use web-based tools to create, communicate and collaborate around areas of personal and professional interest. They will be creators–rather than simply consumers—of information.

It’s simply impossible for teachers who have little personal experience with technology to effectively prepare children for this reality.

(Whew—glad I got that off my chest.)   

18 thoughts on “Barkin’ Dawgs and Miserably Poor Policy. . .

  1. Jim

    I’m retired now so I have an old horror story about technology. Our “Tech Coordinator” didn’t want to upgrade from Windows 3.1 to Windows 98. As a result our school spent $10,000 on a DOS testing program not available in 3.1 that no one could run because no teacher knew how to run it in DOS. No one was available to teach them how to run a DOS program. The “Tech Coordinator” said it was really very simple and sent everyone a printout explaining what to do. The money would have been better spent had he simply given each of the teachers a share of the $10,000. To my knowledge I’m the only one who ever opened the program.

  2. jose

    I agree with your post. I honestly see the use of technology as necessary. Yet, I also see in many schools where they’re technologically deficient and / or whose “tech coordinator” is not very efficient or enthusiastic about all this research, and wonder if they’ll be left behind in all of this. I’m personally tired of Powerpoint as the lead technology for some of these people, or Windows Movie Maker. That kind of technology can really turn people off because it’s the software associated with (you guessed it) boring PDs and administrators talking at them instead of talking with them. This was food for thought …

  3. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Highly motivating tools are indeed worthy, but I find that in my discipline, I can easily find them outside the internet, and that while my kids tend to have no lack of interest and ability on the WWW, their reading and writing abilities and interests tend to be less developed.
    Our thoughtful responses tend to be person to person, in class, and I work hard to make my classes less boring than average. While I’ve always preferred person to person interaction, I’m not averse to the net. I just don’t see its use with the same apparent urgency as do you.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Here’s an interesting observation from my classroom: My students have maintained a blog for the past two years. Participation in the blog has been completely voluntary—no grades are attached to our work there at all. That blog has had nearly 200 posts and over 50,000 page views.
    Why do my kids work on this assignment with no grade attached? I think because they’re motivated by the format—and the fact that we have 90 subscribers. That sense of audience is something that I could never have achieved for my kids before I started our blog.
    Another example: Our classroom wiki—another non-graded assignment—has 180 pages of student generated content that has been revised over 900 times this year alone. I don’t know about other readers, but I could never have gotten my kids to revise anything 900 times without attaching a serious grade to it before!
    A third example: Our classroom voicethread presentaions (also ungraded) have been viewed almost 2,500 times and my students have left nearly 300 comments on them. Each of those comments is an opportunity for kids to engage in critical thinking by reading and responding to one another thoughtfully.
    I guess what I’m wondering is if digital tools resonate with students (and it would be hard to argue that they don’t), why aren’t we more willing to try to incorporate them into our instruction? Kids repeatedly report being bored with the nature of teaching and learning in the classroom. Shouldn’t a highly motivating tool be something we are all jazzed to find?

  5. Mike

    Well then. As the apparent cause of the rant, perhaps I might mildly rant a bit myself?
    Lest I be accused of being a Trofemkoist Luddite, my “technology” credentials are among the most stellar in my district. I use “technology” every day, including my own digital cameras, computer hard and software, digital projector, etc. And when folks can’t retreive data, or need help with computers, I’m often their first stop.
    My original purpose in addressing this issue at all is that with less and less time in the classroom, and more and more mandatory drilling and killing for tests, I find myself zealously guarding my instructional time. To the extent that any bit of technology can be useful, and more effective than what I’m currently using, I’ll explore it, perhaps use it. I might even use something that provides no advantage in instructional technique or efficiency, or in improved results for my kids just to give them a different experience, a bit of variety. But as Roger Sweeny noted, too much of what is promised is never delivered. It’s like cold fusion: The results of too many educational innovations can never be replicated in the lab.
    So while I appreciate the enthusiasm of folks like Bill, I see technology, particularly the internet, as primarily a means to an end, a tool that has limited usefulness, as it is with all tools. I too am often frustrated by blocking software, but as a teacher of English, I’m far more concerned with expanding my kid’s abilities in reading and writing, and in encouraging them to put their noses in paper books. Technology tends to get in the way of that. Much of my battle is to ween them off electrons and photons and back toward the joys of paper.
    So when a colleague comes to me about the newest internet trick, I tend not to be terribly excited, nor do I tend to try to immediately integrate it into what I’m doing. Even so, my kids and I are probably more involved in “technology” than most classrooms, even if I have to buy most of it myself.
    But that’s OK Bill. People of good will may still have differing views, no?

  6. Roger Sweeny

    Perhaps one reason teachers are so resistant to change:
    Most of us have had the experience of taking ed school courses where we were told about wonderful things that would happen in our classroom if only we did X, Y, and Z. As we got more experience, we discovered that doing X, Y, and Z right required tremendous amounts of time. And our results never seemed to be as good as they were supposed to be. Maybe it was our fault, maybe the technique. In any case, the results just didn’t justify the time and effort.
    So when someone comes along talking about the tremendous results we will get if we use technology A, B, and C, something inside of us cringes, “I’ve heard that before.” This business is full of over-promising and under-delivering.
    Now, these technologies may be different. They may save time and have positive results in terms of student skills and learning. If that is true, that’s how you should pitch them: How will they save time? Be specific. What will students get from them that they won’t get from older technologies? Is that something worth getting? Why?

  7. Chris

    WOW! My colleague just asked me if I read your blog because she is convinced we are twins. I’d never heard of you until today, but you are officially my digital doppelganger! I had this exact same rant last week behind closed doors in our offices and could not think of a way to compose my emotions without coming off like an a-hole. You have pulled it off! Kudos my new friend!

  8. Clix

    Honestly? I don’t like stuff that’s tailored for me by someone I don’t know. Pandora is hit-or-miss. I buy on Amazon regularly, but their recommendations haven’t been helpful, so I ignore them. Overall, I gotta admit, the idea of a software program trying to read my brain is a little creepy!
    I also think it may be important to learn to use current technology well before ditching it in favor of something supposedly better. For example, when I googled “+marzano +’digital tools'” I got about 225 hits. (Your post was the second one, btw.)
    Finally, time is the one thing that is evenly distributed among us. However, anything new that we choose to do must be incorporated instead of something else. It sounds like others are not convinced that what you suggest is more important or more effective than what they already know. Change for its own sake is rather silly.
    I’m not anti-technology; I love it. I enjoy learning new programs and playing with new toys. But I’m pretty picky in how I spend limited resources like money and time.

  9. Susan Graham, Teacher

    Sometimes this is really tough for those of us who are technologically unsophisticated or just plain old. But helping students learn to use technology appropriately and effectively is like teaching your 15 year old to drive. If you don’t do it, who will? Do you really want another 15 year old in charge of this? Our kids are traveling fast and hard on the digital highway and it’s irresponsible to ignore that reality.

  10. Renee Moore

    Rant on, Bill! (and thanks for that link to the wiki about tools related to Marzano’s work).
    Certainly, time is one reason more teachers aren’t getting more proficient more quickly in technology use and are resisting efforts to have yet another duty thrust upon us. But not only do our administrations need to modernize school schedules for teachers and students, they also need to get real about providing the support for teachers to use technology in the classrooms–something most educational and political leaders pay lip service to and little else. Outdated equipment, limited, inadequate networks, patchy or no technical support…even those of us who want to do more with technology often can’t.

  11. Patty

    If we have been doing something the same way for such a long time, how do we make the change? I understand how the teacher survey could support “enough non-instructional time”. When I first started teaching I taught all day and sat with kids at lunch and was allowed a 15 minute break if I dared to leave my classroom unsupervised long enough to use the restroom. We were expected to be at every PTA meeting, every basketball and football game and every 8th grade dance. And these things evolved over the past 30 years. So today, on the one hand, with before and afterschool duties and lunch duties only several times a week and a planning period every day life must be awesome! But the need for time has increased geometrically! Before, we did our thing and kids got it or they didn’t. Today they have to get it – during the day or before or after school. We don’t just keep attendance, lesson plans and grades anymore. We study DATA. I am a teacher who is thankful for technology and trying hard to keep the pace when I haven’t trained properly.
    I can see with my own children that schools are quickly becoming extremely irrelevant to the lives of kids. (Schools, not learning!) Kids love to learn and they love to work; they just don’t always get us and our strange rules. Thanks so much for the views you share. You are very good with words!

  12. Larry Ferlazzo

    First off, I appreciate the fact that your “rant,” while partially sounding like an all-too-familiar note in the education blogosphere, differs from most in a critical point — unlike many other posts about the same topic, you go after policymakers and not just teachers. That insight is one reason that your blog is on my RSS Reader and I leave so many others off it.
    Though I use technology a fair amount in my teaching practice, I continue to be very wary of its misuse, as you’ve probably gathered from my posts in the group blog “In Practice.” So I’m not that exercised about teachers not eager about embracing technology. I’m much more concerned about agitating my colleagues to engage their students in higher-order thinking pedagogy and learning by doing — which I think can be done in many ways just as well without technology as with it.
    I think that many who complain about other teachers not embracing technology might want to reflect more on the kinds of conversations they’re having with their colleagues. During my nineteen year community organizing career prior to becoming a community organizer, when I was not being particularly effective I just figured I was not being good at getting at the self-interest of others.
    In addition to policymakers, I think those who would like other teachers to use more technology might be better served by re-thinking how they are approaching them.

  13. Joh

    I’m resonating madly with your frustrations here! I return to school tomorrow and remain ever hopeful that some other person will have discovered something about technology over the holidays.
    To add to your list of progression through technology might I suggest barcodes and scanners. I remember when prices had to be typed into cash registers!
    I think the sad thing is that the resistance of teachers to commit to new technology is what is stalling it from saving us time. Imagine if all the brilliant teachers out there could be spared some of the mundane tasks of teaching by leveraging with technology, imagine that kind of creativity unleashed!

  14. Pat

    I totally agree with you! Hear hear! clap clap! I can’t tell you how frustrated I have been when our district pays for hardware and software for my department that is awesome and I can’t get my teachers to use it. I end up being the only one who uses it and they come up with the reasons you mentioned. I had never heard of Moodle before the educon session and I can’t wait to check it out. I have learned more this weekend than I have all last year in the nonrelevant “professional development” things we are required to go to!

  15. David Truss

    I’m glad you got that off your chest too… Very well said!
    Hi stakes test force teachers to teach to the test. Lack of collaboration times leaves every teacher on their own island to fend for themselves. When a corporation expects their staff to use new technology they train them! Teachers on the other hand are forced to find and join networks and do it on their own time.
    When they do start trying things… without training… there is often a tendency to just use the technology to do old things in new ways (see Jeff Utecht: ) To top it all off energetic, enthusiastic teachers trying bold new things get the door shut on them with paranoid filtering of websites in schools.
    There is only so much that can be done at the grassroots level… you are so right about policies needing to change.
    Keep Barking!!!

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