A Rebuttal, Part One

Scott McLeod, Director of Learning, Teaching, and Education at Prairie Lakes Area Education Association, has published an essay in the Winter edition of Independent School magazine. I have been a reader of Mr. McLeod’s blog and Twitter feed for some time, and though I don’t always agree with his views, I appreciate the sincerity of his effort to make American education more meaningful, authentic, and engaging. I understand that he is often addressing the vastly complex system of American public schools, which falls well outside the more privileged purview of my experience and competence. I fully and enthusiastically support the effort to bring the benefits of computing technology and network connectivity to underserved and disadvantaged students.

At the same time, I’ve noticed troubling patterns in the advocacy of Mr. McLeod and other consultants, administrators, and writers who favor the pervasive, even ubiquitous presence of technology in K-12 classrooms. His recent essay is notable I think for being a nearly-complete compendium of the problematic arguments made in favor of increasing the presence of educational technology. Because he is specifically addressing independent schools, and because his essay contains so many of the common tropes and canards typically deployed by the pro-technology contingent, (ignorant and obstructive teachers, a panic about the need for “21st century skills,” the certainty that only technology can transform education combined with an unwillingness to clearly articulate what that transformation should look like, e.g.) I thought it would be useful to try to explicate and rebut the most signifiant points made in the essay.

I have long been dismayed that the conversation about technology use in the K-12 classroom remains stuck in a pointless “with us or against us” dichotomy. This was the state of the discourse when I began teaching in 1996, and I’ve noted depressingly little progress toward nuance and healthy skepticism about technology-enhanced learning since. Those who favor pervasive technology usage tend to shout down attempts to introduce reasonable caution and subtlety to the discussion by portraying skeptics as technophobic, recalcitrant Luddites devoted to holding back progress in education and denying children important opportunities. This is a dangerous state of affairs for teachers, students, and learning in general.

I think that it’s important that there be strong voices questioning the motives, methods, and efficacy of educational technology and those who promote it. To that end, I will attempt to rebut Mr. McLeod’s argument, one issue at a time, over the course of the next two weeks or so. I’ve chosen to respond to this particular argument simply because it is the most complete statement of the pro-technology perspective that I have come across recently, and it provides fertile ground for substantive discussion.

Here’s my first quibble, with Mr. McLeod’s opening paragraph:

​“As founding director of CASTLE …I have had the good fortune to work with administrators all over the world on digital leadership issues. Because digital devices and online environments can simultaneously be transformatively empowering and maddeningly disruptive, the work of integrating digital learning tools into schools is usually difficult and complex. Common challenges arise, however, and can be thoughtfully addressed by proactive leadership.”  

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One problem with the approach to change outlined in Mr. McLeod’s essay is that “administrative leadership” is for many schools an oxymoron. I have had the good fortune over the nearly two decades of my teaching career of working with several administrators at both the all-school and divisional levels who are extraordinary leaders. These people are talented and selfless; they are consensus-builders who know their communities well and deeply and have supported their various constituencies in ways that are effective and inspiring.

It is, sadly, a more common experience to work for administrators who are merely bosses rather than leaders. Increasingly, programs such as the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) Aspiring Heads Fellowship, School Leadership Institute, and the like seem to produce administrators who are ego-driven, authoritarian bureaucrats rather than talented, effective leaders working in the interest of their communities. In fact, schools that make the most prolific use of the word “leadership” seem to be those with genuine leaders the most thin on the ground. It is my contention that NAIS has created, and continues to cultivate, an echo-chamber within which administrators collaborate mostly with each other, and primarily for the purpose of implementing programs and initiatives designed to enhance their own resumes rather than meaningfully contribute to improving the teaching and learning at their institutions.

The result, for schools that labor under such “leaders,” is the stifling of innovation and creativity and a slamming shut of lines of communication between the faculty and those with the power to make purchasing and procedural decisions that could truly transform learning. Glaringly, howlingly absent in most discussions of technological leadership are teachers themselves. If they appear at all, they’re derided as obstacles to progress, fearful of change and stubbornly clinging to outdated methodologies.   This imaginary faculty-of-malcontents is the perfect scapegoat for any and all administrative blunders and an ideal straw man for educational consultants.

But anyone who wants to effect a real transformation in learning in independent schools ought to take a close look at what’s going on in their classrooms. Your Luddites are quietly innovating despite the empty initiatives and mandates and all the fees paid to consultants. They have been bringing about a vast, organic change in the ways they teach and in how their students learn. They are nimble and flexible, experts in their fields constantly adapting to the changing opportunities afforded by technology, selecting what works, and discarding what doesn’t.

Perhaps we need a resume-worthy way for administrators to feel confident boasting that they hired good teachers, supported them, and then got out of their way.

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