Sunday, 27 January 2008

Action plans for 21st-century schools

What does it take to tangibly change a school's culture to embrace 21st-century technology and the pedagogy required to truly benefit from it? More and more in-service training? Motivational outside facilitators, consultants and lectures to enlighten teachers? Or simply systematic grassroots activity and small, gradual changes, which would, hopefully in time, lead to a more profound paradigm shift in all teachers' classroom practices?

Last week, having a later morning to school and walking into the building from the parking lot, I was struck that the scene I saw in all the classroom windows was exactly the same - students sitting (many of them snoozing!) in their neat rows of desks, as usual, while the teachers were gesticulating in front. This reality was even more pronounced when I walked to the staff room through the hallway, and all I could hear from each and every classroom, was nothing but the teacher's monotonous voice. What, I wondered, was the majority of teachers' perception about their role as educators? Indeed, even though the world has changed tremendously since my childhood, has anything much deeply changed in education?

Pondering about how to bring about change at the school level, I am more and more convinced that it should be initiated inside the school and then gradually spread to involve more and more teachers until everybody has internalised the benefits and principles.

Jeff Utecht's recent post inspired by Marc Prensky's article in Edutopia about the process of technology adoption as a tool for school evaluation at first made me feel quite inadequate and inferior, and my school seem a real backward peripheria of dabblers. The proposed stages were:

1. Dabbling with technology
2. Doing Old things in Old Ways
3. Doing Old things in New Ways
4. Doing New things in New Ways

What if we turned these stages of technology adoption into questions that an evaluator could use during the evaluation process?

1. Is the technology being used “Just because it’s there”?
2. Is the technology allowing the teacher/students to do Old things in Old ways?
3. Is the technology allowing the teacher/students to do Old things in New ways?
4. Is the technology creating new and different learning experiences for the students?

On second thoughts, though, I realized that we will all have to start somewhere. Schools often seem to be rather closed fortresses effectively resisting any drastic changes, with many teachers as their most vocal and fierce guards. No wonder, since schools as institutions, at least in my country, have, since the very beginning, had the important role of preserving the traditions of a nation and ensuringthat they are passed on to the new generations. Yet, in the fast-moving modern world, where change is the order of the day, that limited old role is in dire need of expanded horizons or school education will soon become too stagnant, if not plain obsolete.

Seen positively from the point of view of school development, the above stages are quite useful. For example, I realized that a lot of my dissatisfaction with my school stems from me having my eyes firmly fixed on stage 4 and expecting sudden miracle transformations while most of my colleagues are happily stuck in stage 1, with no further goals or ambitions in this department. A prolific, readily sharing and innovative Finnish edublogger, Anne Rongas, wrote these stages as a teacher's path into the web (NB. my free translation from Finnish):

Technical stage: familiarizing yourself with the tools
Material bank stage: making use of the web as a channel for distribution and storage of materials
Interactive stage: applying the communicative tools of ICT to teaching
Net pedagogical stage: versatile pedagogical use of the web
The stage of openness and socializing: the creative development of new applications with colleagues and students
Obviously, school administrators - or those in power - need to have a clear vision about the goal and the schedule and procedures to reach it. Random grassroots experiments by a few teachers won't alone make any difference on the school level, however successful and meaningful they might be to the particular teachers and the students groups they are teaching at the time. Without this shared vision, together with peer-to-peer sharing, a lot of schools will merely carry on dabbling, and even believing that simply equipping their classrooms with state-of-the-art technology will qualify them as 21st-century establishments.

Thanks to the blogosphere, not every school needs to reinvent the wheel, but we can now learn from how these same questions have been tackled around the world.

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