Have you heard that consistent buzzing noise around campus of late? No doubt that is the sound of your entire faculty feverishly scurrying about to transform their classroom, lesson plans, and in some cases, their entire teaching philosophy to meet the challenges of the 2020-2021 school year. While educators everywhere merely kept their heads above water last spring when the pandemic first hit, we all are hitting the ground at a full sprint this year, hoping to capitalize on all we learned during those few tumultuous months, while balancing changing conditions on campus and in our communities.
And change isn’t easy, is it teachers?
As this current school year races down the highway, social media has, at times, painted a rather rough picture of the daily struggles teachers have been navigating and dodging from one day to the next. While reading those posts, I find myself wanting to reach out to every one of you just to say, “Take a deep breath…it’s all going to be alright.” The stress and pressure you all are feeling to learn new platforms while balancing distance & hybrid learning environments and so much more is overwhelming entire school communities and maybe more important, it is overwhelming teachers. And while I recognize the emotional strain, we all must endure during this time; I am also fearful these new stressors will cause us to miss a tremendous opportunity to positively shift education for students and teachers everywhere.
With all we have experienced and uncovered in the past 6 months, I truly believe that shift must come in the form of a unified effort to develop a successful path toward digital transformation in our schools across the country. Even pre-pandemic, Education as an industry has been among the slowest to comprehensive change and it is blatantly obvious in how our students and teachers are falling behind. While technology rapidly overtakes nearly every aspect of our lives (often with very positive benefits, I might add), there are entire communities without working internet or access to devices for students, schools & districts whose leaders fail to provide proper training & support for their teachers, and an overall tendency to apply the same methods of teaching year after year to a vastly different generation of learners.
So where does this digital transformation adventure begin and how do we get to the starting line? Every teacher’s path may start at a slightly different location, but I believe there are 5 key elements teachers should reflect upon before transforming their digital teaching practice. You will undoubtedly notice the tips shared below have nothing to do with a specific website, platform, app, or any technology, really. Quite frankly, I believe the education industry has spent far too much time deciding what technological tools and devices to purchase rather than focusing on the core values and practices that help us to best connect with our students.
Regardless of where you are beginning your journey, these tips will help guide you toward making the impactful transformation you want and need for your students.
Make your transformation about the students
This probably goes without saying for most of you but, just in case, let us all agree that everything we do in our classrooms will be with the best interest of our students in mind. Truly, the only reason I say that off the top is that I see and hear from so many teachers who are focused on so many variables including tech issues, curriculum questions, and so much more. I know these concerns must be addressed, and the pressure to do so is more intense than ever given current conditions. But we need to ask ourselves questions like: How do students best learn? What are the best ways to give them feedback on their progress? How can we teach them to be resilient and show grit & determination?
Questions like these and many more will help us get back to focusing on meeting our students where they are and where they are going. And when you hit a snag with whatever tech tool you are using (because we know those will happen), re-ask yourself those questions above to bring it back to students.
Focus on Learning Over Grades/Tasks
As a high school teacher, the competition I see among students to get good grades and incredibly high standardized test scores to get into the college of their dreams is cut-throat and, in my opinion, completely misguided. Our students have largely become taskmasters and box checkers, not learners. They “do” an awful lot and are working so hard to complete homework while stressing over every point possible, in fear of not getting a high enough GPA to get into their dream school. We have absolutely lost our way and must return our focus back to learning over giving grades.
I promise the success and impact of your own personal digital transformation, as well as that of your students, hinges on your ability to re-establish a love for learning in your class. Whether that be rethinking your grading policies, creating more opportunities for students to have time for penalty-free reflection on what and how they are learning, or any other creative avenue you can implement, teachers everywhere must find ways to inspire their students to love the idea of learning and developing themselves as lifelong learners.
Maybe the single greatest way in which we learn the most impactful lessons in our lives is through failure. The lessons we have learned from our many failures make us who we are today and it is because of the times we learned how not to do things, that we are now able to do what we do with such confidence and success. In that sense, it is essential to ensure your digital transformation includes opportunities to give effective timely feedback and support to your students.
Close the Feedback Gap
Speaking of feedback, one stop along your digital transformation adventure must be at the creation of meaningful, timely opportunities for feedback on how your students are progressing. Let us also all agree that we need to take some pressure off us teachers. No teacher has enough time in the day to give the kind of feedback and support we would like to without enlisting the help of some digital tools.
Pick tools and apps that do one or more of the following:
1. Automate feedback so students can track their own progress in real time. Take some of the pressure of you to “grade” everything and create more time to work with the students who need your direct support.
2. Provide opportunities for self-guided instruction where students at all learning levels can make progress without you having to lead them through every step.
3. Create opportunities for students to reflect and self-assess. There is nothing more powerful than seeing a student work through a process of verifying a solution to a question or problem on their own.
4. Allow opportunities for students to make mistakes without penalty, which can inspire them to seek out additional opportunities to “fail forward”, rather than feel as though they are being punished by taking away points.
5. “Teach them that not knowing, is NOT failing.” I heard this quote in a TEDx Talk by Dan Finkel, a Math teacher who discussed the importance of creating students who don’t “hate math.” I just love this idea and am excited myself to share this with my students.
Focus on Growing 21st Century Skills
While I still believe in the importance of a broad approach to the curriculum our students learn throughout their K-12 experience, over the past several years at the high school level I have seen an alarming emphasis placed on memorizing and regurgitating “Google-able” facts. Sure, having a certain level of factual competence is important in any course, job, or situation we face in our lives. But I think we can all agree, what we use most often in our adult lives are skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.
As you evolve in your journey through digital transformation, consider ways you can leverage tech tools to still connect students to these four core competencies, while also ensuring they are mastering the learning targets of your grade level or subject. If students exit their K-12 experience with nothing more than a long list of facts they know, then we have done them a huge disservice.
Play is Ok!!!
When is the last time you watched a toddler figure out Lego’s or a puzzle for the first time? The joy on their face is inspiring and surreal at the same time. Not only is that play time great for stimulating curiosity and exploration, but it also inspires a love of learning and accomplishment in the toddler almost immediately.
Selecting digital tools and platforms that allow for this type of “play time” can help teachers create a similar joy inside of the classroom. I recognize that school can’t always be fun, but it sure would be a whole lot easier on teachers if students found the entire process a bit less intimidating from one year to the next.
About the author
Scott is the Director of Educational Technology at Santa Margarita Catholic High School and is charged with leading the schools Ed Tech Program for its 1650 Students and 115 Teachers. SMCHS is a proud Microsoft Showcase School and Scott is enjoying his 6th year as a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE) and his second year as an MIEE Fellow, connections which have all been instrumental in fostering Scott’s passion for growing and inspiring the appropriate use of technology in the classroom. He is also the co-host of the new Vodcast, "Live with US Microsoft EDU". An experienced presenter and public speaker, Scott loves presenting ideas to audiences everywhere and motivating attendees to focus on identifying the “WHY” behind everything they do. He has recently presented on the pedagogy & best practices behind Blended Learning, and is also creating a series of sessions on using brain research to guide teaching methods and practices. He hopes to continue being a changemaker in the world of Education as our industry evolves significantly over these next months and years.