Sunday, October 14, 2012

EdScape reflection: It's more than just the tools

Had a great experience at Eric Sheninger and New MildfordHigh School's Edscape this weekend. I particularly enjoyed observing teachers, specialists and administrators as they shared many innovative and creative learning environments and activities they've developed back in their respective home districts. I'm not sure if I was the only superintendent in attendance but being there allowed me firsthand to observe what can be accomplished by individual teachers with a little enthusiasm, ingenuity, and a lot of love for their profession. Nothing I witnessed this weekend requires big technology budgets or expensive new toys.


It actually got me wondering why there weren't more in attendance or why there aren't hundreds of "Edscape" experiences all across the country? A close cousin to Edscape is the EdCamp "un-conference" that has popped up here and there, but I would hypothesize by my personal observations that attendance is still virtually limited primarily to what some might call "the choir" of technology integration – the teachers and administrators who are already "doing it" with technology tools, project-based learning, creativity, and authentic assessment. They were here and at other conferences primarily because they've already seen the positive results and either want to build on what they know or learn something completely new. They're committed members of "the choir."


The folks that attend Edscape, EdCamp and other technology-infused gatherings are important "points of light" in their schools. However, that's not to say there aren't other similar "points of light" doing great things with kids and impacting learning with positive results in their own classrooms. As Gene Glass once pointed out they are out there but traditional education reform methods will not help discover them:


"There are in the nation's schools 'points of light,' hundreds if not thousands. But they will not be discovered by giving paper-and-pencil tests and analyzing statistics. They shine in the eyes of any impartial observer who takes the time to look for them." (p. 248)


Not all of these "points of light" have necessarily bought into the power of technology or the transformational culture brought on through project-based learning. To some, the jury is still out; to others, a clear path has not yet been discovered.


On the flight home, I got to wondering if it actually matters that so many choose to hold back on using tools such as Skype, the latest apps, or podcasting with their students. They're not flipping their classrooms and pencil and paper still may dominate their instruction. This got me thinking about curriculum, assessments, textbooks, data projectors, interactive whiteboards, and the myriad of desktop and mobile devices being deployed as if someone finally found the end of the rainbow and once and for all discovered the solution to greater achievement. And those of us crisscrossing the country, trying to catch the leprechaun so we can get his "Lucky Charms," may just need to slow down once in awhile to be sure we're still focused on the fact that education is a people activity. In the end, learning will always be more about the relationship between teacher and learner than it will be about having the latest technology toy or innovative idea.


In many ways it's similar to what's wrong with the entire education reform movement. We think if we add more testing, create a new curriculum, pass more anti-union legislation, create more ranking schemes, cut spending, and move more money away from public education to corporations and private schools, we'll finally have those "Lucky Charms" the reformers appear desperate to find. For the most part, they're looking for "super-hero" teachers that seem to have it all together, those "points of light" that can serve as beacons for everyone else. But as Glass has pointed out, the attributes of people can't easily be scaled up:


"We celebrate 'points of light' when we see them. A Deborah Meier in East Harlem or a Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles shine brightly in the media. Others then speak of 'scaling up' their model, that is, finding the essential elements of their success, putting them into words, and sending out the message so that the entire world can do likewise. But they forget or never knew that these stars' successes come not so much from what they do as from what they are as persons. And it is not only about who they are as persons but also in part about who their students are at the times of their greatest successes. Their wonderfully successful schools can no more be 'scaled up' than one can scale up great families, great marriages, or great love affairs. In this I am an optimist: that the only reform that stands any chance of making our public schools better is the investment in teachers-to aide them in their quest to understand, to learn, to become more compassionate, caring, and competent persons." (p. 248-49)


So while we continue expanding our knowledge of what new technology tools and personalized learning techniques can bring to the table, I think my biggest takeaway from this past weekend's event is that it's really people – teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, and especially the kids themselves – that make a difference. And most of what each of us as individuals contributes to the lives of our kids is not easily replicable or scalable.

Reference: Glass, Gene V (2008) Fertilizer, Pills, andMagnetic Strips: The Fate of Public Education in America.  Information Age Publishing