Thursday, January 13, 2011

What Drives Education Today?

Recently teachers in Galesburg (IL) CUSD #205 were asked to complete an annual survey for our Technology Integration Plan.  Respondents were allowed the opportunity to offer “Other Comments,” as no survey can possibly gather every shred of relevant information. One of those comments shook me, giving me a bit of perspective:

“It seems like technology is driving education, not the other way around.”

Wow.  Thank you for this comment! This is an important concept that deserves careful consideration.

First, let’s start with a few definitions, from the Encarta Online Dictionary.

“Education: the imparting and acquiring of knowledge through teaching and learning, especially at a school or similar institution”

“Technology: the sum of a society's or culture's practical knowledge, especially with reference to its material culture”

“Culture: a group of people whose shared beliefs and practices identify the particular place, class, or time to which they belong”

“Society: the sum of social relationships among groups of humans or animals”

Quick social anthropology lesson: Society is the big picture. Many cultures interact to form a society. Technology refers to the tools used by different cultures within a given society. Education transmits elements of culture – including knowledge, tools, skills and social & cultural norms – from one generation to another – across cultures. Any questions? ‘K. Class dismissed.

Now, I firmly believe that educational technology should be thought of as a pool of resources that help support best practices in a classroom led by an professional educator who is an expert in his/her field. That means that I think good instruction comes from good teachers, regardless of what types of technology they choose to use (or not use).  It’s my job to inform teachers of current technology tools and help them (you) integrate these into classroom activities in authentic & relevant ways, just as those tools are also being integrated into our cultures & society. 

Should technology drive education? No. Not in my opinion anyway. But good teachers should know how to select what is right for their students’ needs within our changing society. That starts with (1) developing relationships with kids and learning what their individual, cultural, and societal needs are, and (2) developing an awareness of those tools and a willingness to explore them. 

I think the disconnect occurs when what’s best for kids’ futures becomes uncomfortable for the practiced, professional, and too-often-overworked educators who have been doing right things right and helping their kids achieve positive results for a long time.   What’s the right thing to do when the tools used by different cultures within our society change faster than educators can keep up with?

I’m a Geography & History teacher by training – this tech gig came along much later in my career – so I start by asking myself, “What has happened elsewhere when similar situations have occurred?”

From history, we know that great things were accomplished all over the world by knowledgeable people with nothing more than a sharp stick and a clay tablet.  I’m sure the switch to some sort of stylus-&-ink apparatus on papyrus and later parchment would have led the clay tablet people to worry about the future of education, too.  So too the switch from paper to slate, from black boards to green boards and then white boards, and now to interactive whiteboards, etc. 

You see, it’s the IDEAS created by a culture or society are constantly changing, and that’s the most important thing to wrap our collective brains around. Technology simply refers to the tools that help facilitate and communicate those changing ideas, between and among cultures and across generations. 

So, is technology driving education or the other way around?  Neither.  Society drives education, and that’s the way it always has been.  Technology tools are merely a part of what defines our changing society and cultures, and this has always been the case, too. 

Today’s youth culture embraces technology tools more rapidly than ever before in our history, and certainly much more so than we, the culture of their teachers (often from different generational cultures) do. 

Classroom teachers are today’s knowledgeable professionals who are each capable of creating greatness every single day. According to the definitions above, our job as teachers is to impart knowledge about or society’s or cultures’ knowledge, material technologies, and other skills to our students. That includes an appreciating for the technology tools of “our” culture as well as “their” culture and “other” cultures.  Today it’s a GLOBAL culture, and we’re all citizens of it.

The first overarching question to ask is, “What’s best for kids?” In some cases, we may need to start with the metaphorical clay tablets to establish a firm and relevant foundation of knowledge, and that’s okay. The next question would then be, “What do kids need to know and be able to do to become successful & contributing members within our future society?” In other words, how far beyond the clay tablets do we take the kids through learning activities associated with the class(-es) we teach? Where’s the target we’re shooting for? And by default we also ask ourselves, “Is the target we shot at last term, last semester, or last year still appropriate today?”

With increasing frequency, the answer to that last question is often “No. Not anymore.” Changes to our society occur at a compounding frequency. The knowledge our global society creates doubles over a period of time that can be expressed in days. Now more than ever, our society demands that teachers remain on the cutting edge of these changes and flexibly incorporate them within classroom activities in order to effectively shape the leaders of tomorrow. Technology can help you do that, but it is each individual educator’s professionalism that will actually pull it off.

So what drives education today? 

We all do.

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