Note: This post is the first in a series on The Agile Schools Manifesto that I introduced in an earlier post.
I do love my gadgets and tools. I rarely leave my local bike shop without another freewheel remover or cone wrench, and I’m always up for a conversation about which apps you are using. There is nothing inherently wrong with tools. I could not have prepared my bike for its daily ride to school without my bottom bracket adjustable cup wrench, and it would take a mighty big plan ‘B’ in my class if Google Drive went down.
It would be easy for this post to devolve into a rant about how smartphones in our classrooms distract us and that we get so hung up on the tools and learning how to use them that our focus drifts from the learning outcomes to the tools themselves. Certainly the tools could distract us; especially when they are new and we are learning how to use them. However, I generally believe practicing teachers quickly recognize distraction and do a pretty good job of owning their tools instead of letting the tools own them. No, the real potential danger of tools and processes are much deeper and more subtle than simple distraction.
Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. These ideas are often hidden from our view because they are of a somewhat abstract nature. But this should not be taken to mean that they do not have practical consequences.
Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism: To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. I do not think we need to take these aphorisms literally. But what they call to our attention is that every technology has a prejudice. Like language itself, it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments.
Beyond technology’s potential for distraction is the bigger question, “How are our tools shaping us?” What prejudices and values are inherent in the tools we use? The Agile Schools manifesto wants us to value people and their interactions more than tools and processes. I think many people would agree with that priority. However, it is my contention that prioritizing people is only possible if we are thoughtful and intentional about our tools. If we are unaware of the value-shaping tendency of tools, then it is entirely possible that any time and energy spent on relationship building will be undermined by our tools. I’ll give an educational example.
Several years ago, many schools began using digital grade books and parent portals in order to increase and improve the efficiency, transparency, and communication of assessment (For now I’ll avoid discussing the other, more pessimistic reasons for open grade books). The early digital tools only allowed for columns of numbers that averaged to a percentage. This encouraged and reinforced a task-based classroom structure, and while parents were potentially more knowledgeable about classroom assignments, communication didn’t necessarily improve. Parent/Teacher conferences focused more and more on the tasks and the marks rather than the student and his/her learning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the answer to avoiding an awkward conversation about the validity of my marks was…more tasks and marks to justify my marks! (Yes, I’m confessing here.)
The tool that was hailed as a way to improve communication actually inhibited it. Instead of discussing students and their learning with parents in a way that would allow us to build relationships and learn from each other, we were discussing marks. The tool’s bias in favour of tasks had me creating more tasks to satisfy administrative guidelines and justify marks which actually inhibited my relationships with parents, students, and administration! Yes, I was using the tool poorly, but the tool itself was biased toward process, not people.
Others, like George Couros has here, have already written about how technology can be used to build relationship. Teachers want to build relationship because we know it is an important way to set the stage for quality learning. In order to prioritize individuals and interactions over processes and tools, we need to support each other in selecting tools that are biased in favour of relationship. For example, this semester I chose to use the tool, EduSight Notes (as I wrote about here) precisely because it would create a routine that would help build relationship. I think it will help infuse community-building into the very structure and processes of my practice. The tool will support, not undermine, what I value–the students I’m teaching and learning with.
That, paradoxically, is how I can write an entire post about valuing people over tools while focusing mainly on tools. Through collective reflective practice, let’s find the tools that best support our values.