Frequent readers of this blog will know that I am the Director of Educational Technology at a 6-12 independent school. My role is to design and implement the strategy around online learning and train teachers how to integrate various online tools into their lessons. This post is a reflection on whether my beliefs about teaching and learning, which are drawn as much as possible from research evidence, can sometimes come into play while I’m on the job.
The reason why I thought to write about this stems from having just launched a new podcast called Progressively Incorrect. The podcast is formatted as a debate show between me and my friend Bradley Arnold about progressive/constructivist vs. traditional/instructivist approaches to education. In the podcast, I defend the “mostly traditional camp”, primarily because I believe that the surest path to opportunity and critical thought is to pass down the wisdom of people before us (i.e., a tradition). A curriculum based on this principle should be broad (the arts, sciences, humanities, languages, mathematics, and so on) and representative of the diversity of traditions and lived experiences we have in this country. The diverse “knowledge-rich” curriculum that I envision for schools contrasts with forms of curriculum in which the focus is on thinking skills rather than content and/or one in which the students are expected to choose most or all of the knowledge that they wish to learn.
The second reason my beliefs are more closely aligned with the traditional side than the progressive side (and no, I do not particularly like these labels, but they are what they are) is that I’ve come to learn through reading research that the most effective and efficient way to pass on a body of knowledge is through the teacher effects pattern of direct instruction; Modeling, guiding practice, checking for understanding, giving feedback, and gradually releasing students into independent practice. Such a teaching pattern accounts for the limitations of working memory when dealing with novel information, and the evaporation of these limitations when dealing with familiar information. A mode of teaching in which pre-determined content is fully explained explicitly and unambiguously by a teacher at the onset of learning contrasts with forms of instruction in which students are meant to discover some or most of the content (of their choice) under minimally or partially guided conditions (e.g., Genius Hour).
Now to the point of this blog: Do my beliefs about education impact my job as Director of Educational Technology?
Well, sometimes, but not as much as you’d think.
A lot of what I believe about education never factors into what I do. I may think that homework should be frequent, spaced out, and achievable, but I have no more control over homework than I do the food in the cafeteria. Besides, whenever I enter into a coaching situation with a teacher, I begin by listening, not by launching into a philosophical debate. The first thing I ask is that they tell me the goal or vision of their upcoming lesson so that I can figure out whether a technology could help the learning. Sometimes the goal is to instruct the students, other times it’s to have students explore or discover, and much of the time it’s just the teacher wanting to mix things up a bit. Regardless of what they tell me, I would never try to convince the teacher to “traditionalize” their particular vision. Any questions that I have are rooted in understanding the problem and context of the learning situation, and the vast majority of my recommendations would fit within any approach to teaching (e.g., plan ahead, call me on my phone if the tech breaks down, collect feedback from the students, etc.). At the end of the day, my job is to support teachers in selecting and using the right tools for their instruction, not to manage their instruction.
Of course, there are other times that I’m directly asked to offer my opinion about a particular topic or issue in education. In this case, my rule is to, whenever possible, point to the research evidence, rather than relying exclusively on opinion to drive the conversation. I might also send colleagues a balanced set of articles that could potentially help them form their own conclusions; This is what others did for me when I was first forming my belief system on Twitter. For example, just the other day a new teacher asked me to settle some of the uncertainty she’d been having about whether directly teaching students to solve problems would rob them of the opportunity to learn the material more deeply. I said I was unaware of any research to directly support that contention, but that I could send her some papers on productive failure, inflexible knowledge, and the Einstellung effect. She asked if I could also send her some research on the effects of explicit teaching vs. discovery learning, and so I did. In each of these instances, which are rare, my beliefs probably do influence the direction of the conversation, but I always try my best to mitigate the potential for bias (or me just being plain wrong about something) by turning it into an opportunity to discuss the evidence.
Am I on the right track with the approach I’m taking? I don’t know. I appreciate the need to debate these issues on campus, but I’m also wary of using the position of Director of Educational Technology to further a particular ideology, especially given how much I’ve changed my views as new evidence has come to my desk. Certainly in a different role and with the right conditions I might be more vocal about my specific positions regarding progressive vs. traditional approaches to teaching in the workplace. In the meantime, teachers can keep coming here to watch my views evolve, or tune in to my podcast.