Education Opinion

Tools or Instructional Strategies

By LeaderTalk Contributor — October 04, 2009 4 min read
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You get it. It’s the 21st Century and social media has changed society so much that you understand the need to make technology a transparent part of the learning environment as part of meeting the growing needs of students and society.

Assuming we understand this social phenomenon and have started critical, actionable conversations within our schools, our focus inevitably turns to professional development and shifting teacher mindsets as part of the transformational puzzle.

The question I continue to raise is whether we should discuss these technologies as tools or instructional strategies.

For systemic success, I believe must stop thinking about social media technologies as tools and begin exploring these organizationally as instructional strategies. What happens when this occurs?

An Example

Let’s look at wikis as one example.

As a tool, there are no “rules” leaves room for new uses and a simple measure of organizational success: quantity of people trained and using the tool. Even more appealing, a tool approach offers a quick, simple way to move forward with training: explain the tool, show some examples, and let the teacher do the rest.

But, what happens after this point and click training?

While merely a hypothesis, the organizational base never rises or only slightly rises beyond their current instructional effectiveness. Yes, more people are aware of the tool and maybe even choose to use it, but the impact on the learning environment and student achievement is minimal outside of a few innovative teachers.

Organizationally, we don’t need more teachers using wikis just to use wikis. We need quality. How do we get there? I believe we get there by approaching wikis as a strategy with clear guidelines and practices associated with classrooms needs. In this case, collaboration might be the identified skill/value/solution needed. Thus, the organizational professional development would narrow their focus on collaboration strategies and methods both in the physical and the digital.

In this case, we no longer train on wikis. We create learning opportunities on collaboration and community building for the physical and digital learning space. We discuss, attempt, and modify approaches such as those established by Johnson and Johnson, Caine and Caine, and Shirky. We would apply methods of cooperative learning. We would look at our collaborative methods in the physical space and extend opportunities and possibilities into the digital. We would observe teachers that have effectively created a community and that have leveraged collaboration to enhance the learning environment and student achievement in a multi-dimensional space.

Time and Effort

This approach takes more time. This approach is more intense. This approach is about breadth and depth. And yes, this approach focuses on pedagogy and tools as strategies. But, this approach will create shifts in mindsets and sustainable growth as it serves as a clear jumping off point.

For innovative teachers already embracing social media and emerging technologies, this approach is frustrating. It seems limiting, stifling, and time consuming because they’ve used the technology as a strategy and are wanting more or they want to explore technologies outside of the foundation.

On many levels, this is true which is why it is important to foster the development of teachers seeking new, never thought of ways of using the technology -- technology as innovation not just strategy.

This doesn’t mean giving teachers a tool and walking away. We still ask challenging questions and discuss assessment, curriculum entry points, and potential roadblocks. However, the goal is to be open minded about these new approaches that go beyond the foundational level established and provide just-in time support.

In other words, innovative teachers embracing technologies in new and creative ways are to be encouraged as their findings could alter our instructional strategies at the foundational tier.

Final Thoughts

It is easy for those who are naturally drawn to emerging technologies and social media to feel all we need is to show tool after tool to teachers in order to shift mindsets into the 21st Century. The reality is that for every teacher transformed by this approach, there are dozens that eventually walk away or end up using the tool in ways that do little or nothing for the learning environment outside of being able to say ‘I use web 2.0 technologies’. Shirky reminds us that “revolution doesn’t happen when society adapts new technologies - it happens when society adapts new behaviors” (p. 160).

And shifting mindsets, creating new behaviors, and raising the base of our professional learning communities to enhance student achievement is the goal.

Image: //www.flickr.com/photos/smanography/ / CC BY 2.0

Ryan Bretag
Coordinator of Instructional Technology
Glenbrook North High School

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk 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.