In our Forward Thinking series, we speak to educational leaders and influencers to discuss how to move learning forward. From innovative assessment and data-driven instruction to student and parent engagement, and ed tech, we talk to the experts about how to build a better future. Today, we speak to Steven W. Anderson, a recognized expert in the infusion of technology in teaching and social media for learning about how to spot effective use of technology in the classroom.
FreshGrade: Steven, you’re a leader in your field when it comes to using technology in the classroom. How did you carve out this niche?
Steven W. Anderson: I taught sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, math and science for several years. One day, I took a workshop for a Clicker program and the workshop wasn’t going at the pace that worked for me. It was very drawn out and wasn’t related to what I was doing as a science teacher. So I went home and taught myself everything about the program I possibly could. When I came back, I hijacked the workshop and said, “I’m going to take all the science teachers, and I’m going to teach them over here.”
That’s when I had an epiphany that I could make a bigger impact by teaching teachers about how technology can be utilized in the classroom for learning. So, I got a master’s degree in instructional technology and worked in a couple positions at the school and district level. Today, work with teachers and schools and districts all over the world.
Over the course of the years, I’ve seen technology change and proliferate into the classroom with front-of-classroom displays replacing whiteboards and chalkboards. It’s incredible to think where we were just eight years ago, none of us knew we needed a tablet or a smartphone. It’s exciting to be a small part of that and see how change is happening in real time.
FreshGrade: What inspired you to become a teacher?
Steven: I have known for a very long time I was going to be a teacher. I have a picture where I’m about five years old, and I’ve just given my stuffed animals a spelling test, and I’m grading all their answers. I’ve always been passionate about learning and passionate about the classroom.
I initially wanted to go into music and be a band director but decided it wasn’t the course for me. Then I went over to elementary ed and said, “I’ll be a kindergarten teacher because that looks like fun. You get to play and be on the floor all day long.” And I went and did it for one day and I was totally and utterly exhausted. So, I finished my degree in middle grades, and I found my niche in middle school. I found where I belonged and teaching the age range of kids that I was most passionate about.
FreshGrade: How do you address the varying degrees of knowledge when you’re training educators and experience enthusiasm for technology?
Steven: I co-wrote a book with Tom Whitby called The Relevant Educator. When Tom and I talk about professional development (PD), one of the things we discuss is the way it traditionally centers around pedagogy — the teaching of children. We have to look at andragogy, the teaching of adults, to change the way we do PD.
Adults have different needs — we need to consider their previous experiences and their skill sets. You have to differentiate just like you would in the classroom, by providing opportunities for those who are advanced. In my workshop, for example, I wasn’t given an opportunity to go off on my own, but I had a larger skill set in terms of technology. The person who led the PD wasn’t differentiating, so I didn’t have my needs met.
We have to recognize that while we do have to reach the middle third because it’s the largest group, we also have to consider those who move a little slower or a little faster. We have to think about how we can differentiate for them, keeping in mind we’re not teaching kids, we’re teaching adults.
Steven: There’s no excuse for educators not to personalize their PD today. There’s a great quote from George Couros, who said, “Isolation is now a choice that teachers make”. It’s true we have so many options to connect with other educators, to learn from other people, from so many sites and services that are free and available. I can go out right now and learn anything I want to from a number of places for free. All it takes my time.
In the same vein, those who deliver PD, like myself, have to recognize not only do teachers need to find their own personalized PD, but they need to personalize PD in the moment, just as we would in the classroom. If we want to instill that value in teachers to go back in the classroom and personalize the learning environment for students, they have to personalize the learning environment for adults. The only way you can do that is if you know adult theory and you’re teaching adults where they are, not trying to teach adults as kids.
FreshGrade: As you lead PD, how do you identify those people, and how do you make it easier for all of those stakeholders to understand the value technology can bring to their classroom?
Steven: There’s an excellent framework I use with teachers called TPACK — Technological content and pedagogical knowledge. The TPACK model looks like a Venn diagram with three knowledge domains. You’re trying to get to the center, where there’s an equal blend of pedagogy, content, and technology. Generally, teachers who hit the center are the most effective and have many years of experience. I can’t give you content knowledge; you’ve got to know your content as a teacher. But I can work with you on pedagogy and how to deliver content through technology in your classroom.
What I found was those who either hadn’t been teaching for very long might have strong content knowledge, but they have very little pedagogy. When you layer technology into good content, if you don’t have good pedagogy, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t know your content and how to teach it, then layering technology is going to amplify your problems. When I go into PD, we talk a lot about how we make sure we’re content experts first.
We also need to make sure we’re teaching appropriately, so I do a lot of modeling. I’m getting ready to do a conference this week, and one of my sessions is on content curation. I’ll have teachers do an activity where they curate some content just like kids would in the classroom. That modeling, will help expose an understanding like, “Wow, I know I do this completely differently. I need to think about this from a pedagogical sense,” and then we can talk about the technology that enhances it.
Often good technology PD doesn’t center around the technology, it centers around the methods you use to teach kids.
When I rolled out Bring Your Own Device in my district, I would ask teachers, “What are your biggest concerns” and they all centered around the technology. What they didn’t realize is, when every kid is smarter than you because they have access to the entire Internet at their fingertips, your pedagogy has to change dramatically. Often good technology PD doesn’t center around the technology, it centers around the methods you use to teach kids.
FreshGrade: What are the biggest challenges of implementing change in education?
Steven: I think the biggest challenge is a lack of understanding of what type of leadership is needed for these changing environments. Most school leaders are organizational or business leaders, they’re not knowledge leaders. That often becomes an obstacle for teachers who want to radically change the way they teach in their classroom.
I would love to see more leaders trusting teachers to do what they think is best for kids and support them by learning together. What I’ve seen more times than not is, because they don’t understand why the learning environment needs to change, or why every kid should have access to a device, that’s when we see some disconnects between what is happening and what should happen.
FreshGrade: Do you have any tips for leaders for the effective use of technology in the classroom?
Steven: There are three easy ways to use technology that can have a tremendous impact on school culture. Those are:
Use technology to get rid of unnecessary faculty meetings. If you ask teachers the number one thing they want, they’ll tell you more time for planning or PD. If you share administrative details on a blog or video recording instead of a faculty meeting, then re-allocating time for PLCs or PD can make a huge difference.
Use a feature like Google Docs to share big projects like school improvement plans or school handbooks, to allow others to work on it seamlessly. Instead of having 13 versions rolling around and having to combine them all into one, use Google Docs to track feedback and changes.
Use social media to reach out to your community. Create a school-to-school Twitter account or a Facebook page. Three-quarters of the U.S. population uses social media, so reach people where they are and foster relationships to increase engagement in the building.
FreshGrade: How can we expand the type and quality of information being communicated between schools and teachers, the students and their families, on a regular basis?
Steven: I want there to be a relationship between the school, the teacher, the parents, and the kid. The way you can do that is by focussing on the positive. If you create an environment where it’s encouraged to reach out to parents and share great things kids are doing every day, it can make a huge difference. It doesn’t have to be a long soliloquy about what Johnny did; it can just be two or three sentences. If my kid’s teacher sent me a note about what she did in class today that would totally turn around my day. That tells me the school cares about who these kids are rather than making sure they achieve well on a meaningless test.
That’s not to say everything is going to be positive. I also want that teacher to be able to come to me and say, “You know what? Reagan didn’t have a great day today. Here’s what happened,” so I can have a conversation with her. Those two or three minutes of feedback a day can foster a relationship that will go great lengths in the future.
FreshGrade: Can you tell us a little bit more about your next book?
Steven: When they go into the classroom, a principal is the primary person evaluating the effective use of technology. If they don’t know how to use technology themselves, that’s a problem. The idea is to fill the knowledge gap.
I came up with five things administrators can look for when they go into a classroom to evaluate the use of technology. Those are opportunities for student collaboration, capacity for student choice, teacher-centered use versus student-centered use, what the lesson would be like if you took away the technology, and how teachers are using technology to create something new.
Technology is transformational and transformative, and teachers should have the opportunity to be able to create something new with it.
Sometimes we use technology for technology’s sake or there’s a misconception that, because the district spent millions of dollars on Promethean boards, you have to use a Promethean board all the time. If you try to force technology use, it doesn’t work. So, if you took it away, how different would the lesson be? Are they just using technology to regurgitate, filling out a digital worksheet, or are they creating something new with technology?
Technology is transformational and transformative, and teachers should have the opportunity to be able to create something new with it. When we look for these five things, we get a better understanding of how technology is used. These things don’t replace good pedagogy and good content, but they can certainly lead in the right direction. We’ll dive a lot deeper into what those mean and provide examples throughout the book which will be out summer 2017.
FreshGrade: What do you think is missing from technology and education?
Steven: I would like to see more educators involved in the design and concepts for ed tech. I think that’s the missing piece. There are many companies who get teacher feedback after products are developed, but a lot of money is wasted at the beginning. Teachers want things that make their lives easier, but often, they’re not brought in until after a product has already launched. Get them in at the forefront, and you may find they may take you down a path ten times better than the one you were on.
FreshGrade: What does education look like in the classroom and education look like in five to ten years if we do it right?
Steven: I don’t think any of us could have predicted ten years ago we would have nearly ubiquitous access to high-quality online resources. I hope we continue to see a movement towards individualized access of technology where every kid can access content in a way that’s meaningful to them.
I think we’re going to see a focus on students learning anything, anytime, anywhere. We may lose some of the formality of learning, but I hope we will do a better job of allowing kids to discover what they’re passionate about and what they want their career to look like. I think we can do that; we just have to start thinking differently.
FreshGrade: Thanks so much for your time, Steven, and sharing your expertise.
Steven: Thanks for having me.
About Steven W. Anderson
Steven W. Anderson is an educator, speaker, blogger and Dad from Winston-Salem, NC.
As a former Director of Instructional Technology and Instructional Technologist and Classroom Teacher, Steven is a recognized expert in the infusion of technology in teaching and social media for learning.
He is responsible in helping create #edchat, a weekly education discussion on Twitter that boasts over 1500 weekly participants. Steven has also been recognized with the 2009 and 2011 Edublogs, Twitterer of The Year Award and in 2012 he was named an ASCD Emerging Leader, recognizing young, talented educational leaders in their field.
Steven holds a Bachelor of Science in Middle Grade Mathematics and Science Education from Western Carolina University and a Master of Arts in Education in Instructional Technology from East Carolina University. Follow him on Twitter at @web20classroom.