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Put me in, coach! I'm ready to teach with technology

By Les Foltos
July 21, 2014
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These days, ed tech coaches are in high demand, thanks in part to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which require educators to integrate technology into the classroom. Much like the ISTE Standards, the CCSS clearly link technology with effective teaching, in addition to calling for mastery of the basics, more rigorous learning and creativity, and more emphasis on soft skills, such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

This new set of requirements has some teachers worried. Technology changes fast, and some fear they won't be able to keep up or do their jobs well if they have to use tools they aren't comfortable with.

This is where tech coaches can help put them at ease. Both the CCSS and the ISTE Standards emphasize learning and teaching, two issues educators are already very familiar with. If coaches focus on learning first, they can start the conversation on the educators' home court " " not outside their comfort zone, where technology often falls.

Link technology to learning

Too often, coaches focus their efforts on sharing tech tools at staff meetings, hoping that teachers will make a connection to a learning activity and adopt the tool. Unfortunately, this is "just in case" learning. Coaches are helping teachers learn about new tools just in case they might find a use for it in their classroom. This approach could work if the teacher identifies an immediate need for the technology, but if not, another dilemma surfaces: Although the blackboard seemed to have the same half-life of plutonium, technology's shelf life is closer to that of milk. If teachers don't adopt the tool instantly, it may not even exist by the time they decide to use it.

Instead, coaches should aim for just-in-time learning, which means the new technology the teacher is learning about must have a purposeful and immediate link to the goals of a specific activity.

Both the ISTE Standards and the CCSS ask students to communicate, collaborate, gather and analyze information, and express their learning in creative ways. Most likely, students will be using hardware and software to accomplish these tasks. Coaches can improve this process by helping teachers first define the skills they want students to learn, such as communication and collaboration (ISTE Standard for Students 2), and then use that as the starting point for identifying and using the tech tools that best meet those requirements.

Coaches should also work with their learning partners to explore the activity they are trying to improve and identify tasks that encourage creative expression, communication, collaboration, and the collection and organization of information. Together the coach and teacher clearly define these and other educational needs and then determine whether a given technology can meet them while enhancing learning. If the answer is yes, the teacher, students and coach can learn just enough about the technology they want to use, just in time to use it in the project.

Just-in-time tech training

The ISTE Standards for Coaches call for coaches to help teachers select technology that students can use for research, collaboration, and development of creativity and higher-order thinking skills. Let's explore what this might mean in the classroom.

The second grade teacher who wants to encourage her students to use images, video, sounds and narration to demonstrate their learning may need help identifying relevant tools to assist with this. The teacher may feel it is important that her students spend their time expressing their ideas clearly instead of learning and manipulating complex video-editing software. The teacher may also need help learning to use the tool. The coach could suggest that this teacher follow her students' lead, or she could provide some training.

At this point, coaches face the same dilemma as teachers: Technology changes so quickly that they can't possibly know how to use all of the available tools. But they don't necessarily need to. They just need to know where to find tutorials that they, their peers and students can use., Microsoft,, or Google or Apple's tutorials for educators are great starting places.

The strategy of identifying common tasks in the learning activity focuses on the core of teaching: How will students learn and then demonstrate what they have learned? When coaches ask if the task requires students to gather information, collaborate with others, present their findings and get feedback, they are asking teachers to work in a realm they know and understand.

Help them choose

To help teachers determine how to find a tool that will enhance an activity's ability to support a given learning objective, a coach can begin by asking a series of questions about the existing task. Then she will have enough information to provide technological resources and ideas to help the teacher transform the lesson.

If the teacher wants to support communication in the classroom, a coach could ask:

  • Does the learning activity encourage students to communicate with peers?
  • Are the students reaching beyond the classroom to get ideas or suggested solutions to problems?
  • Are they seeking input from subject-matter experts?

The coach could suggest to her collaborating teacher that he use a website such as iEARN, where educators can find students from around the world who are working on a project similar to the one the teacher is planning for his students.

If the teacher wants to support collaboration, a coach could ask:

  • Does the task ask students to collaborate with others in their local or global community?
  • Are students inspired to solve real-world problems?
  • Are the students asked to get feedback on their proposed solutions?

If, for example, this teacher's students are studying the impact of fracking in nearby natural gas fields, the coach could suggest they use Skype to discuss their findings and solutions with an outside expert, such as a chemist, geologist or petroleum company executive.

If the teacher wants to support information gathering, a coach could ask:

  • To complete the learning task, do students need to gather information to draw conclusions and create knowledge?
  • How will students be assessed on their ability to gather useful, relevant information?

For a project to improve water quality in their own town, the coach could help the collaborating teacher create a Google Form his students could use to collect water-quality data from other students who live in cities along a river.

If the teacher wants to support information organization, a coach could ask:

  • Is the task shaped in ways that require students to organize the information they have gathered?
  • Are they required to analyze the information in any way?
  • When they report their findings, does the task require them to synthesize their data into meaningful applications?

A coach may help a teacher and students find online resources about environmentally friendly practices and then design a webpage where they can organize and share what they have learned more broadly.

And if the teacher wants to support student expression, a coach could ask:

  • Are students demonstrating their learning by sharing their solutions with authentic audiences?
  • Does the task encourage students to present their work in creative ways that are meaningful to them?
  • Is the ability to include images, video, music or dialogue important to expression?

Say a teacher asks her students who come from families that recently immigrated to the United States to draw on their family's experiences to reshape and retell John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Her coach can help her record a video of a stage production of the students' story, upload it to the web and gather online comments from the viewing community.

In this way — with learning and teaching as the starting point — coaches can emphasize how a specific piece of technology might help students reach their learning goals and perform the tasks their teacher has defined. And coaches who play this role help meet another valuable but largely unmet need: encouraging teachers to use technology routinely, so that they become more comfortable with it.

Les Foltos, PhD, is the founder of Peer-Ed. He served as director of instructional technology for Seattle Public Schools and helped develop the ISTE Coaching Academy. He is also a co-author of ISTE's coaching white paper. This article is adapted from his book Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration (Corwin, 2013).

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