By John Holland
John Holland, a preschool teacher and co-author of TEACHING 2030, represented CTQ at the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow Conference last month. Below is his take on the experience.
I walked into the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference with some trepidation. The conference had been organized to energize stakeholders about integrating technology in our schools. I knew that many of the attendees would be from the private sector, including entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and online learning providers. I was surprised to find approximately 75 educators in the crowd of more than 300. Some, like Brian Crosby, were educational technology specialists. Brian is an elementary teacher in Reno who stepped onto the larger educational stage after Skype learned he’d used their services to teach a homebound student with leukemia.
Brian secured his invite to the conference by emailing the New York Times to explain how wack it was the panels included no teachers. I got my invite easily enough, by filling out an online form.
But I was skeptical. I attended the conference so I could live by the advice I give my daughter about soccer. She often plays defense and has gotten quite good at the skill I call “being there.” To “be there” is to see the total field, the offensive positions, and your place in anticipating an attack. You can then get to where you need to be to stop the ball and turn the tide of the drive on the goal.
I went to the Schools for Tomorrow conference to “be there” as a teacher leader and passionate advocate for a hopeful vision for education. I wanted to meet the players, especially those who might consider technology a replacement for teachers.
David Brooks, one of the most popular opinion columnists in America, opened with a surprising remark: “I want to start by expressing a note of skepticism about technology in education.” He continued:
My skepticism about the role of technology in the classroom is based on three arguments. The first is that people learn from people they love, they don’t learn from computers they love, and anything that gets in the way between the relationship between the teacher and the student is something I’m likely to be skeptical of. The second thing is that electronic communication is far inferior to personal communication…. And finally information processing. The tendency of technology is to make information processing easy. But the way you learn and remember is through processing information that is hard and challenging. You want to introduce trouble, not introduce ease.
Wow, I thought, David Brooks sounds like a teacher. Even though I consider myself a passionate advocate for the use of technology in schools, I still struggle with those same points. But if we can balance our enthusiasm about technology with our recognition of Brooks’s points, we can be the adaptive professionals that students deserve.
From Defense to Offense
The first panel included a group of international experts on technology in schools. None of them were teachers. I decided to move from defense to offense—by asking a question: “What concrete action steps, from your various perspectives, can be taken to help teachers use technology to teach?”
Here’s how Harri Skog, the permanent secretary of Finland's Ministry of Education, responded:
I think it helps a lot if a teacher has an autonomous way of having his own discretion at the level of the classroom....I think it is very important for teachers to be able to plan how they want to teach, but that needs to have this kind of trust situation. If I would be asked one thing to have, it would be more autonomy in schools.
I was sitting next to Diana Laufenberg, a powerful and visionary teacher from the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy—we both started clapping.
Meeting the Players
Between attending panels and informally networking, I met many passionate advocates for 21st-century learning.
- Larry Berger, founder and president of Wireless Generation, spoke on a panel about technical tools for the classroom. He highlighted how technology could strengthen teachers’ formative assessment efforts.
- Jacqueline Botterill, director of social public good for Skype, shared news of Skype in the classroom, connecting teachers and learners across the globe.
- Scott Kinney, senior vice president at Discovery Education, described how the Discovery Educator Network enables public school teachers to leverage streaming media for student learning and professional development.
- Joel Arquillos is executive director of 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center that provides free writing programs for Los Angeles students, including after-school and in-school tutoring, field trips, workshops, and publishing resources.
- Erik Michielsen founded Capture Your Flag, a project that is conducting qualitative interviews with aspirational leaders, tracking them over time. Erik will apply tagging and coding techniques to these annual interviews, identifying themes that can drive an innovative approach to curriculum development for college and career readiness.
What “Being There” Meant to Me
This conference confirmed one of my deepest held beliefs about teaching: there is a spark between human beings that is essential to the learning process. This fundamental spark in the engine of learning can never be replaced by technology. In fact, the best uses of technology in education will continue to involve person-to-person communication.
The human spark is also what will make a difference in important decisions about educational policy and practice. When teachers can “be there,” they can provide a much-needed window into how policies affect the learning of individual students. When teachers can “be there,” they can ask the questions that need to be answered. We will truly know this spark is alive when teachers (along with students and parents) are not just relegated to “being there,” but are sought-after panelists in important discussions about teaching and learning.
Thank you, David Brooks, for calling on my raised hand. Let's hope that next time, my colleagues and I will be answering questions, not just asking them.