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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Technology Has No Impact on Teaching and Learning

By Emily Davis & Brad Currie — April 24, 2019 7 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Emily Davis and Brad Currie.

Pretty bold title for a blog post, right? Especially, coming from two authors who just wrote a book titled Tech Request: A Guide for Coaching Educators in the Digital World. In all honesty, we believe wholeheartedly that technology has no impact on teaching and learning ... in an environment devoid of support.

Let us explain our thinking.

Districts and schools spend millions of dollars on technology each school year, yet in some cases, do very little to support teachers during the implementation process. The result of that lack of support is that devices and web applications are either used sparingly, not at all, or for the wrong reasons.

Take for example a middle school that just went 1:1 with Chromebooks. Six months after the rollout, students have accessed a few online review games for math class and have written a 10-page research paper on Google Docs in social studies class. Basically, the teacher is assigning and students are completing work the same way they did when they were sharing a laptop cart with the entire 7th grade team. The actual work that is being submitted is not requiring students to do anything differently from what they had done before technology, nor is it engaging students in meaningful and relevant tech-enabled learning experiences. The building principal has thrown up his hands and blames the lack of innovative methods on there being not enough time to properly train staff.

What’s missing in this vignette that would solve many of the problems being encountered by the students and teachers? A well-trained instructional coach. The research is clear, that initiative rollouts of any kind in schools are much more likely to be successful when investments are made in developing a cadre of coaches who have the time, skills, space, and role clarity required to help their colleagues enact them. Note that we did not say that schools should create more sit-and-get professional development for staff.

Like technology without support, this kind of training on its own will get a staff nowhere. Instead, we suggest that schools invest in creating a cadre of well-trained coaches who know how to work with individuals and teams of teachers to help them thoughtfully and meaningfully integrate technology into their classes in ways that feel sustainable.

There are two key areas, we feel, schools need to attend to when developing a cadre of tech instructional coaches. Those two areas are:

1. Common Understanding—Everyone needs to have the same understanding that our primary goal is to create high-quality teaching and learning experiences that meet the needs and strengths of all learners and that the role of tech coaches is to help make that happen. Again, we aren’t looking to sell technology as an end unto itself. We’ve seen many classrooms that are using technology regularly in ways that don’t enhance instruction. In some cases, we’ve seen technology being used as a replacement for something students were doing paper-pencil before. In others, technology is an activity that’s engaging but doesn’t really enhance learning or provide students with the opportunity for innovation.

What we mean is that good pedagogy has to come before technology selection or use. Therefore, effective tech coaches must first be masterful instructional designers who also understand the positive supports that technology can provide for teaching and learning. They need to know how to help teachers select and implement the right tools in ways that enhance instruction, address student needs, and meet curricular goals. Adopting common frameworks like TPACK and SAMR, which help all stakeholders get clear about their instructional goals and the needs of students and then think about the appropriate place of technology in teaching and learning, is crucial for success. These kinds of frameworks can help coaches understand teachers’ goals and then help teachers select technologies that will help achieve those goals, perhaps in ways they could not do without technology.

2. Develop and Grow—To do their best work, it’s crucial tech coaches have ongoing opportunities to develop and grow. Just because someone is a great teacher of kids or is awesome at using tech in their own classroom does not automatically make them an effective coach. Good coaches are made, not born. They need training to gain the knowledge and skill set necessary to do this important work.

To get a taste of what we mean, here’s a short (and definitely not exhaustive) list we’ve compiled of necessary tech coaching professional knowledge and skills:

  • Establishing trusting relationships: strategies for intentionally building confidence in you and your work that allow colleagues to believe working with you will make a difference
  • Active listening: listening to truly understand what the speaker is saying
  • Coaching language: how you respond to the speaker in a way that supports the development of their thinking
  • Creating coaching cycles: developing ongoing processes through which you and your coachee identify need, research, try, adapt, and reflect
  • Gathering and analyzing data: knowing what to look for, how to gather facts instead of opinions, and what to do with that data
  • Providing meaningful feedback: structuring feedback that is timely, goal-aligned, specific and actionable, and delivered in an way that the listener is able to hear and use it
  • Collaborative planning: strategies for organizing work with a colleague that combines both of your knowledge to achieve an instructional goal
  • Leading effective professional development: organizing learning experiences for adults that are well-sequenced, useful, provide room for learners to try out and make meaning of new ideas, and are immediately actionable once participants leave the session
  • Facilitating teams: includes skills such as setting norms, creating agendas, selecting and using protocols, facilitating conversation, and addressing challenges
  • Leadership skills: developing and articulating vision, running a team, working/communicating with key stakeholders, and project and budget management, to name a few,
  • Having hard conversations: knowing when and how to have frank discussions with colleagues when things aren’t going well without violating trust, thus allowing work to move forward again
  • Using instructional and tech-integration frameworks: developing schemas for thinking about when and how choices are made about including technology in instruction using frameworks such as TPACK or SAMR
  • Keeping up to date on new tools and apps: finding conferences, professional learning networks, and other venues that allow a coach to continue to stay ahead of the tech curve
  • Electing/piloting/rolling out technology: understanding/developing decisionmaking processes for choosing new technologies; strategies, timelines, and data-collection processes for pilot projects; and support structures for rolling out new technologies at scale.

These aren’t topics you master in one or two professional-development sessions. Learning to coach well takes time and coaches need that time and training to be fully ready to help others succeed.

If we truly want educational technology to take root in schools and finally live up to the promise we’ve been expecting for more than a decade, schools need to develop a cadre of well-trained tech instructional coaches. With their support, educators can drastically improve the speed, efficiency, and elegance at which they integrate technology into their classrooms and meet their teaching and learning goals. Investing in coaching may be an expensive endeavor, but it is definitely less costly than watching expensive tech gather dust in the corner of a classroom or watching another year go by in which students don’t learn the valuable skills they need to succeed in the 21st century and beyond. Without coaching, technology will continue to have no impact on learning.

Emily L. Davis, Ph.D., is the founder of The Teacher Development Network. Connect with Emily on Twitter or by visiting her company’s website at www.teacherdevelopmentnetwork.com.

Brad Currie has been an educator for more than 18 years as a coach, teacher, and administrator. He currently serves as the director of planning, research, and evaluation for the Chester school district in Chester, N.J. Connect with Brad by following him on Twitter @thebradcurrie or visiting his company website at www.evolvingeducators.com.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.