Understanding the machine

Image: machine-free by jrtcollector-Sassy Bella Melange, made available by a creative commons license on flickr

All teachers need to get on to letting students create bigger and better things with them ā€” whether the teacher understands the machine or not. Topher

Now THERE is the rub. The past few years in education has marked a transition from teacher controlled environments to student-centered ones where teachers need to give up the traditional sense of authority and control for an increased sense of learning and authenticity in the classroom.

Project-based learning and learning that uses technology is scary for a teacher who doesn’t know about it. Traditionally, a teacher had all the answers. That is no longer true. Case in point – I taught the History of Quebec and Canada for the first time only about 4 years ago. I taught the course because 18 students had been targeted as needing resource support in order to have a chance at passing. I was the high school’s resource coordinator at the time and, as a joke, suggested I teach the course if so many students were going to need resource…and so I did. I hadn’t really thought about that History course in the 20 years since I had taken it (and passed with a glorious 54…). I was determined that the same thing would not happen to the students in my charge.

So, even though I did not really ‘understand the machine’ I agreed to teach these students. I taught them how to learn using various technologies, from print to digital, with history as the context. It was certainly challenging – imagine the task of making the history of Quebec and Canada come alive to a majority Native (Mohawk from Kanahwake) classroom. Not to mention that my students had been identified as struggling ones. The secret to their success – 16 of the 18 passed that course on the first try, the provincial average is much lower than that – was that I saw through the material to the kids. I identified their needs, their learning styles, their interests and I spent the year frantically finding technologies that would meet all of those things, that would meet these kids.

In order to do that I had to give up a certain sense of control, actually no. I did not give up control. I shifted it. Rather than being a holder of knowledge, I became a manager of learning. In fact, I had to be more on top of things to allow this to happen. I needed to create rubrics with clearly identified goals that all of my students were expected to meet. I needed to…well, you all probably know the many layers of things I needed to do, the point is that in order for this kind of a thing to work the role of the teacher needs to change and change can be very scary.

Dennis wrote, in a recent comment,

Justin and I are working on putting together some curricular attempts to answer those questions that you ask. An embedded tech curriculum based on thinking and collaborating and analyzing and creating and making decisions that can work alongside (and perhaps someday over) a curriculum based on knowledge content.

My wish for this project – which I think is central to where education needs to go – is that as much thought and care – if not more – is put into teacher support.

We need to support teachers as they go through these transitions, to support teachers as they teach in ambiguous times, to shift the emphasis from teaching history to kids to teaching kids how to learn history or math or geography or whatever. I’m not sure if we can really do that whether the teacher understands the machine or not my life would have been made MUCH easier if I hadn’t had to re-teach myself history that year, but I think that if we can teach teachers how and where to go for help in understanding the machine then we are doing a fabulous job.

When I ask a teacher what they teach, the answer is usually a subject. I want that answer to shift from a subject to the subjects who are the most important of all – the students.

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  • dharter says:

    I love it….what do you teach…I teach students.

    Reminds me of Taylor Mali’s “What do teachers make?”…they make a difference!

  • Tracy says:

    Christopher, I love that you wrote:

    …but until I know who Iā€™m going to be teaching, and how many, Iā€™m stuck at an exploratory stage

    I’m going to go into more detail later on today…I’ll let you know when!
    Here you go – a day late, but done :)
    The tao of teaching in ambiguity

  • Christopher says:

    Hi Tracy,

    I expect that I’ll be leading seminars of around 30 or so students in discussions of either ethics or introductory political theory) depending on which class I work as a teaching assistant in. The university that I’m a part of has had some aborted attempts at setting up blogging, and the closest thing to a ‘common’ digital network that students really have access to are their email accounts :p As I’ve worked in technology for several years now, and my MA thesis surrounds the philosophy of technology, I’d like to draw on more contemporary technological tools for the students, but until I know who I’m going to be teaching, and how many, I’m stuck at an exploratory stage.

  • Tracy says:

    Thank you mrsdurff – that site looks fabulous!

    I will take more time to look through it later today.

    It does seem like the kind of place that people who are already involved in tech will get excited about.

    How do we ensure that teachers who aren’t already excited about tech will learn from it?

    Hmmm…this is a question I have decided to address in my latest post, Preparing the waters for change.

  • mrsdurff says:

    heard of Class 2.0? Just such a community of which you speak. It is at http://classroom20.ning.com/

  • Tracy….. your shift towards a learner-centered approach in addition to your willingness to let go of the conventional “because I’m the teacher and this is the way it is going to be” approach is to be applauded and replicated! The work you did with these students reflects exactly what I feel Wesley Fryer was speaking about, and it echoes my own sentiments regarding Technology Education in my classroom. I am going to reference this post in my blog, in hopes that more people get the chance to stop and read it. Truly great stuff!


    Kevin Sandridge – http://www.notesfromtheridge.edublogs.com

  • Tracy says:

    Welcome Christopher and thanks for your comments! I love what I do – and I am all the more thankful of it this year, as I re-enter the classroom after a 1-year hiatus.
    I’m looking forward to hearing more about you and what you do – what age group of students will you be working with and what have you got in store for them?
    Keep in touch :)

  • Christopher says:

    Hi Tracy,

    I’m a masters student and as part of my preparation for some teaching in the fall I’ve begun to look at different ways to approaching students so that they can get the most out of their learning experiences. I’ve spent the past little while reading through several of your blog posts and have been blown away – your enthusiasm and ability to integrate technology and educationis very impressive. I expect that I’ll be reading your blog for a while, and just wanted to thank you for the sharing such wonderful tips, thoughts, and experiences.

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