Teach carpentry, not hammer | Future-proofing NZ schools

What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology…No amount of technology will make a dent…. You’re not going to solve the problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can put a website in every school – none of this is bad. It’s bad only if it lulls us into thinking we’re doing something to solve the problem with education.”  (Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, Wired magazine, 1998)

Hands-up all those of you with a box of painstakingly drawn OHTs (=overhead transparencies, Google it if you’ve never seen them) or a beautifully tidy cupboard of VHS tapes, preserved on dusty shelves and neatly catalogued? I’ve got a few of those tapes knocking about at home – the six year old’s scan at 20 weeks, my first bungee jump, a few ‘80s movies (big hair! Big shoulder pads!). All of these are testament to a bygone era when OHT was cutting edge, and VHS was the way we all recorded film for posterity. Their poor, sad, dusty selves are testament, too, to the speed at which technology changes around us, developing incrementally at speeds never before seen. Top YouTube hits like ‘Shift Happens’  reflects this move, as does this infographic comparing the internet of 1996 and today [too large to reproduce here].

Schools would be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the task of keeping up with each new development. No sooner have we purchased interactive whiteboards, then laptops are in. We’ve just bought the laptops, and now iPads are de rigeur. Don’t buy that textbook, you can just download the e-version. How will you make the most of broadband on your doorstep? We would be forgiven, too, for feeling somewhat at the mercy of the technology corporations who seek to market each new device as the solution for educators. Certainly, Oppenheimer (1997)[1], Cuban (2001)[2] and Postman (2000)[3] have all explored the idea of schools being aggressively sold technology on the premise of improved results, efficiency, and the urgent need to prepare students for the digital future. There are certainly plenty of e-cheerleaders around to urge us on. And similar movements happened with the advent of radio, of film, of TV…

So, how can we keep our heads when others around us are losing theirs? Especially if they have the keys to the budget, to your professional development, or to your schools’ charter?

To future-proof a school, in terms of technology and ICTs, seems like an impossible task in which we are forever Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, racing against time.

What do we mean by ‘future-proofing’?

I think it’s important not to think of future-proofing as making decisions so sound that they won’t need to be changed.

But in the context of schooling, I would suggest that future-proofing is understanding that we have always lived in changeable times, and that schools need systems, processes and people in a state of preparedness to anticipate developments, to respond to possible challenges and to embrace opportunities. Sound curriculum and effective pedagogy may change, but we don’t have to update to a new version of these every few weeks. Much of what we know about effective schooling, change management and leadership is supported by sound, longitudinal, international research; this is our rock to cling to when the waves of technological change threaten to swamp us.

As the title of this piece asserts, we need carpentry for tomorrow, not a hammer for today[4]. In other words, we should think in terms of fostering schools’ reflexivity and students’ competencies for a changing future, not (just) to manage a single task for today.

If schools are to think about future-proofing themselves to manage the technological developments ahead, they need the capability to review what they can already do, understand where they want to go next and plan how to get there, as part of an on-going cycle of review and reflection.

So….how we might future-proof ourselves? Here are five thoughts to get you started…..

1.     Keep the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa as our touchstones

These are our foundation documents for visioning, strategic planning, curriculum development and pedagogical design. If this is the starting point for decision-making, schools can feel sure that the rationale behind their choices, during periods of change, is more justified than making decisions on gut-feeling or because the school down the road is doing it.

2.     Inquire, inquire, inquire

A school that is flexible, secure in its processes and strategy is one that can respond to change in an uncertain environment. The inquiry model (adapted for the Best Evidence Synthesis series) is one that has permeated through resources on leadership, professional development and quality teaching, because it is crucial that schools, and teachers, can reflect and review on what they do, based on evidence purposely gathered. Again, decisions can be made based on firm foundations, not spur of the moment hunches.

3.     Build capability to use technologies effectively for teaching and learning

Part of a schools’ inquiry into how it is progressing might be done using a self-review tool (an e-capability model) and there are several to choose from, depending on your focus. The Ministry of Education is currently developing e-Learning Planning Framework for use in schools in 2012. The Māori-medium framework will be scoped in 2012, for possible development and use in 2013.

This framework will be a planning tool to help all teachers and organisations in New Zealand undertake a self-review of how effectively they use ICTs to enhance students’ learning (their e-capability).  The framework will provide a ‘road map’ for schools to identify where they are, the practical steps they can take, and relevant information or services to support them. Key areas of focus include the way e-learning can be enhanced through: leadership, professional learning, teaching and learning, digital citizenship, connections to the community, and technologies/infrastructure.

4.     Keep your finger on the pulse

Change is certain – but what is not so certain is how much we know about what is changing around us. This is where keeping in touch comes in – and technology can make this efficient and accessible. Teachers and school leaders can build their personal/professional learning networks (PLNs) to connect with other schools and clusters. Where to start?:

  • Subscribe to useful news feeds and blogs using RSS/Google Reader.
  • Participation in forums and online communities, such as Enabling e-Learning communities, can provide a flexible space to share ideas, resources and aspects of our practice.
  • Build your PLN.

5.     Foster digital citizens

Can we future-proof our students? This is where the Key Competencies comes in – and, through a digital lens, these can be described as competencies for digital citizenship. Through effective curriculum planning and teaching, we can enhance students’ abilities to behave with integrity and responsibility online, build their digital literacy skills and maximize the opportunities online safely.

Further reading: New Zealand

Further reading: International

[1] Oppenheimer, T. (1997). The computer delusion. The Atlantic Monthly 280(1), 45-62.

[2] Cuban, L. (2001). Oversold and underused: Computers in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Postman, N. (2000). Some new gods that fail. In The Jossey-Bass on technology and learning. San Francsico, CA: Jossey-Bass inc.

[4] The original quote is from Oppenheimer’s The Computer Delusion: “Michael Bellino, an electrical engineer at Boston University’s Center for Space Physics, stated in a protest against computers that, “The purpose of the schools [is] to…’Teach carpentry, not hammer,'” he testified. “We need to teach the whys and ways of the world. Tools come and tools go. Teaching our children tools limits their knowledge to these tools and hence limits their futures.” (http://www.tnellen.com/ted/tc/computer.htm)


[This piece was originally published in the NZATE English in Aotearoa Journal, October 2011. Theme: Future-proofing education.]

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