Technology: Do I HAVE To?

Today's New York Times features a program in Idaho that is pushing computers and computer-based instruction into every high school in the state, much to the chagrin of teachers who are already teaching successfully with traditional methods.

While Idaho may seem a long way from tech-saturated locales like Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle, I've been following Idaho for some time, ever since learning about the distance-learning teachers who were using computers to instruct students in the state's many isolated, mountain locations.

This step, though, is huge.  And the top-down approach the state is taking is doomed, I believe.

Trust me, I teach in a state whose leaders' love of innovation is matched only by their disinterest in teachers' opinions.

First, the policy doesn't include teacher buy-in (there was no mention of teacher training in the article, but I'm going to give Idaho the benefit of the doubt and assume that there will be dozens of hours provided--and paid for--per teacher).  Worse than the idea of Idaho students being trapped with 20th-century learning tools to me is the thought of classrooms where student computers are gathering dust or being used sporadically.

When I was just starting my teaching careers, a mentor told me, "James, there are two types of teachers:  speedboats and barges.  The speedboats need to be able to get where they're going; the barges need to get out of the way."  There will always be "barges" in teaching--and many of those barges will be very good teachers, despite the lack of gee-whiz teaching methods and technologies.  And to be honest, "speedboats" like me often need barges to keep us focused on which direction along the river we need to go.

Technology in the classroom is needed for American students, but there is a right way to get there, a very, very simple way:

  • A simple series of financial incentives would encourage teachers to get the necessary training and implement the policy, especially if the state or school district is willing to provide the computers upon completion
  • Can we get over the "us vs. teachers' unions" argument?  The Idaho politicians are clearly trying to use this argument in supporting the policy, despite over 75,000 signatures of a petition against the radical policy.  Teachers' unions are the teachers.  As a manager, I would rather work with one union than have 75,000 teachers e-mailing me and raising hell.
  • Jobs matter.  One motivation mentioned by Times writer Matt Richtel is the desire to cut teaching jobs.  As much as I love bringing technology into my English and German classes, my family comes first. I'm not going to adopt a policy that will lead to my replacement.  Assuring teachers that jobs will remain stable, even for a set period of 10 years or so, would go a long way towards increasing buy-in.

My classroom is paperless. I would love a state-issued laptop for myself and my students.  But my classroom and use of technology didn't come on the orders of some politician or local bureaucrat.  I wanted to develop it, and because it came from me--and not from "on high"--it will work for my students.

Teachers aren't widgets.  We got into teaching because we had a lot of ideas (about teaching, about kids, about our content area) that we couldn't wait to practice in the classroom.  We are lifelong learners who can adapt, given the right circumstances.  We are warriors who will fight back at any sign of disrespect or coercion.