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Coming to Terms

2008 December 6

My wonderful new teaching partner, Tara, and I have had a number of conversations about a recent trend I’ve seen within my personal learning network to remove the word “technology” from our discussions about teaching and learning in a digital world (see, there! I just did it!).

We’ve developed all sorts of phrasing and terminology that seem to deliberately avoid using the word technology: 21st century, integration, eLearning, school 2.0, mLearning, digital literacy, etc. In fact, we seem to be coming up with words to describe what we’re doing with technology much faster than the general teaching population can catch on.

How many teachers in your school know what the term “21st century literacy” (or any of the above terms) means? I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that it’s not too many people.

It seems that we’re developing this terminology for several reasons (in my opinion):

  • We don’t want it to be all about the technology – of course, that’s the change we’re talking about, but it’s still all about the learning, right?
  • We don’t want to scare teachers off – and we all know “technology” can be scary, so let’s just take it out of the conversation.
  • We want to avoid the “oh I’m not responsible for teaching technology” phenomenon, we want to make it clear that teaching these skills are everyone’s responsibility. If you teach safety with scissors and safety with strangers, you should also be teaching safety online.

But here are the problems:

  • We seem to go through these terms quicker than anyone else can catch up, coining phrases and dropping them, saying they are passe already. To the general teaching population, I’m not sure that’s true. We’re just making it harder and harder for teachers to stay current by moving faster and faster in our shared language about teaching and learning.
  • If the terminology is too vague or not transparent enough, it’s easy to say “I’m already doing that” – even when you’re not doing it in the way that reflects new methods of learning. What teacher doesn’t work on communication or collaboration or creating in class?

I believe we are all technology teachers because of the very fact that technology is so tightly woven into the fabric of our society, but does everyone feel that way? And if they don’t, are we helping them build their understanding of that reality if we’re constantly removing the critical facet of the terms and then changing them so quickly? I think it’s great to have online discussions about terminology, but I’m wondering about the link between the philosophical debates educators might have among themselves, and then bringing something useful back to the institutions we work in.

And here’s the thing, in the end, what we’re asking teachers to do is different than what they’re already doing. Even though I believe digital/visual/media literacy is just literacy, and even though I would love if every teacher understood that shift, the reality is that is not the case. So, we do need a commonly understood label or a term or a name that will help teachers understand that we are asking for different teaching and learning experiences. We are expecting changes in the classroom that reflect the changes in society.

So, how can we ask them to make changes if we’re not describing that change in our everyday language? Is there a way we can find some terminology that both represents this constantly changing learning landscape, but also is meaningful for our colleagues that aren’t as involved in the world of educational technology?

What do you think?

No Responses leave one →
  1. December 6, 2008

    I love your reflective pieces. They always make me think, and that promotes change, and change promotes learning.

    Maybe that’s all we need to do when encouraging individual teachers and facilitating educational development in teams. Forget the emphasis on the technology, the tools and the bling. Highlight the importance of change itself – let the people own the concept, and you may find they will seek out change agents themselves.

  2. December 6, 2008

    Kim,
    I think that you are right on with your assessment of us technology teachers expecting the rest of the teaching population to catch on to all the new terminology because it is our world and we become so accustomed to using it within our PLN’s. I have been thinking a lot about what it would mean to integrate technology seamlessly into the school that I work at. We have no shortage of technology or funds (for now) to purchase new technology. However, it still doesn’t get used. I think that one of the major reasons (aside from teachers not understanding how to use it or feel comfortable with it) is that they are still teaching in a traditional 1950′s classroom where the teacher is lecturer and the student regurgitates the information back at some point. Technology of any kind feels forced in this environment because it is. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that there has to be a fundamental change in the way that we teach before technology will make sense in the classroom. Technology lends itself very well to a classroom where students are active participants in their learning and where there is project based learning occuring. Until the shift in teaching happens, technology is just acting as a replacement for an outdated tool and students aren’t truly learning 21st century literacy skills. My new goal is to stop talking technology at all and start helping teachers realize that the students in their class are bored because they aren’t being involved in their learning. I want to help them see the exponential potential of shifting teaching away from teacher as leader to teacher as coach. When this shift begins to happen, I believe it will be easier for teachers to see the value and benefits that technology brings to the classroom.

  3. December 7, 2008

    Like you I worry that the use of the terms and jargon confuses them. On the other hand if we don’t use these terms when they do go to interact in the online world we are making the task harder for them. Classic Catch 22 situation.

  4. December 7, 2008

    @Borborigmus,

    Thanks! I agree about focusing on the change itself. I guess I’m struggling to figure out how to make that relevant, concrete, and easily understandable – especially for teachers who may not want to change…

    @Kelly,

    Yes, you have hit the nail on the head (and reminded me that I have another post to add to my list) – this change is more about constructivist, student-centered instruction than about technology or society. If teachers are still teaching in a direct-instruction method, technology isn’t going to help make it student centered. At some point, someone said (I wish I could remember who, because I really want to find that post!): technology is just an amplifier – if you’re not a good teacher, technology isn’t going to make you any better. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    @Sue,

    Totally a Catch 22…. I wish we could do something about it though!

  5. December 7, 2008

    Love your posts Kim. I have been struggling with the same thoughts and title shift etc. in my role also (I’m an Instructional Technology Specialist). I think it is important to have these conversations about titles because they help us to reevaluate our role in the school. They help us focus our thoughts on what we really should be doing. And eventually, at some point, it would be nice to have some standard title that really helped us as we help teachers.

    I personally don’t use my title much when I explain to teachers how I can help them. I’ve shifted my explanation to teachers and focus on the teaching and learning. I usually explain my role by saying something to the effect of “teaching and learning IS changing and my job is to help you meet this change and technology is one way of doing that”. Usually my first presentation to a new group of teachers that I haven’t worked with before is on teaching and learning and I only touch on the technology at the end of the presentation. I try to establish myself from the beginning as a teaching and learning expert and not as a technology expert.

    This has worked well for me. I’ve really just let the title go. I hardly use it. I don’t think that is the solution but that is where I’ve gotten. Our titles are ambiguous and the nice thing about that is that you can change the roles as needed. :)

  6. December 8, 2008

    @Katie,

    I totally agree about approaching my job as a teaching and learning specialist and I usually take the same approach as you when introducing myself and how I can support teachers. I guess I’m thinking more about how we define teaching and learning, how that definition is changing, and how difficult it is for non-edtech-focused teachers to follow. If we don’t come up with language to describe that change that others can understand, are we just leaving them even further behind? Job titles aside, the everyday language of teaching and learning with technology is usually not quite as approachable as it could be (in my opinion).

  7. December 8, 2008

    I agree with needing to have language about what teaching and learning means now. I usually do a presentation called Teaching and Learning in the Conceptual Age (pulling heavily off Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind). I’ve tweaked the presentation a lot but my first version is up on slideshare (http://www.slideshare.net/kchristo/teaching-learning-in-the-conceptual-age). I think we are leaving teachers behind at the moment. I try to stay away from all of the catch terms that are popular now and try to go back to language such as Pink’s Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. I also try to tie the importance of it to the fact that these students need to be prepared for a different world with different jobs. Sometimes it sticks and sometimes it doesn’t.

  8. December 10, 2008

    @Katie,

    I love the idea of using Dan Pink’s terms – they are definitely readily accessible to anyone. You’ve gotten me thinking about ways that I might revamp my upcoming presentations to reflect more easily digestible concepts, as well as bringing in the bigger ideas from published literature. Love your slideshow too! Thanks for sharing!

  9. December 14, 2008

    Whenever I’m helping out teachers it helps me to think of them as a class of students, and so I approach any explanations and new terms just the way I would with a class of kids.

    I really like the points you made Kim, about using the terminology and then dropping it so quickly that people can’t keep up, and how if the terminology is too vague then it’s too easy to say we are doing something. I think there is a bit too much of that going on, and not enough critical thinking about the content that is being presented with this shiny technology with all it’s fancy terminology. Maybe if the focus is more on the content, which is the thing that teachers can relate to, then the terminology for whatever new stuff is needed won’t be so threatening.

  10. December 15, 2008

    I totally agree! In my recent training sessions, I have made a point to ask my attendees if they have heard the terms “21st Century Skills,” “Web 2.0,” “Information Literacy,” or “Digital Literacy,” and for the most part they haven’t heard any of these terms. I think that as people and educators that are fluent in these areas we almost get tired of hearing these terms by the time the general teaching public is just getting their minds wrapped around how they can be used in education.
    Another thing I like to do in my sessions is point out that I was never a “technology teacher” until I took my current position as an Instructional Technology Specialist. Prior to this job, I was a middle school science teacher that used technology as an instructional tool to engage learners and to connect the learning to my students’ lives. I started doing this when I noticed that so many “core” teachers were starting to write-off some of my instruction because I’m “techie” and that’s why I am able to use these skills and tools in instruction. They started feeling that my suggestions were “pie in the sky dreams” and that real-world teachers could never use all the fantastic tools out there because they are too complicated or require too much time to teach to students. I think most teachers are simply scared to not look like experts in front of their students – so they are afraid to try new tools in their classrooms. I think that most teachers are afraid to let their students be the “experts,” which most students are experts when it comes to technology.
    Funny enough, when I asked students in some sessions a while back if they knew the terms I have been teaching educators, the students didn’t know them either. But, it is because they are using so many of those skills and tools in their lives outside of school, they didn’t even know to tie any kind of definition to them – they were just cool ways of using technology.

  11. December 16, 2008

    @Jess,

    I totally agree about thinking of teachers as our students! I also agree that we are now able to package poor learning and understanding in such a way that it looks much better than it really is. Whatever we’re doing with classroom teachers should always be about helping students build their understanding – not just showing off what can be done with new tools.

    Now what I’m thinking about is being able to demonstrate curricular understanding but also being able to do that in a networked, connected way – who’s responsible for that aspect of the curriculum? And is that the part that needs a name people can understand and relate to? Or is that something we’re just leaving up to the individual teacher?

    @emisegadis,

    Yes! I love the way you’ve stated this:

    I think that as people and educators that are fluent in these areas we almost get tired of hearing these terms by the time the general teaching public is just getting their minds wrapped around how they can be used in education.

    I think you’re right on that teachers are afraid of not being the experts, and I think using language that doesn’t directly represent what we really mean definitely doesn’t help them feel more comfortable.

    It is interesting that students don’t know or relate to these terms, but I guess it’s similar to the way they wouldn’t really know or relate to the term “pedagogy” or “constructivist” – it’s just learning to them. Just like our new fancy terminology for technology…

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