Guest Post: Changing Learning Spaces Depends on Technological AND Pedagogical Knowledge

Blogger's Note:  One of the people in my learning network that I value the most is Matt Townsley

A former high school math teacher and current curriculum and technology director in Iowa, Matt has served as a reliable sounding board and critical friend for me for the better part of the past 5 years. 

What I love the best about Matt is that he's ALWAYS willing to push against my thinking — which helps me to refine and polish what I know to be true about everything from the role that assessments should play in driving learning to the role that central office staffers can play in moving districts forward.

Recently, Matt left a SUPER-THOUGHTFUL comment on my bit about Ever Optimistic Techno-Cheerleaders detailing the fine balance between technological and pedagogical knowledge that successful technology integration depends on.

I asked him if he'd be willing to turn it into a guest post for the Radical.  Thankfully he said yes!

Hope you enjoy his thinking as much as I did.


Changing Learning Spaces Depends on Technological AND Pedagogical Knowledge

By Matt Townsley


In Bill's previous post on the Ever Optimistic Techno-Cheerleader, he asked an important question:

Can you HONESTLY say that digital tools have made significant and meaningful changes to the kinds of learning experiences that happen in the majority of classrooms in your school — or are teachers using digital tools to do little more than put a little lipstick on their instructional pig?

Those are questions worth wrestling with even if the answers ARE uncomfortable.

I find myself cheerleading more than I'd like to admit and that IS a bit uncomfortable.

One of the double edged swords I see is the way in which technology tools enter the classroom.

I see at least two common paths to technology integration that involve the teacher's technological knowledge (TK) and pedagogical knowledge (PK), themes I've read a bit about in academic work entitled "TPACK" from a few researchers at Michigan State University.

Path 1: A teacher knows a tool well and has a specific plan for its use.

In many situations where technology is brought into the classroom, the specific use that a teacher has in mind for a new digital tool simply replaces a previous not-so-shiny tool.

To borrow Bill's language, teachers in these situations are often doing little more than adding lipstick to their instructional pigs.

They have strong technological knowledge (TK), but weak pedagogical knowledge (PK).

For example, Mr. Jones flashed notes on the front board for years using transparencies and an overhead projector. In 2012, he decided to change it up a bit by using Prezi. From the students' perspective, it's still "sit and get."

Marc Prensky describes this type of adaptation as doing "old things in new ways."


Path 2: A teacher does not know the tool well, but read or learned about it and decides to let the students show each other how to use it.

In these circumstances, students do their best to show each other how to use new tools.  More often than not, however, they end up using those tools the way they are used to using most technology: For information and entertainment consumption.

Heck, I'd even throw out the idea that adults often default to using a tool for our own personal information and consumption.

I wish I could keep track of the tools I use personally that I've never taken the time to weave into my role as a former teacher and current central office guy.

Teachers in these situations often have weak technological knowledge (TK) and weak pedagogical knowledge (PK).


From my experience, it takes a person with strong technological knowledge and strong pedagogical knowledge in order to truly leverage the magic of new tools with today's students.

The teachers who are the best at changing learning spaces with digital tools can simultaneously say, "Okay, I know what this tool's strengths and limitations are…" and "my students will be better engaged and learn [insert content] at a higher level through [insert instructional strategies]."

Is it possible to sustain this type of lesson planning on a daily or even weekly basis?

You tell me if that's realistic!

I think this is what Dylan Wiliam calls "deliberate practice" on slide 25 of this PowerPoint presentation — and it doesn't come easy!


Matt Townsley@mctownsley on Twitter — is a former high school math teacher who now serves as the Director of Curriculum and Technology in Iowa's Solon Community School District. 

His blog — MeTA Musings — focuses on all things education, but his personal passion is helping teachers to find ways to use assessment to move learning forward. 

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Changing Learning Spaces Depends on Technological AND Pedagogical Knowledge

  1. Mark White

    To answer your question…yes it can. I teach 2nd grade and received a teacher’s iPad as a gift from my district last spring. The transformation in my student’s learning space has been incredible. Much more time is spent in collaborative groups and independent learning roles through the use of technology. I have seen increased engagement and dramatic increases in partner and team skills.

  2. Matt Townsley

    Hey John,
    I think you’re right in suggesting that context weighs heavily into this equation. The TPACK folks have added “context” to their theoretical framework ( and I think it helps educators like you and me better rationalize what quality technology tool use might look like. On the same token, I think it might also complicate what this vision looks like in practice! Dylan Wiliam’s “deliberate practice” idea keeps bouncing back into the front of my mind. This is what makes our profession extremely challenging, in my opinion.

  3. John T. Spencer

    Great post, Matt.
    I have a somewhat off-topic thought on technology:
    What if the most powerful aspect of technology isn’t how it changes practice but how it changes the philosophy and the social context?
    Here’s what I mean: A blog can be just like a journal in some classrooms. Social media can be just like a class discussion.
    However, the greatest changes of technology involve the way it changes our context. For example, classrooms have been affected by central heating / air conditioning, mass transportation. Those seem like small example, but they’ve changed the structure of school in the same what that industrialization created factory-like schools.
    Consider something more education-related: how we view the mind. The notion of tabula rasa fit in with a printing press and a clockwork universe. The concept of transmission of knowledge reflected the metaphors of mass media. And now when we look at metaphors of the mind, we almost always speak of “connections” and “networks.”
    So, my thought on the question of change is that context, technology, instruction are all interrelated.

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