Saturday, April 08, 2006

Responding to George

So Doug Johnson over at his Blue Skunk Blog wrote an article about how he's becoming George, the network admin who is really clamping down on student uses of web stuff - for security reasons. I responded, with a few others, and Doug came right back with another post, where he asked the following:
  • Does technology management come down to a choice between reliability/security and creativity/experimentation? If it is not possible to have both, which best serves student interests?
  • Why should a teacher be given any more latitude to be "creative" with a computer than an accountant? Why should a teacher not be required to use district adopted software, much as they are required to use district adopted reading series or textbooks?
  • Should a teacher experiment rather using established best practices? (A medical doctor who "experiments" on his patients would be considered unethical - that job is for specially trained research scientists.)

Here's my response:

OK, Doug, I'll bite hard on these questions. I know you are in part only playing devil's advocate here, but the bait looks so tasty!

  1. the choice between reliability/security and creativity/experimentation...
    Creativity and experimentation. The other gets us safety (maybe). We become stale, dry up and wither away. Management will of course never choose this. But how about putting some classroom teachers in with the group of admins who determine security parameters? I'm not talking about teacher consultants, tech integration specialists, computer lab teachers - I'm talking classroom teachers.
  2. why should teachers be allowed to be creative, why should they not have to be required to use district adopted texts, software, etc?
    This goes way beyond the question of technology use. Administrators at many levels are contsantly in search of the perfect answer to improving education. "Apply this one to our schools, and now we'll really have something!" But the answer to excellence in teaching and learning does not lie in mandating the perfect textbook, demanding the teaching of the "ultimate social skills curriculum," or insisting on the exclusive use of a piece of software. The answer to excellence in education lies in having excellent, excited, talented, and passionate teachers in the classroom. Top down mandates stifle creativity - and drive out talented teachers in droves. If creativity in teachers is cultivated, not squashed, you will see an incredible surge in talented teachers returning to the profession - and the resulting upswing in student achievement and engagement.
  3. why should teachers be allowed to experiment rather using established best practices?
    This one I love. Because established best practices are not getting us anywhere right now. Because established best practices are dated, are dead in the water right now, are slow to develop and spread, are built on tools and methods of instruction dating back at least a century. If I teach my current third graders using established best practices, then I am not preparing them for the future, I am teaching them information and skills they may never use, and I am wasting their time. If I experiment, communicate with others around the world, collaborate on developing new approaches, and pass this on to my kids - well then, I might be making a difference for them.

    Now this last point requires two things: trust and freedom. I must have the trust of the parents in my classroom - and I must have the freedom to pursue alternatives to established best practices. I consider myself a very lucky guy to have both of those right now. I know many of my colleagues do not. It is in part for them that I take the time to write this.

So Doug, thanks for the conversation. The questions you asked are good ones, because they are so natural to ask. I hope the folks making decisions will look beyond their own circles for answers beyond the obvious. In peace - Mark

1 comment:

Doug Johnson said...

Hi Mark,

(Meant to send this by email, but for some reason, my email program didn't like your address. Remove this comment if you wish. It really wasn't meant for the public (although leaving it is OK with me too.)

Thanks much for your thoughtful replies. Let me respond to a few of your points...

> Creativity and experimentation. The other gets us safety (maybe). We become
> stale, dry up and wither away. Management will of course never choose this.
> how about putting some classroom teachers in with the group of admins who
> determine security parameters?

We certainly use a technology advisory committee to help shape our security policies and practices. But "advisory" is the operative word. I am not always sure teachers understand the scope of the potential disasters that lurk - hackers, viruses, etc.

I've yet to see a teacher dry up and wither away because he or she had to use a password to login to a secure system. You all must be more delicate out in Oregon!

> The answer to excellence in education lies in having excellent, excited, talented,
> and passionate teachers in the classroom.

I would like to think so. But I would ask - is insisting on teaching to state standards "stifling" creativity? Would you rather your child was with a competent, if not creative teacher, who uses established best practices or a "passionate" teacher whose kids don't learn the basics?

I am all for creativity - so long as there are common expectations of student performance.
Because established best practices are not getting us anywhere right now.

I have to say we are a very traditional district and have managed to stay off AYP for quite sometime. At least by that measurement, "established practices" are getting us were we need to be. I can honestly say we are doing quite nicely by MOST of our kids. There are some we are not reaching and those we DO need to find new ways to reach.

If I experiment, communicate with others around the world,
> collaborate on developing new approaches, and pass this on to my kids - well
> then, I might be making a difference for them.

I think "might" is the frightening word in the last sentence. When and how will you know for sure?

> Now this last point requires two things: trust and freedom. I must have the
> trust of the parents in my classroom - and I must have the freedom to pursue
> alternatives to established best practices. I consider myself a very lucky
> guy
> to have both of those right now. I know many of my colleagues do not. It is
> in
> part for them that I take the time to write this.

Even as argumentative as my responses might sound, I know I would have wanted someone like you as MY children's teacher. Keep the faith!

Doug