If You Have to Ask, You May Be in The Wrong Business

| By Gary Harstein

I’ve worked in and with education for most of my life – I’ll spare myself the trauma of writing just how many years.  A good portion of that time has been spent in the “ed-tech” realm, helping educators integrate technology with instruction, with instruction driving the technology.  For as far back as I can remember, the stories I heard from ISTE Conference attendees made it seem almost too good to be true – like some sort of fantasy world for ed-tech geeks like me to learn together.  Called National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) back then, this annual ed-tech-palooza is now known by the same moniker as its parent organization: ISTE.  And to call it simply inspirational would be as understated as calling Texas a "...nice little state tucked away in the southwest."

From the excitement of Jane McGonigal’s opening keynote on Gamification, to Adam Bellow’s rousing end-of-conference charge for us all to respect failure and embrace curiosity as we help build learners, this was truly an inspiring, albeit exhausting, week.  I left with a renewed sense of purpose for the work we do through the DigitalJLearning Network and as educators in Jewish schools.  I also left with one huge takeaway - and not something "pushed out" or "passively absorbed" during a one-way informational session.  No, nothing of the sort.  I left with a reminder that all of us as educators are in different places and have different perspectives that guide not only our world views, but the way we relate to everything - especially, in this case, teaching and learning.  And despite these differences, there is one "Truth" that rings clearer to me than the alarm that wakes me in the dark every morning:  If you're a K-12 educator and still asking, "Do we really need technology in K-12 learning?" perhaps it's time to consider another profession.

Photo Credit: Bharti Foundation Communications

As I help schools develop blended learning approaches that support their academic goals, I am dumbfounded by the sheer number of times I still hear this this tired and over asked question in one form or another.  Do we even consider whether white boards or chalk boards should be integrated with instruction?  How about books? Pens and paper? Do we question the value of learning from firsthand accounts of people who have "lived history?"  I'm guessing that if you're like most, the answer to each of these is a clear "No!"  Then why are we still debating technology use as if it's some sort of "thing" we tack onto learning and have to "squeeze in" somewhere?

The answers are simple and they all come back to one thing: FEAR.  We're afraid to break away from the "way we've always done it."  We fear things with which we're uncomfortable and we automatically associate the term "technology" with "discomfort" when it comes to education.  As educators we're afraid that if we don't have an answer, our students won't respect us as "experts."  We are afraid to remove our blinders and look beyond our own comfort zones.  And the bottom line: we're afraid to truly examine our own practices and change.

Change is hard, but it is perhaps the only constant we can expect in education. Changing our practices doesn't simply mean using tools for the sake of using them.  We need to look honestly at how and what we teach - and especially what we're trying to achieve.  If you're doing it right, you're building learners rather than building memorizers.  And if we truly want our students to love learning - as they do when they are young - we need to leave the egos and hubris at the door. We need to admit that it's OK if we don't have the answer to everything.  In fact, not having an answer to a student's question isn't only "not a bad thing," it's a perfect opportunity to meet a student where s/he is and learn together.

So what's this got to do with technology?  Like all things educational-technology related, almost nothing.  Except, if we can move beyond the "Should we use technology?" question and focus more on using the best available resources to help students learn, the technology will be seamlessly integrated into your practice just like white boards, books, pencils and paper.