One of my professional mentors is Tom Many — longtime superintendent in the Chicago area and full-time consultant with expertise in setting up professional learning communities.  Tom — who writes a regular bit for the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association — reached out a few months back, looking to interview me for a column on teaching with technology.

Thought you’d be interested in the conversation that we had:

Tom: I often hear that technology motivates kids?

Bill: The notion that technology increases a student’s motivation to learn, Tom, is fundamentally flawed.  While it is true that today’s kids are comfortable with technology, being comfortable with technology is not the same as being motivated by it.  Sean Crevier – a business teacher in the Greater Chicago area – probably said it best when he argued that today’s kids are no more motivated by technology than they are by their shoes and socks.  To kids, technology is functional, not fantastic.

What really motivates today’s students are meaningful learning experiences built around the chance to do work that matters.  For example, the kids in my classroom are the most motivated when they are fighting global poverty or raising awareness about the sugars in the everyday foods that we eat.  While technology serves as an accelerant in both of these examples, the technology that we use is irrelevant.

Long story short:  Real power rests in the hearts and minds of teachers who are working together to design lessons that introduce students to required content and skills while they are solving real-world problems together.

Tom:  Another reason in support of using technology is that it results in higher levels of student engagement.

Bill:  I’m not a big fan of the notion that we can use technology to engage students, Tom, because it suggests that technology alone can overcome poorly designed lessons.  In fact, I’d argue that using technology to sweeten boring lessons is a lot like drowning Cheerios in sugar:  Today’s students are savvy enough to know that you are still serving Cheerios.

I’d even go as far as to say that trying to use technology to engage students is inadvertently insulting to kids because “engaging students” still fundamentally suggests that we are trying to teach our content and our skills without any effort to listen to the voices of the learners in our classrooms.

How would instruction change if our primary goal was to empower – instead of engage – our learners?  The beautiful part of technology is that it makes it possible for anyone to ask and answer their own questions and to work together to wrestle with knotty problems.  Shouldn’t we be designing lessons that show students how to actually leverage the learning potential in the devices that surround them?

Tom:  I am told that technology encourages kids to engage in higher level thinking, does technology increase the rigor of classroom lessons?

Bill:  Technology is never rigorous, Tom.  Tasks are.  When we spend time focused on the tools kids are using instead of the tasks that they are wrestling with, we inevitably end up failing ourselves, our communities and our kids.  Does technology make it possible for teachers to effectively and efficiently develop and deliver more rigorous tasks?  Sure.  But until we center our collective attention on tasks instead of tools, we’ll never increase the rigor of classroom instruction.

Tom:  Some argue that schools need to expose students to technology in order to better prepare them for the 21st Century.  Can you share any insights into that idea?

Bill:  The students who succeed in tomorrow’s world, Tom, will be those who learn to filter, manage and evaluate information in increasingly complex literate environments.  What’s more, the students who succeed in tomorrow’s world will be those who can build knowledge together through cycles of collaborative dialogue and who are skilled at solving problems that cross domains.  Finally, the students who succeed in tomorrow’s world will be those who can influence and persuade those around them.

That should be good news to teachers and schools because those skills – evaluation, persuasion, collaborative dialogue, problem solving – are skills that teachers are already comfortable with and believe in.

The difference is that technology makes it possible to for everyone to efficiently wrestle with those skills on a more regular basis.  So in a sense, I guess that exposing students to technology matters – but only because it will enable every kid to develop fluency with the skills that once only mattered to the small handful who were headed to college.  Divorced from those skills, however, exposing students to technology is somewhat pointless.

Tom:  I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the relationship between teaching, learning, and technology.  In closing is there anything else you would like to share?

Bill:  I guess I would like to close by saying again that there is no substitute for good teaching.  In order to better prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s world, it is far more important to have a school full of learning-savvy teachers than tech-savvy teachers.

The folks driving meaningful change in the classroom through the innovative use of digital tools aren’t tech geeks, they are teaching geeks.


Related Radical Reads:

Technology Gives Kids Power

Daniel Learned that He Had Power Yesterday

Should We Be Engaging or Empowering Learners?


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