Friday, July 13, 2007

Read, Write and Ruminate

Will Richardson's blog from Wednesday is causing quite a stir among the ed tech blogosphere. In it, he states teachers, on the whole, use technology as an electronic version of pen and paper show-what-you-know pedagogy, rather than allowing the process to take over and engage students in authentic experience and learning. (At least that's my take on it.) Now most teachers don't want or need to hear another claim that we're failing to do our jobs; yet sometimes the last thing you want to hear is most what you need to hear.

I'm no tech guru, but my classes usually integrate technology more than other teachers'. Looking back on some of those assignments, however, I recognize their somewhat rote nature: they were online essays. Ironically, the best tech assignment I ever gave was the one I knew least about. The first video documentaries I did. I was clueless about the technology, or even much beyond the basics of how to put a documentary together, so the students had to figure it out themselves with some rough guidance from me. As you can imagine, their product wasn't all that great (with a few exceptions), but they learned so much about collaborating and teamwork and planning and, yes, even persuasion in its various forms. I learned from this experience that sometimes the best way to teach is to simply get out of the way and let students learn.

It's not that traditional books and essays don't allow this. I wrote a paper while working on my Master's in English that, quite literally, change the course of my life because of what I realized as I wrote it. (It's a long story) But I do think its a more solitary event and happens less frequently with traditional methods. It takes a certain willingness to immerse yourself in language that few people possess. Technology facilitates those connections--whether through the literal linking of pages/ideas or through the collaboration process and "wisdom of crowds" phenomenon, or both, or neither. That's the thing about technology--it embeds you in process. Writing this blog has been an act of learning for me even more than one of sharing/teaching. (grin--fortunately! This start-up lack of readers thing can be a bit disheartening!) It forces me to make some sort of coherent whole out of the chaos of my reading, then allows me to directly link to those readings and draws it all together, so I start seeing relationships. Traditional writing does that, too, but in a much more abstract way.

Where the real difference lies, however, is in David Warlick's profound response to Richardson's column. He wrote (in the comments):

I would rather not look at the production of a video or a podcast as the end of an assignment, but as the beginning or continuation of a conversation. We are so focused, as educators, with what is learned. I wish we were more focused on learning.

That blew me away, because he's absolutely right and describes what is so absolutely wrong with NCLB and standardized tests and the general way we educate students. We focus on content, not skills. We focus on product, not process. We focus on teaching, not learning. It's not that the product isn't important: Imagine trying to tell your boss, "Oh, I know the presentation wasn't very good, but I learned SO MUCH putting it together!" However, we tend to rush students through those beginning and oh-so-necessary phases in our efforts to get something to grade so we can move on to the next bit of content we need to cover. We don't give them enough time to explore and engage, because we have to finish Chapter 13 by January.

More importantly, we're so overwhelmed with the minutiae of the job, that we seldom allow ourselves the time to learn ourselves. This independent study has been a real god-send for me. I floundered the first few weeks, trying to figure out what I should be exploring, but as I searched and probed and dug, out of that mess process grew the roots of a solid understanding not only of the technologies, but of how they can be used to best advantage. Well, the beginnings of an understanding anyway. More importantly, I'm excited. Truly and honestly boring everyone around me with my enthusiasm excited. I haven't felt that way about teaching in a few years; I can't wait to try out my ideas this fall. And don't we owe it to ourselves (and our students) to do everything we can to encourage and nurture that passion? To move beyond covering content and into enthusiastic engagement?

I think so.

I actually had more to say, including an article I read about being a "Techno-Constructivist," but I'll save that for my next blog!

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