Learn From Our Mistakes

Grumpy Old Man Alert!  I have been immersed in various educational technologies since 1993.  There were not a lot of us playing on that field back then.  We made lots of mistakes, but we didn’t know any better.  But I believe without fully paying attention to the potential for learners and teachers, nor fully understanding the implications for what should change in classrooms to make a lasting difference, we will make the same mistakes today that we made in 1993.

I am a big believer in learning from failure.  When I have been a building principal or superintendent at various points in my career, staff were encouraged to get out of their personal comfort zones, understand the difference between taking a risk and taking a chance.  We were not afraid of failure, we celebrated it.  First lesson for new staff was along the line of “don’t make the same mistake twice, but never be afraid to make another mistake.”

I have read, and continue to read a lot, about how, in 2016, it isn’t about the technology, it’s about student learning.  I receive numerous solicitations every day telling me the best apps for “fill in the blank” class; how this workshop/webinar can solve all my problems with….  I’m sure all of you have inboxes filled with the same.  Many of us bought into the hype in 1993, many of us still buy into the hype.  That’s why the ed tech industry is worth billions today.  We were wrong to buy in then, and we are wrong to believe that the silver bullet exists today.  What many are missing is an educational plan that drives the technology plan that really serves more as a shopping list for the next conference exhibit area.  There is no real excuse today for us to be making the same mistakes we made in the mid-1990’s.  We know enough now to make different mistakes.

That being said, what follows is a transcript of remarks I made in a presentation to the Colorado Alliance for Science in October, 1995.  They were also published in the Alliance newsletter later that fall.  I tried to share lessons we had learned to that point, and some of the rationale we used to restructure our district.  For what it’s worth, please remember, this was 1995…

Society has left the information age and moved into the communication age.  Our schools, however, have remained mired in the agricultural/industrial ages.  Our parents’ generation had their ABC’s.  Our generation had our ABC’s, NBC’s, and CBS’s.  The current generation of students have their ABC’s, NBC’s. CBS’s, VCR. CD-ROM.  We have reached a point where many of our students have more access to computer, VCR and CD-ROM technology in their bedrooms than in their classrooms.  A car built in 1995 contains more technology than the Apollo 11 spacecraft, a Minolta camera contains more computing power than an Apple IIe, more PC’s have been purchased this year than televisions, phone lines today carry more data messages than voice messages.  We in the Center School District believe that the problems with our educational system are not that it has been doing its job poorly – it is that the task of education has not changed to meet the changing expectations which society has placed upon it.  Children today are different.  There has never been a time in their lifetimes when we have not been traveling in space.  We had telephones which were hooked to cables and our television reception was over an antenna.  Today, our televisions are hooked to cable and our phone conversations are transmitted between antennas.  Many of the eyes looking at us in our kindergarten classrooms this morning will not only see into the 21st century, but into the 22nd as well.  And we only have about 16 years to prepare them.

Change in education comes slowly, it at all.  There are many reasons for this.  First, unlike corporations, educational institutions have to prepare people for their entire lives.  This implies that changes, when made, must be made with caution.  Secondly, our educational institutions have many managers, but few leaders.  As Joel Barker says in his book Paradigms, “Managers manage within the context of a prevailing paradigm.  Leaders take us from one paradigm to another.”  Most attempts at educational restructuring are taking place within the current paradigm, and we feel that their impact will be limited.  It seems to us that if we are to learn anything from the people who drop out of school each year, staff as well as students, it is that many of our schools, by their very structure, fail to reinforce and develop the natural love of learning we all express on the first day of kindergarten.

In our efforts to restructure, we have many barriers to overcome, not the least of which is a long-standing, deep seated resistance to innovations in technology.  Let me share a few examples with you, and I assure you that I did not make any of these up.

“Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems.  They depend on their slates which are more expensive.  What will they do when the slate is dropped and it breaks?  They will be unable to write.”  Teacher’s Conference, 1703

“Students today depend on paper too much.  They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves.  They can’t clean a slate properly.  What will they do when they run out of paper?”  Principal’s Association, 1815

“Students today depend too much on ink.  They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil.  Pen and ink will never replace the pencil.”  National Association of Teachers, 1907

“Students today depend upon store bought ink.  They don’t know how to make their own.  When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement.  This is a sad commentary on modern education.”  The Rural American Teacher, 1928

“Students today depend on expensive fountain pens.  They can no longer write with a straight pen and nib.  We parents must not allow them to wallow in such luxury to the detriment of learning how to cope in the real business world which is not so extravagant.”  PTA Gazette, 1941

“Ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education in our country.  Students use these devices and then throw them away.  The American values of thrift and frugality are being discarded.  Business and banks will never allow such luxuries.”  Federal Teachers, 1950

We are not immune today.  After all, it only took twenty years for the technology of the overhead projector to move from the bowling alley to the classroom.  And many of us in rural areas of the state are trying to wire buildings built somewhere between  the administrations of Warren Harding and Dwight Eisenhower.

The acquisition of technology cannot be the goal.  If we only dream to “put a computer in every classroom,” or “do a technology inservice for our staff,” we will have failed to fully utilize a powerful resource.  Instead, we will only be using new tools in old ways.  In other words, distance learning must be more than just full frontal lecturing.  Otherwise, a teacher will grow only from boring 25 students at a time to boring 250.  The MAIN THING is the fundamental changes which can and must occur as we bring a powerful new resource into the classroom.

Technology is, by itself, a neutral tool.  The same tools Michelangelo used to create the Pieta can also be used to destroy it.  We do not look to technology to solve all of our problems.  Rather, we view the integration of technology into our classrooms as only one more tool in the toolbox, or one more toy in the toybox to help us solve the challenges which confront us.  We expect technology to help us with:

  1.  Better meet the individual needs of students and staff
  2. Individualize instruction by allowing us to make practical use of multiple intelligence research.  As it stands, most classrooms today would look like 25 people sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, the doctor coming out and giving everyone the same prescription and asking them to come back tomorrow if it doesn’t work, and
  3. Empower students and staff to reach their potentials.

In order to accomplish this, we must:

  1. Change the teachers’ role from authority to facilitator
  2. Create active learning environments rather than passive.  I recently read of a person who, after  having observed many of our classrooms, described them as places where the relatively young gather to watch the relatively old work, and
  3. Work with parents and communities as partners rather than adversaries.  If I can relate to a question asked to the first panel this morning, I suggest that the key to educating and involving the community is their involvement in the planning processes which must take place in each district.

We understand that technical change is easy, the sociological transitions are much more difficult, but the transitions are the keys to success.  Organizations do not change, people do.  Technology will not meet changing expectations, teachers will.  If we do not change what we do, if we do not enhance our outcomes, to use the business jargon, if we do not see a return on investment, why then do we invest a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money in the power of technology?  Whatever we decide to do in each of our districts, we must see a planned, proactive response to identified needs rather than knee-jerk, short-term reactions driven more by available funding than the needs of kids.  Lewis Carroll summarized it well in Alice in Wonderland,  “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here,” Alice asked the Cat.  “That depends a good deal on where you want to go,” said the Cat.  “I don’t much care where,” said Alice.  “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Some parents are well educated and rich enough to insure that their children have access to today’s information tools at home.  Others are not so fortunate.  As a result, we run the very real risk that the gap between the financially rich and poor will turn into a gap between the informationally rich and poor.  This will result in complete disenfranchisement of a large part of our population and could cripple our society for at least one generation.

Colorado needs new learning communities which meet the demands of the communication age we have already entered.  Because the underlying premise of the old model of educational institutions runs counter to the needs of students in the 21st century, we cannot achieve our goals by simply extending the school year, nor by creating new tests of achievement alone.  We need to redefine the meaning of education in terms that meet the needs of the post-industrial age.  Only through restructuring the total community can we bring students and adults into the 21st century with employable skills for a global economy.  Technology has the power to facilitate this change, but technology must be thought about in the context of meaningful restructuring of the educational process.  The reason for this is technology can be applied in education to meet many objectives.  As I said before, technology is, by itself, neutral.  Therefore, it is essential that we place pedagogy above technology and allow our focus on technological futures to be guided by core beliefs and understandings about our goals and our awareness of ways to develop and maintain a lifelong interest in education in all learners.

We are each the inventors of our futures, and we all should be provided with the tools to become the architects or our futures rather than the victims of fate.  In the Center School District, we have adopted a forward thinking perspective which we are using as the basis for restructuring our district.  Our survival depends on our capacity to think in the future and act in the present.  Then, and only then, will be able to prepare our students for their futures, not for our past.

That’s what I thought in 1995, what do you think today?

One thought on “Learn From Our Mistakes

  1. Great post, Gary.
    It is fascinating how much of your speech from the 90s is still true today. Unfortunately, I do think too many times school districts buy into the magic bullet theory when it comes to improving their schools. I do not blame them entirely, not too many people are willing to invest the time to see if a new program will work, let alone see if you need it at all.
    This post really made me think. Thanks for sharing it.


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