by John D. Long
When I began teaching full-time this fall in the undergraduate teacher education program at Lindenwood University, it was following a full career in K–12 public education. During that previous career, which included twenty-one years as a principal and superintendent, I have hired and supervised well over 200 new teachers. Unfortunately, the almost universally applicable characteristic they possessed was a lack of knowledge about how to apply technology to their own new classrooms. I am certain that some of the more recent hires actually had the knowledge of the web and technology they would need, but they just didn’t have the examples of how to apply that knowledge in a practical manner that all new teachers need when they begin.
The college students of today are digital natives. Few, if any, remember a time without computers in their homes and schools. They typically carry more powerful computers in their pockets than the first one I bought when my teaching career began almost thirty years ago. And yet, knowing how to apply that technological familiarity to a classroom setting has proven elusive to most of them. As I spoke with them after their hire, and spoke with them in class, the reason became very clear. They are being taught by digital migrants, like me. Understand that I consider myself technologically savvy, but that is a relative comparison. I am definitely living the old adage that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. If my digital knowledge exceeds that of many of my peers, it pales in comparison to the typical college freshman. I am a technology second-language learner in a world of native speakers. My attempts to metaphorically correct the grammar of the native speakers are often met with scepticism, if not derision. You see, the language has changed and many of us in education failed to notice.
This language issue grows from their experiences in both K–12 and higher education. Both institutions are populated by a majority of educators who have not universally embraced the shift to the digital age and a new style and depth of communication. One thing we know from experience is that when pressed in our new classrooms we tend to fall back on what we know, which means not WHAT we were taught, but HOW we were taught. I had a discussion with a group of my students this summer about their expectations for the class I was about to teach. Their comments can be distilled into this: “We HATE IT when we are lectured to about how to use non-lecture teaching methodologies. SHOW us, don’t TELL us.” They were passionate about their careers, their hopes, and their goals. They wanted someone, anyone, to help them navigate those often rocky waters. They realized that at this point, they were unprepared to walk into a classroom of students and implement the curriculum using more than a basic lecture augmented by PowerPoint and a few group instruction techniques. I could sense their anger, their frustration, but mostly their fear. I thought back to my own undergraduate instruction and remembered I had the same basic issues. I could lecture, but to do more was going to be up to me. I was blessed to have been in the classes of several very gifted lecturers, and while I may have improved over time, as a 22-year-old rookie teacher, I was overmatched as a lecturer facing 30 high-school students.
The solution lies in not just schools of education, but in classrooms in all disciplines where students learn their subject content. If it was just up to the schools of education, we could hopefully train our own faculty in the needed technology and mandate they use it. However, all students must navigate a variety of ivy-covered buildings in search of the knowledge needed to teach in public education today. When those content-area professors teach in the way they were themselves taught years before, the cycle is unfortunately perpetuated. When students think back in their own classrooms on how they learned English, math, etc., they remember a teaching style that has changed little in the last 75 years and when pressed, they teach the same way. Getting non-education professors to change their style of teaching lies outside our realm of influence, but a solution is still needed.
One way to tackle that needed change is through a change in the education curriculum to include specific technology education. My university has implemented this approach, and it is certainly a step forward as it provides specific instruction about what technology exists and how to use it. Unfortunately, providing exposure is only the first step on the long path to competence. It is similar to giving a vocabulary list with no grammar or sentence structure instruction when learning a new language. It is a needed first step, but nothing more. The next step is to teach using these tools ourselves. This is being done on a small scale now, but it has to be implemented more broadly if we expect our students to succeed. Students know they need to see the techniques and resources in action to be able to grasp technology to the level needed to use it in their own classrooms. Finally, the students need to be expected to use the technology in their undergraduate classroom presentations, their practicums, and their student teaching. To the extent possible, they need to be placed in the classrooms of cooperating teachers who are technologically savvy and whose professional practice continues to develop in this area. Much like travelling to a foreign country with a native language speaker, the students will learn how to implement the knowledge on the fly.
Is this an impossible task? Certainly not. However, as they always have, students will select, whenever possible, those professors they feel will provide them with the best chance to succeed. In a tight labor market, students know they need every possible edge to get, and keep, the scarce teaching jobs that are available. They will select those professors who give them that edge, even if it means more work on their part or classes at less convenient times. As that happens, the spread of technology usage in the classroom will speed up. Certainly some education majors will take the path of least resistance, as many unemployed education majors have in the past, but I continue to put my trust in the profession that has driven advancement in this country for over two hundred years. We may have been slow to adapt, but adapt we will. The language has changed, and if we wish to still be in the conversation at large, we have to learn to speak it like a local.