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Change agent

Part Two – By Anthony Rebora

Will Richardson was a high school English and journalism teacher in new Jersey for nearly 20 years.

During the early part of this decade, he began experimenting with the use of interactive Web tools in the classroom, and was soon transfixed by their potential for increasing students’ engagement and exposing them to new resources and outlets for expression. His experiences led him to write Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms (Corwin). Now in its third edition, the book has become one of the most influential books available on integrating Web 2.0 technology in the classroom.

Richardson is now an educational technology consultant and co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, a professional development provider devoted to fostering online communities for teachers.

What’s your reaction to recent arguments, such as in recent Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, that the Web and other digital technologies are diminishing our attention spans and our capacity for deep, focused thinking? Are you concerned about a potentially negative effect of digital immersion on kids’ intellectual development?

I don’t worry about the impact of technology so much as I worry about us not giving kids relevant stuff to read in schools, so they can develop those deep reading skills. I understand the value of the classics. But if we want kids to be readers, we have to be willing at some point to give them stuff that they want to read. And we just don’t do that right now – again, because it’s too difficult to individualise instruction in that way. We want everybody reading the same thing at the same time, because it’s much easier to organise and assess.

The problem with what Nicholas Carr is saying is it’s just too much of a broad brush. As others have said in response to Carr, it’s natural for us to do some hand-wringing when we go through periods of transition, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that 50 years from now we’re going to be stupid because of the internet. In many ways, I think the internet has made us immensely smarter. But there’s no doubt that the ways we process and gather information is going through a big change.

That can be scary, but we can’t just put the genie back in the bottle. And from an English teacher’s standpoint, one of the big questions I have is, why is it that no one is teaching kids to read and write in hypertext in schools? I almost defy you to find me anyone who consciously teaches kids reading and writing in linked environments. Yet we know kids are in those environments and sometimes doing some wonderfully creative things. And we know they’ll need to read and write online.

You know what I’m saying? But educators would read Nicholas Carr’s book, and their response would be to ban hypertext. It just doesn’t make sense.

I guess the counter-argument would be, “Well, shouldn’t they learn to write first before they’re writing in hypertext?”

Oh, absolutely. I’m not suggesting you put third graders into totally linked environments. Absolutely, kids should learn to read and write in traditional ways. But as they develop, they also should be helped to learn how to read and write in these new ways. But no one in schools is saying, “We need to help kids understand how to process information in digital formats and digital environments.”

If you were a principal, in order to foster network literacy as you envision it, what kind of professional development would you provide to teachers?

I think that teachers need to have a very fundamental understanding of what these digital interactions look like, and the only way that you can do that is to pretty much immerse them in these types of learning environments over the long term. You can’t workshop it. It’s got to be long term, job-embedded. So, if I’m a principal, I would definitely be thinking about how I could get my teachers into online learning communities, into these online networks. And again, from a leadership standpoint, I’d better be there first – or, if not first, at least be able to model it and talk about it.

If you want to, well, that’s fine, go ahead and schedule a blogging workshop, but then the prerequisite for the workshop should be to learn how to blog. Then, when you come to the workshop, we’ll talk about what blogging means rather than just how to do it. Seriously, there’s not one of these Web 2.0 tools or technologies that a teacher couldn’t learn on his or her own in under a half an hour with an online tutorial. That’s why Web 2.0 is as huge as it is – because there’s a very low barrier to entry. It’s not rocket science.

So, imagine if we took all the time we use in workshops doing how-to and instead used that time to really go deep. I think we’ve become enablers for our teachers. We’ve kind of built this whole professional development thing around the idea that “we’ll provide you with the workshops, and the curriculum, you just show up. We’ll give you the computer, and teach you all the stuff you need to know, etc.” I don’t want to sound too patronising about it, but it’s just silly. What we have to do is build a professional culture that says, “Look, you guys are learners, and we’re going to help you learn. We’re going to help you figure out your own learning path and practice.” It’s like the old ‘give a man a fish’ saying. You know, we’re giving away a lot of fish right now, but we’re not teaching anybody how to fish.

If you were starting a school right now that you hoped embodied these qualities, what traits would you look for in teachers?

Well, certainly I would make sure they were Googleable. I would want to see that they have a presence online, that they are participating in these spaces and, obviously, that they are doing so appropriately. Also, I’d want to know that they have some understanding of how technology is changing teaching and learning and the possibilities that are out there.

I would also look for people who aren’t asking how, but instead are asking why. I don’t want people who say, “How do you blog?” I want people who are ready to explore the question of, “Why do you blog?” That’s what we need. We need people who are willing to really think critically about what they’re doing. I’m not an advocate of using tools just for the sake of using tools. I think all too often you see teachers using a blog, but nothing really changes in terms of their instruction, because they don’t really understand what a blog is, what possibilities it presents.

They know the how-to, but they don’t know the why-to. I’d look for teachers who are constantly asking why.

In what ways do you expect schools – or the way education is delivered – to change over the next 20 years, and what should teachers be prepared for?

I don’t know that schools will change a whole heck of a lot in the short term, to be honest with you. I’ve been out here screaming this stuff for the last seven years – and a lot of folks have been at it for even longer – and I feel like the change has been glacial. Programmes are totally regressive when it comes to technology and these global, on-demand learning environments. And the choices people are making about curriculum are totally counter to self-directed, self-organised, independent learning.

We’re just tinkering. So in the near term, as long as people are almost totally focused on test scores, I don’t think schools are going to change very much at all. But if they are, they’re going to have to understand that learning is mobile. They’re going to have to find ways to leverage the one-to-one technology environments they already have in most high schools right now, using the technology that kids have in their backpacks and pockets. And I think we have to move to a more inquiry-based, problem-solving curriculum, because it’s not about content as much anymore. It’s not about knowing this particular fact as much as it is about what you can do with it. The goal should be preparing kids to be entrepreneurs, problem-solvers who think critically and who’ve worked with people from around the world. Their assessments should be all about the products they produced, the movements they’ve created, the participatory nature of their education rather than this sort of spit-back-the-right-answer model we currently have. I mean, that just doesn’t make sense anymore.

This interview f irst appeared in the Education Week Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook, in October 2010 and is reprinted here with permission from Editorial Projects in Education. Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains is published by Norton, W.W. & Company Inc.

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Category: e-Education, Featured Articles, Winter 2011

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