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Strengthen school vision with technology

By Brandolyn Patterson
October 3, 2019
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Schools are complicated places. We have mission statements and visions, district points of pride and learning objectives, new initiatives, variable funding and shifting enrollment. All of this is enough to make educators’ heads spin.

So, what can be done? There are some who opt to wait it out. They’ll do nothing now and wait and see what sticks or who retires. These individuals don’t change and don’t adapt, instead they lie low and let the complexity pile up and the opportunities pass by.

Others refuse to get overwhelmed. These individuals recognize the interdependent nature of the system. By focusing on a single vision, they are able to harness the complexity and use it to propel forward.

This is the story of how my district used technology to strengthen our vision, which states: We are a learning community that inspires, engages, and empowers students to become lifelong learners and productive global citizens.

But before we discuss technology’s role, we first need to be on the same page. What does student empowerment look like? What are the characteristics of a lifelong learner? What is a productive global citizen?

These are the definitions that our district came up with:

Lifelong learners

These students are equipped with the skills necessary to learn outside the classroom over time. Critical thinking, clear communication, continuous reflection and collaboration are skills that top the list. A lifelong learner knows how to ask probing questions, seek multifaceted solutions and fail forward — not just come up with the answer. Much of their learning will happen online. This means that today’s students need to be explicitly taught how to acquire and evaluate digital content.

Student empowerment

When students are empowered, they take initiative. They are able to articulate their own thoughts and manage their own learning. Empowered students are self-directed and committed to seeing work through. They are able to apply a growth mindset philosophy to their own learning by practicing positive self-talk, setting attainable goals and actively go about reaching them.

Global citizenship

Globally competent individuals are empathetic, flexible and comfortable with ambiguity. They approach problem solving collaboratively and are able to process complex situations by considering multiple perspectives and using tools and techniques from across disciplines.

I doubt there is an educator out there who wouldn’t support our district vision.

Still, when it comes to the reality of implementation, there is a wall of anxiety that goes up and initiative fatigue that prompts questions like: How can I do all of this and teach my content? Now you want me to layer in technology, social-emotional learning and being a global citizen?

It’s understandable that many feel overwhelmed. After all, we packed a lot of competencies into our one-sentence vision. Fortunately, teaching about our vision is not the same thing as teaching our vision.

When we teach our vision, we integrate it into our pedagogy. For example, we first teach the concept of growth mindset as a stand-alone lesson. Then students practice it every day by setting initial and final goals, reflecting on their progress and engaging in positive self-talk prior to a quiz.

Help students fail forward

What does this all have to do with technology? If we always teach technology as a separate content area, it becomes another one of those things added to an already full plate. On the other hand, if technology — and the ISTE Standards for Students —  are integrated into our classrooms, it becomes a tool to strengthen our school vision.

If we want our students to be lifelong learners and achieve academic success, we need to develop students who know how to struggle productively and who have positive attitudes and beliefs about themselves as learners.

Technology tools that provide real-time feedback, such as Quill for writing and grammar or Dream Box for math, are critical components in achieving this part of our vision. They help students fail forward because they provide a nonthreatening environment for practice.

By using such apps, students can immediately see what they don’t understand and ask for on-the-spot clarification. Students learn to use real-time data to reflect on their performance and move their learning forward, either to meet grade-level expectations or challenge themselves to go beyond.

Teachers can then focus on being an analyst as defined by the ISTE Standards for Educators — as opposed to gathering data — and then respond effectively by asking probing questions and providing complementary activities that solidify student learning while strengthening higher-order thinking skills.

Because students are expected to learn and make progress rather than achieve perfection, class culture shifts away from answer-getting and assignments being something to mark off a list.

Students value the process

Instead of being competitive with one another or to feel pressure to cheat or finish quickly, students experience what it is like to be productive learners and understand how the collaborative process is part of the learning process. This is what academic success and life-long learning look like. And this is how technology supports school vision.

For students to be empowered, they must be have the tools and opportunities to articulate their own thoughts and manage their own learning. Technology tools that provide real-time feedback and data allow teachers to meet students where they are and help students to develop individualized learning plans.

Students feel more supported and confident. And because technology can be one-on-one, students now have the tools to manage their own learning and become active members in the discussion of their education.

Students are empowered learners — a hallmark of the ISTE Standards for Students — because they drive their learning; they have agency. This is a big responsibility, but it is authentic. They are not empowered if the experience is not authentic; technology plays a part in making this possible.

The use of technology also provides a vehicle by which students can articulate their own thoughts. Apps that allow for creativity, such as Explain Everything, make student thinking visible and actively engage students in the process and product of learning.

Students are empowered because they can choose how to show their understanding. Of course, this requires that the teacher’s pedagogy values critical thinking and productive struggle.

This is where technology integration, as opposed to technology used in isolation, becomes crucial. It is not about using the app to create a product. It is about developing a culture that values critical thinking, explanation, revision and problem-solving. Technology nurtures the culture by allowing for revision, collaboration, explanation and an authentic audience.

Provide a globally competent environment

If we want our students to graduate from our campus as globally competent individuals, educators need to model these characteristics for students, by infusing our pedagogy with ISTE Standards for Educators and structure our classes so that students experience a globally competent environment.

This requires a shift in pedagogy, and integrating technology is a vital part of this shift. Because of technology, students have access to current events, information and multiple perspectives. Technology, however, does not teach students how to filter internet content, collaborate, be reflective or be empathetic. This is the job of the teacher.

Learning to keyboard is a necessary skill. Discussing an issue, posting in a digital learning journal and then having students respond to questions such as, How do we tackle this issue with empathy? Why is it vitally important that we take on this challenge? is emblematic of a student practicing global competency.

Moreover, when posts are saved to a digital learning journal, they are readily accessed and reviewed and can themselves be used for reflection.

How have I grown as a globally competent person this year?

When integrated into pedagogy, technology lets all stakeholders — students, teachers, parents — focus on the learning process and growth; not just the product.

Once technology is integrated into pedagogy, it becomes possible to have in-the-moment digital citizenship discussions.

When students post digitally, they begin creating their personal digital footprint. Because posts will be read, and commented on (feedback), by an outside audience (peers, other parents, teachers, community members) the experience is authentic, not hypothetical.

This means something to students. Technology becomes a means to an end, not the end.

What's next?

All this points to the fact that technology is not another subject to be learned. It is a tool to be used to support school vision.

But don’t be misguided. This is a multistep process that is complex and  interdependent.

My school has taken the first step. We have given teachers and students the physical tools, such as iPads and laptops, and offered professional development around their basic use.

Now, it’s time to move beyond that, lest technology become yet another thing teachers have to teach and students have to learn. Yes, there is a place for teaching keyboarding and coding as separate courses.

Schoolwide, however, we need to invest our time and limited resources in apps or sites that allow for creativity, collaboration, data collection and real-time feedback.

Our staff need to have conversations around our shared vision — and how technology is integrated into our pedagogy, not just another subject to be taught, but harnessed as a tool to strengthen our school vision.

We need to be supported with professional development that emphasizes a move away from basic technology skills — though many still need them — toward higher-level thinking and collaboration, and development of strategies that permit teachers to develop a game plan for moving forward.

Brandolyn Patterson teaches middle school mathematics, is a teacher leader and serves on her district’s Technology Advisory Committee.

Prioritize student learning with Learning First, Technology Second. Explore the book!

This is an updated version of a post that originally posted on August 30, 2017.