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Nascent Vision of Technology IV: 21st Century Teachers

February 10, 2011

This is the best 90 seconds of video about teaching you’re going to see in a long time. You’ve got to watch it.

Yes, this is the legendary Dan Meyer, talking about how he uses technology to teach, learn and share. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what 21st Century teachers should do, and what they look like, and then two days ago, this popped into my google reader, and I was like….bingo. This is it.

Let me begin by saying I’ve followed Dan for four years now, from his early days rocking out classrooms in California, to his big breakout show last year at TEDxNYED, where I got to see him live. Back then I was a total lurker on his blog, so I remember seeing him and thinking “wow, he’s so much taller in real life.” Anyway, if you go back and search the archives of Dan’s blog, you’ll see an incredible narrative of progress, and it’s a super-exponential sort of progress than can only be achieved by sharing with people all around the world. Here’s an example. This is a photo from one of Dan’s posts a couple of years back about exploring projectile motion. He went out on a field, took a tennis ball, threw it at a garbage can and went through the same process he described on the camera to turn it into a strobe photo showing half the motion.

What do you notice about this picture? Compare it to his latest masterpiece

Structurally they’re the same, the first picture clearly inspired the second, but the difference in execution is extreme. The tennis ball is barely visible, and who plays the game of ‘will the tennis ball hit the can?” A few years later, this becomes a basketball, much larger, and what was already an incredibly powerful lesson (I know, because I’ve used it), becomes a show stopper. And how did he do it? Sure, Final Cut Pro and Photoshop were in the game, but I think the key thing is sharing and connecting with teachers outside your small little sphere of daily contact.

Another lesson you can get from reading Dan’s blog is that design is as important as technical chops. I would love to see faculty pushing one another to replace slapped together text-filled powerpoints with well-designed lessons that captivate the mind and the eye. By putting his stuff out there on his blog, along with many tutorials on how he does it, I think he’s causing this to happen.

A further reading of Dan’s blog will show there isn’t some master plan at work in Dan’s blogging. It’s one teacher, sharing what he does, asking questions, and getting feedback from the world. Because of this feedback, Dan is coming to deep and profound realizations powerfully transform his classroom and thousands of others. “Be Less Helpful“, “(What Can You Do With This (WCYDWT)“, “Pseudocontext” the seeds of many of these ideas are present in his earliest posts, but they aren’t yet fully realized, and it’s a beautiful story to see how hundreds of comments and posts shaped them.

Dan’s example is a clear example that great technology teachers aren’t born that way, nor are they made through hours of technology professional development. One post you won’t find in Dan’s post is something titled “How the all day workshop with moodle transformed my classroom.” Dan seems to have learned every tech tool he mentions, from python to Final Cut Pro the hard way, through experimentation. The real question we should be asking ourselves in the technology world is “how do we encourage experimentation?” I think there are a few clues in Dan’s video to this as well. If you notice, he’s editing video on a freaking 27 inch monitor. That monitor costs $1000. Right now, you’ll find monitors like that in your the office of the head of IT on your campus and few other places. What if, through some crazy experiment, some average joe teacher walked into their classroom to discover a brand new macbook pro connected to a 27 inch monitor in his or her office? What do you think would happen? What could that teacher do? My guess is that it might very well blow your mind. That teacher would clearly get a signal of “hey, we think you can do great things. We think you can do such great things that we’re going to give you the same (or even better?) computer that we give to our head of IT, or graphic designers use to publish magazines, since we’re a school and teaching is our #1 priority. Make us proud.” It certainly would get that teacher to want to experiment far more than their 13 inch laptop with a grainy screen and a 15 minute startup time does. But I know—it’s expensive! $3000!! How can we afford these luxuries? There’s a ton of research that dual monitors increase productivity—that’s why you see them everywhere in IT and business offices of many schools and companies. Instead of worrying about how much money excellent tools cost, we should start worrying about how much money we’re losing because faculty are unwilling to experiment when saddled with unreliable and underpowered tools that make them unwilling to try to innovate.

Ok, so a school isn’t ready to drop 3K on each of its’ faculty for top of the line laptops and giant sized monitors. What can you do? Here again, I think I can pull another lesson from Dan’s blog. The key is sharing. Sharing with colleagues at your school ins’t enough, for a whole host of reasons. Often, one teacher might be the only physics or calculus or art history teacher in the school. Too often, conversations between colleagues can devolve into gripe sessions about institutional obstacles to change that can seem insurmountable and sap your energy. But when you connect with teachers across the nation, who share your interests, and have no interest in sitting around the faculty room complaining about the schedule, you’ll be amazed by the ideas you can find. I’m not discounting the incredible value of face-to-face connections with your colleagues, especially, if like me, you are lucky enough to work with a wonderfully talented faculty deeply interested in the craft of teaching. PLCs and PLTs are literally transforming our campus—but I think they operate at a completely different speed and level than world-wide collaborations with peers. PLCs tend to work at a steady, sometimes plodding pace, and eventually make tremendous progress by building great consensus along the way. However, they usually aren’t the incubators of a completely new lesson lesson or a radically different approach to grading, and this is because the very familiarity and goodwill that allows for steady incremental progress, resists radical change. But if you match a PLC up with a world-wide collaboration, you get the best of both worlds: an endless sea of incredible innovation, grafted with a steady march of progress and collaboration among your colleagues.

So how do you do this? Could it really be as simple as getting every teacher on Twitter and set up reading RSS? Well, no. Twitter and RSS sound like the clueless bimbo and uber-nerd of technlogydom to the uninitiated. This is where your technology staff will do the incredibly hard work of selling the value of these tools for collaboration. They will need to show your faculty how amazing these technologies are. This means at first, they will need to find the teachers for them to follow that will help them to see the value of twitter, they will need to find the blogs to add to their RSS feed about photography, physics or whatever their interests may be that will convince them that RSS really is a custom newspaper of awesomeness just for you. This won’t be easy. According to our tech survey 92% of our faculty never of seldom use RSS (72% of those said never) and I doubt numbers at other schools are much different.

But don’t teachers already subscribe to journals in their discipline? Isn’t this good enough? No. I’ve subscribed to The Physics Teacher for 10 years, and every month, I love thumbing though the magazine, and I think—”gee, that’s a cool idea” but rarely do I ever do anything with it. Also, all the ideas in the journals are fully formed; they often seemed to be crafted by uber-teachers who never venture into my classroom (seriously, I’m going to study “Effective Torsion and Spring Constants in a Hybrid Translational Rotational Oscillator” with my 9th graders? ). The beauty of a blog is you get to see the process. You get to see how a teacher works through ideas, and makes them better, not in a single flash of insight, but through many, many iterations. Every little spelling and grammar error (it’s why I make so many), or admitted mistake is a subtle message of “see, you can do this too.”

These two things will be the source of ideas and inspiration that will transform classrooms at our school, and inevitably, once you read enough blog posts, you’ll start to comment. Then, shortly there after, you’ll think—why don’t I start my own blog? From there, you’ll find yourself on a trajectory for improving your ideas and teaching that really is super-exponential.

If I think of my own story of teaching, I was lucky to start almost immediately working for an incredible mentor who helped me to grow tremendously. In time, I went to a number of workshops that always gave me many great ideas keeping my progress on a positive, upward trajectory. A few years ago, when I started to discover some excellent bloggers, and my learning really started to take off. But I can safely say that all the learning I did int the past 10 years has easily been eclipsed by the learning I’ve done in the past 6 months of blogging. It is staggering.

So that’s my vision of the 21st century teacher. They borrow and share, frequently, deeply, relentlessly. Right now, the best tools I know for doing this are twitter, RSS and blogging, but that might change in a few years. Somehow, I doubt the tenant that sharing leads to growth will.

So I’ll close with a physics analogy. Maybe it’s good to thinking teaching as a random walk. Most of us are trying to get better, and so we bounce from new idea to new idea. It’s very hard to know what new things are really making a difference in our classroom, so we rarely find ourselves making much progress from where we started. It’s pretty easy to see that a random walk results in almost no progress, and probably a lot of frustration. This is exactly what electrons are doing in the wires inside your flashlight when the switch is off. I’d like to think of sharing, connecting with other teachers around the world as an electric field, a push that causes all the electrons in the wire to drift in one direction. They are still bouncing around randomly, but there is a net drift in one direction, improvement. And this drift is what is responsible for the lightbulb in your flashlight lighting up. Progress.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2011 8:34 am

    Fantastic post. What resonated with me the most was the comparison of a set of blog posts to a fully formed “Physics Teacher” article. I love it when the teachers I follow online give me a heads up of something they’re willing to try and then I love to keep following them to see how it goes. Someone on twitter recently said that if you only ever talk about your triumphs you’re not really sharing with the world.
    I’ve only been blogging seriously for the past few months and the same is true of twitter and they’ve been a fantastic few months. I’ve been doing the rss thing for years but adding to it a true though flawed voice has really helped me find my passion again.

  2. Stacy Chalmers permalink
    February 10, 2011 1:56 pm

    Really, this is quite inspirational. Thanks!


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