Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

18 February 2009

Measuring the right things

Clark @ 1:39 PM

For sins in my past, I’ve been invited on to our school district’s technology committee.  So, yesterday evening I was there as we were reviewing and rewriting the technology plan (being new to the committee, I wasn’t there when the existing one was drafted).  Broken up into five parts, including curriculum, infrastructure, funding, I was on the professional development section, with a teacher and a library media specialist.  Bear with me, as the principles here are broader than schools.

The good news: they’d broken up goals into two categories, the teacher’s tech skills, and the integration of tech into the curriculum. And they were measuring the tech skills.

The bad news: they were measuring things like percentage of teachers who’d put up a web page (using the district’s licensed software), and the use of the district’s electronic grading system. And their professional development didn’t include support for revising lesson plans.

Houston, we have some disconnects!

So, let’s take a step back.  What matters?  What are we trying to achieve?  It’s that kids learn to use technology as a tool in achieving their goals: research, problem-solving, communication.  That means, their lessons need to naturally include technology use.  You don’t teach the tool, except as ancillary to doing things with it!

What would indicate we were achieving that goal?  An increase in the use of lesson plans that incorporate technology into non-technology topics would be the most direct indicator.  Systematically, across the grade levels.  One of the problems I’ve seen is that some teachers don’t feel comfortable with the technology, and then for a year their students don’t get that repeated exposure.  That’s a real handicap.

However, teacher’s lesson plans aren’t evaluated (!).  They range from systematic to adhoc.  The way teachers are evaluated is that they have to set two action research plans for the year, and they take steps and assess the outcomes (and are observed twice), and that constitutes their development and evaluation.  So, we determined that we could make one of those action research projects focus on incorporating technology (if, as the teacher in our group suggested, we can get the union to agree).

Then we needed to figure out how to get teachers the skills they need.  They were assessed on their computer skills once a year, and courses were available.  However, there was no link between the assessment and courses.  A teacher complained that the test was a waste of time, and then revealed that it’s 15-30 minutes once a year.  The issue wasn’t really the time, it’s that the assessment wasn’t used for the teachers.

And instead of just tech courses, I want them to be working on lesson plans, and, ideally, using the tools to do so.  So instead of courses on software, I suggested that they need to get together regularly (they already meet by grade level, so all fifth grade teachers at a school meet together once a week) and work together on new lesson plans.  Actually, I think they need to dissect some good examples, then take an existing lesson plan and work to infuse it with appropriate technology, and then move towards creating new lesson plans.  To do so, of course, they’ll need to de-emphasize something.

Naturally, I suggested that they use wikis to share the efforts across the schools in the district, but that’s probably a faint hope.  We need to drive them into using the tools, so it would be a great requirement, but the level of technology skills is woefully behind the times.  That may need to be a later step.

One of the realizations is that, on maybe a ten-year window, this problem may disappear: those who can’t or won’t use tech will retire, and the new teachers will have it by nature of the culture.  So it may be a short-term need, but it is critical.  I can’t help feeling sorry for those students who miss a year or more owing to one teacher’s inability to make a transition.

At the end, we presented our results to the group.  We’ll see what happens, but we’ve a new coordinator who seems enthusiastic and yet realistic, so we’ll see what happens.  Fingers crossed! But at least we’ve tried to show how you could go towards important goals within the constraints of the system.  What ends up in the plan remains to be seen, but it’s just a school-level model of the process I advocate at the organizational level.  Identify what the important changes are, and align the elements to achieve it (a bit like ID, really).  If you’re going to bother, do it right, no?


  1. What I find interesting / scary / sad is that we are still encountering the exact same issues with teaching and technology at the K-12 level as we did almost 10 years ago. The comment by the one teacher about “getting the union to agree” is telling.

    I would also be curious to hear how current those computer courses (and the resulting “assessment”) are. Are they assessing on 5 year old applications?

    Comment by Wendy — 19 February 2009 @ 5:03 AM

  2. Wendy, changes in the world are having little effect in the classroom, except idiosyncratically. And, yes, I deliberately put in the reference to the union.

    As to what they’re assessing? If I recall correctly: word processing, email, internet, spreadsheet, database, presentation (the latter 3 are the weak areas). Self-assessment. Based on state and federal standards, of course, which are also no doubt out of date.

    Comment by Clark — 19 February 2009 @ 11:33 AM

  3. I too was on our school technology committee. Being a teacher and parent with a technology background, I found I was constantly mediating between the parents with technology background (but no teaching) and the teachers (with no or little technology background). Because of the resistance to taking the time out to integrate the technology into the classroom, we ended up taking the approach you have outlined. We started by having teachers identify an area they would like to investigate, then worked at coming up with a technology solution based on THEIR needs and teaching style. Because the idea was generated by the teacher, they were more open to it. On the other hand, by assessing their progress (through their own learning goals), there was also external motivation to follow through with the technology.

    What we found was that teachers began to demonstrate their progress to other teachers, which made some of the technologies more in demand. The primary teachers (this was a K-8 school), became very interested in using laptops and LCD monitors. They liked being able to create something on the laptop which they could then show the class as a whole. They used them to access websites, video clips (online), and projects with other schools/off-site contacts, including a research scientist in Antarctica. Soon, they began to share different resources and started working with the technology teacher to integrate some of their projects into the technology class (i.e. online research for in-class project). Teachers that did not even use e-mail learned multiple technologies from other teachers.

    Many of my students have put together distance learning modules for professional development that includes blogs, discussion forums, and online resources. Often they use these in conjunction with traditional face to face training. What often happens is that the tools are taught in context of a teaching problem (i.e. special ed, improving assessment, project based learning). They are more apt to learn the new technology if it meets the training needs for certification (200 hours in 2 years of continuing education in NY State). As they become more comfortable with the technology, they are more apt to try to adapt it to their own teaching.

    BTW-the only way I got out of the committee was I broke my foot on the kick off day with the teachers. I liked acting the consulting role for a few years after, but enjoyed not having to go to the meetings that seemed to suck the life out of me!

    Comment by Virginia Yonkers — 19 February 2009 @ 7:26 PM

  4. Virigina, great story, great success. Hope I don’t have to break my foot to back out when my value’s gone ;). Of course, the problem is higher up, in the state and national standards for technology, but one battle at a time I reckon. If we can get the teachers using tech, they may get what’s important in the curriculum.

    Comment by Clark — 20 February 2009 @ 8:28 AM

  5. The standards in our state are written broadly, so the way to accomplish the standards are many fold. I find in k-12 especially, there is a tendency to teach and assess professional development the way they do the rest of elementary school–through standard training programs and tests that do not really meet the needs of the teachers. I have found that using the teacher’s strengths and interests (skills they already have) and having them create their own learning objectives within the standards they must teach is more empowering and allows for greater buy in.

    For example, I googled the California technology proficiency standards for teachers which included: Considers the content to be taught and selects the best technological resources to support and manage learning. S10. By having faculty actually work through their own lesson plans and supporting them with technology that is relevant for their comfort level (rather than standardizing the way lessons look, plugging in content that may not fit, and ignoring the skills they come into the classroom with) they will still be able to meet this criteria and with a much deeper level of understanding on how to integrate and choose technology for the classroom. The tricky part is coming up with criteria for assessment that will demonstrate this proficiency (I found demonstration of a lesson plan or an online portfolio which other teachers can access and evaluate works well).

    Comment by Virginia Yonkers — 20 February 2009 @ 12:01 PM

  6. Clark-
    You may want to check out the Jan. issue of ISTE’s Learning & Leading with Technology, Vol. 36, No.4. There is a good article called All Aboard…how a new review process resulted in innovative uses of technology.

    Comment by Jon Aleckson — 21 February 2009 @ 3:17 PM

  7. Jon, much appreciate the pointer, but not being a member of ISTE, it looks like I’m blocked from accessing it. And not in my local library. Sounds like a good story, however, so will see if I can track it down. Thanks!

    Comment by Clark — 21 February 2009 @ 3:35 PM

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