Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Importance of Student Buy In for the Use of New Technology and Teaching Methods

When I first started teaching, I use to use the phrase "I do not care, " frequently.  In fact, it became a catch phrase among my students.  I didn't mean that I didn't genuinely care for my students, it was obvious to them and me that I did.  I spent countless hours grading papers and tests to give them comprehensive feedback within a 24 hour period of whatever they did.  I met with them after school and on Sundays to review for AP's.   I was available to them 24/7 whenever they needed me for anything.  What I meant really was "do not give me any excuses" about homework, about how hard you think the material is, about what I demand of you, about being on time to class.  What I meant was the sooner they realized life did not revolve around them and their needs, the sooner they were prepared for the real world outside the walls of the cozy private all girls school I taught in.  In fact, I would say the phrase in direct opposition to all the touchy feeling things going on in the school to pander to their every needs and make them feel super special.

I resented the unstructured weekly meetings my students attended with school counselors and advisors and the almost monthly color war or spirit centered full school event.  I found those meetings turned into venting sessions where students were given the ability to complain about anything they disliked.  In fact, I often thought kids just made stuff up in an effort to look cool complaining about something to peers and grasp attention from their advisor.  Furthermore, I found these meetings had an almost contagious effect among students creating animosity and inspiring grievances from even the most copacetic student.  I likened these sessions to therapy sessions for post traumatic stress disorder, which many psychologists argue are counter productive because instead of helping the patient move on from the situation and deal with it, they relive the experience and dwell on it.  

It was not that I found all their complaints to be invalid, many were completely correct.   Rather, I thought my role as an educator was to help them through their difficulties by showing them how unsympathetic the world around them would be toward their issues in the future.  I wanted to create resilient kids who were able to handle life's difficulties on their own.  I believed these sessions were actually contrary to our goals as educators.  They were missed opportunities to provide students with the skills necessary to handle adversity and instead almost validated every complain and pandered to it.  
I wanted them to realize learning how to deal with difficult people, difficult problems, time consuming issues, was part of life.  Rather than these unstructured venting sessions, I wanted them to have that time to meet with adviser to give them the tools on how to deal with life's complexities in an organized and productive fashion.  Here at Magen David, Mrs. Esther Tokayer has created a faculty mentor program that does just that.  

How does this relate to technology and different teaching methods you ask?  This year, we have a unique opportunity to recreate the learning experience for our students.  Having been given a rather large grant (BOLD, Blended Online Learning Day Schools), we had ambitious goals, we still do.  One hiccup I had not anticipated was student buy-in.

No, I had taken into account the fact that not all kids would love blended learning initially, that many of the programs we chose in our first year would in fact not work out and we would have to use others, that the teachers would be experimenting, and the kids would feel like guinea pigs.  That I knew.  But, that we were aiming for a noble purpose, that the blended learning was actually going to personalize the learning experience for all students, that I thought the kids knew and bought into.  I assumed my understanding and love of blended learning, the teachers' passion behind the curricular and technological choices being implemented, and the fancy new furniture and laptops would make the kids see how dedicated we were towards this goal and the importance and relevance of it.  

However, this is not the case.  The kids have no clue why we are pushing blended learning, they find the rotational method limiting, and they do not understand why we can't just have the teachers lecture at them and have them take notes.  They want to know why class can't have more "discussion."  They hate learning from each other and think the only reason we are implementing this is to show off cool technology.  My assumption that they would understand our reasoning implicitly was completely inaccurate.

Now you might think, so what?  Why would I care if they aren't buying in this early?  It's year one in a 3 year roll out program and practically the first month (since we literally had only 7 days in September to begin the program and had basically no internet then to even start it).  You might say, they will buy in when they see how it manifests later on.  While, I do not doubt there will be more buy in once the program is up and rolling long term and minor details have been worked out, I think it is still essential to treat them like adults and explain our reasoning for doing this in the first place. 

Last week, I attended a fabulous workshop by Inquiry By Design.  It was about teaching writing with the common core standards.  In this workshop, we were assigned to read an article by New Yorker writer, Atul Gawande called "Slow Ideas."  The article discusses what makes some innovations spread quickly while others are slow to be implemented, if at all.  He retells the story of how and why anesthesia was quickly implemented, but it took a long time for antisepsis to be adopted by most medical practitioners.  He explained that anesthesia benefited not only the patient, but also the surgeon.  It enabled doctors to make surgery a longer endeavor that was less stressed for time.  They no longer had to deal with a screaming, moving patient, but could really perfect their art.  Yes, it required work, but the work was meaningful and useful immediately to all involved.  The patient was out of pain during the surgery and the surgeon could do a better job under less stress.  So, it took off instantly.   Yet, antiseptic methods did not spread as quickly as anesthesia.  This was because it took a lot of careful attention to detail among numerous staff members and doctors in a hospital.  It involved a major cultural change and the results were not instantly foreseeable.  The patient usually did not die in the doctors care, rather they died of an infection after they went home.   Neither the patient, nor the doctor saw an immediate benefit.

Hence, in order for new ideas to be adopted quickly, they need to have tangible, immediately foreseeable results and be relatively easy to implement.  I believe this holds true.  While blended learning has clear strategic long term goals: more personalized education and cutting costs, if a student is unable to see how it answers the question"what is it for me?" then, they are unwilling to buy in to this model.  So how can we make it so that students are able to see immediate results and it is easier to implement?  Good question!

Step one is going to be to formally present the concept of blended learning to them in a proper ppt presentation.   To sell it to them as if I were an advertising executive selling a product. To specifically show them the impact it can make on their individual learning.  The next step is to have them meet with their teachers (the ones actually implementing this) to see real time data that blended learning provides specific to them and explain how he/she groups the kids accordingly.  Step 3 they need strategies of how to tackle the more difficult areas of class or homework.  They need expectations and follow up with mentors/faculty to check in regularly and provide help and advice when needed.

None of these steps involves venting.  Will venting occur?  Yes, but not condoned, not sanctioned, not on my watch.  Rather a productive process will be implemented to give students the skills they need to work this out and for the program to succeed.  That difference is key.