Over the past 20 years, school reform efforts have identified teacher professional development as a key component of change and as an important link between standards and student achievement. After all, as students are expected to learn more complex and analytical skills in preparation for work and life in the “21st century global economy,” teachers in turn must be expected to teach in ways that develop those higher order thinking and performance skills, experts say.
Recognizing the importance of the matter, President Obama and congressional leaders included $650 million in the federal stimulus package for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) state grant program—25 percent of which must be used for professional development on the best uses of technology—that will begin flowing to schools later this month. Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), says students not only learn differently now but that the world they inhabit today is so radically different that educators would be “silly” not to keep up with the changes.
But are they?
A new report from the National Staff Development Council, Professional Learning in the Learning Profession, basically says no. The researchers say that as a nation we have “failed to leverage professional development to ensure that every educator and every student benefits from highly effective professional learning.”
Andrea Prejean, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, which runs its own online professional development program called the NEA Academy, agrees with the claims laid out in the report but remains optimistic about the future. The findings do not stem from a lack of trying, she says, but perhaps an unsatisfactory implementation of poorly conceived programs.
Knezek has doubts about the findings’ veracity. “Over the last five years, if you were to pick a random educator out of a hat, yes, that would probably be true,” he admits. “But there are pockets of schools where that is definitely not the case.”
Talk to educators and practitioners knee deep in the practice of improving teaching and learning and you’ll find a nascent pedagogical movement. More than 40 states have adopted standards calling for effective professional development for all educators accountable for results in student learning—with “technology integration” often front and center. And as educators put such standards into action, they are producing profound technology results for themselves and students.
Teachers Teaching Teachers
The Teacher Leadership Project, a nationally recognized, award-winning professional development model that is used in 18 states by 4,200 teachers, is a prime example of the good work being done in technology-infused teaching.
It started in the mid-1990s when the Northwest Educational Service District 189 in Anacortes, Wash., passed a large technology bond that allowed the district to put four computers in every classroom. But teachers didn’t exactly give the machines a run for their money.
Several teachers were hired as technology coaches and given stipends in exchange for training other teachers how to use an electronic grade book, access e-mail and the Internet, and save files to the network. But within two years many of the machines were sitting in the backs of classrooms collecting dust.
Becky Firth, director of the district’s Technology Leadership Center and one of the former technology coaches, says the skill-based training was done with a “just in case” attitude, not a “just in time” philosophy. Teachers forgot what they’d learned, and enormous energy was spent retraining them again and again.
“There’s a lot of technology in classrooms,” Firth says, “but not a lot of modeled training on how it can be used to transform education.”
So in the summer of 1997, funded by a small grant from the Gates Foundation, a group of 27 educators throughout Washington state gathered to explore how technology could improve student learning—an effort that has since transformed to become the Teacher Leadership Project.
The program is designed by educators, for educators. It consists of an intensive summer institute followed by online training sessions and immerses its participants in the training taught by other TLP teachers who have implemented the philosophy in their own classrooms. It has been identified as an exemplary professional development model and adopted by other organizations, and a three-day version, called the Teacher Leadership Seminar, was added to Intel’s Teach to the Future Master Teacher Training in 2000. The Mississippi Department of Education also implemented the program between 2000 and 2003 and received training for more than 100 of its teachers. TLP teachers have gone on to become district administrators, curriculum specialists, technology directors and integration specialists.
The model is designed to cultivate student skills such as collaboration, problem solving, and creative thinking. Firth feels that technology presence may be growing in schools, but many educators fail to conceptualize it as a constructivist tool—as a means to inject more project-based teaching methods into the classroom.
One classroom module part of TLP’s training is the “widget lesson,” which puts students in groups to select a country where a “widget company” should relocate or expand, based on factors such as the country’s economics, literacy rates, education and climate. The students aren’t told what the company produces—the “widget” is an unnamed good or service—and they must focus solely on the country’s characteristics to develop a business model. Alternatively, they can select a product on their own and devise a business model for an appropriate country. Firth says an example of one group’s work may be a plan to start an umbrella manufacturing business for a country in the middle of its monsoon season. Other TLP teaching methods may include lessons on Internet search skills, student digital media projects using software such as Microsoft Photo Story, and documentary filmmaking.
Experts agree that one of the strongest professional development programs for both teachers and administrators—with its philosophy of engagement and support services for big-picture uses of technology—is Enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies (eMINTS), a program that aims to create classrooms where all students are motivated to succeed and to build enthusiasm and creativity into daily teaching.
Teachers tend to be skeptical of technology for any classroom solutions longer than the short term, says Monica Beglau, director of the eMINTS National Center. “We build their capacity to adopt a long-term approach to using technology in the classroom,” Beglau says.
The program, which has trained 3,500 teachers and 300 administrators since its formation in 1999, places a special emphasis on school administrators through its eMINTS 4 Administrators companion program, as their understanding of education technology is critical to support teachers every stp of the way, says Beglau.
The eMINTS 4 Administrators yearlong program is designed to provide principals and other school or district administrators with the knowledge, skills and support they need to implement the eMINTS model schoolwide. Beglau says it is not uncommon for an administrator to participate in the program before any of her teachers do, as an initial point of contact to gain information about the program.
So what kinds of technology applications does eMINTS foster and support? Many teachers in the program have adopted an instructional planning model called WebQuests, which uses open source Web authoring and publishing resources as well as blogs, wikis and podcasts for teachers to build their own Web pages for inquiry-based classroom activities.
One lesson comes from Chris Crites, a teacher at East Carter R-II School District in Ellsinore, Mo., who designed a Webquest for fourth-graders to plan a dream bedroom, including a floor plan, Power-Point presentation, and a graph to show how they would spend a $500 budget. The lesson, dubbed “Trading Design Spaces”— a titular fusion of the popular television shows Trading Spaces and Design on a Dime—leads students through a series of online activities that cover the concepts of area, perimeter and money computation, as well as supplies and shipping charges.
“Today a lot of emphasis is placed on mastery of basic skills,” says Beglau, “but what we really need is for complex material to be understood as deeply as possible. Technology can offer us a way to achieve that.”
Whether technology integration professional development programs are effective in their implementation or not, the question remains: What is their ultimate utility? What qualities in students—and educators—should their training really be striving to build and support?
Some see the situation in fairly practical terms, emphasizing the importance of problem-solving skills.
“Let’s say a student is doing some research and 300 million search results show up on Google,” says NEA’s Andrea Prejean. “Students need to know which ones to use.”
But if the concept of “technology integration” in schools is looked at from a more holistic perspective, its ideals almost appear to go against each other.
Everyone agrees that technology in the classroom is an important tool, and students will have great difficulty succeeding in a 21st-century world without it. However, many education experts also say that “technology integration,” in the end, is not really about technology but rather the life skills it instills in students and teachers.
“The initial wave of giddiness about Web 2.0 tools has subsided somewhat as people find that technology is never the solution all by itself,” says Sylvia Martinez, president of curriculum provider Generation YES. “Forward-looking professional development sees the school as a whole community and includes students as partners and allies in the quest for educational improvement.”
“The whole ‘21st century’ mindset is more than technology itself,” says Beglau. “It’s the confidence teachers have to effectively use it in class.”
Prejean sees things even more broadly: “Technology is not the be-all, end-all, but it’s a tool. And we must learn how to deliver it better.”
Zach Miners is news editor.