Writing Technology into your Curriculum: Top-Down or Bottom-Up, Does it Matter?

“In order to think outside the box, you need to know what is in the box.”web-20-meet-sparta-township-public-schools-1.jpg
Change is a loaded word. It strikes fear into the hearts of even the most secure of professionals. In looking at the idea of change, I see it as coming from one of two directions: either top-down, where those in charge of your program, your superintendent, building administrator, or your supervisor bring it about, or bottom-up, also termed “organic, or “grass-roots,” where change comes from the classrooms and spreads throughout a school building or district based on the practices of teachers and the work of students.

What I am seeing
When I started the process if looking at pedagogy rather than looking at tools as ways to help engage students, the world of technology became small. Granted, I really began this process in earnest about 5 months ago, so the sample size here is small, but nonetheless, what I see is what Chris Lehmann so aptly termed in his session at EduCon: “It’s not the product, it’s the process.” Learning experience matters infinitely more than the end result. Focusing on that process rather than the final paper or diorama or wiki is a difficult thing to do when the tools that take us there are so unbelievably slick.

Our situation in regards to change
Our process of change that is occurring has been and continues to be top-down, where we as administrators and tech coordinators are introducing teachers to tools and pedagogies that are transformative and engaging, but we are relying on their trust and their willingness to open themselves to developing expertise. How well will this continue to work? It remains to be seen whether or not it is a model for systemic change with our staff. We are working within 5 buildings, each with varying levels of both adoption and readiness. When that is the case, your strategy involves as much trust-building as it does introduction to new ideas. We have worked hard on that, but there are elements that are lacking in our design:

  • overarching curricular goals that are written directly into our curriculum plans at the start. Technology and the pedagogy to use it transformatively is often left out of that process.
  • teacher’s as vocal advocates for change a building-level plan for helping teachers teach with these adapted methodologies (notice I said adapted methodologies because we are not re-inventing the wheel here; the methods we advocate are still the same we have been touting for years: differentiating, cooperative learning, co-teaching, questioning skills, etc. Only now we are truly elevating their effectiveness through the use of social, collaborative and expressive technologies.)
  • An environment that allows teachers to be free from the fear of failure and it’s supposed administrative repercussions. If we expect our students to learn, unlearn, and re-learn, then we must give our teachers the freedom to create, experiment and play with content and its delivery to students.

I sat in Kevin Jarrett and Sylvia Martinez’s session about creating lasting change within a school district using the Future Search Process, and I remember thinking about all the ideas that were flying about the room in terms of gathering the necessary parties needed for creating change. The one that keeps sticking with me is the reference they made to something called “The Burning Platform,” whereby an individual is placed in a situation (a burning oil platform) where they must choose either certain death (staying on the platform) or the likelihood of death (jumping into the water). The analogy to education is that there is a situation whereby the outcome of staying still is obvious: student apathy and loss of engagement, but the outcome of changing and moving is less obvious but possibly a salvation.

I am looking at a situation where I don’t know if teachers understand that the platform is burning. They don’t know whether to jump, stay still, or get marshmallows. I want to create a community that is not afraid of change, that feels like they have a stake in the change process, and is willing to help create that change even if makes their role in the classroom change to one that is better capable of creating methods to solve rather than providing answers.


7 thoughts on “Writing Technology into your Curriculum: Top-Down or Bottom-Up, Does it Matter?

  1. Patrick wrote:
    Focusing on that process rather than the final paper or diorama or wiki is a difficult thing to do when the tools that take us there are so unbelievably slick.

    This is the critical point for me, Pat…It’s the barrier to some of my own personal efforts and the barrier to the work that I do with other teachers.

    It’s all too easy to lose focus on the process because we’re more concerned with the product—and I think some of that has to do with the fact that product is all that matters in today’s day and age. When I’m evaluated, it’s not based on whether or not my students have learned in meaningful ways or embraced creative thought.

    Instead, it’s based on whether or not my test scores measure up against the indicators set by others.

    Do you think that a “process v. product” message is a tough sell in an accountability driven culture?

    You’ve got me thinking….

  2. Bill,

    It may be a tough sell, but if we want our students to be life long learners, it seems like it is the most significant way to do that.

    IWE have to have the courage to recognize that there are many “means” to an end. When students learn how to learn, that will show up on any standardized test or real life test that they face, because they will know how to adapt to any learning situation.

    They’ll have the tools of thinking for life.

    And I do think many of our content areas focus on that as well–I’m a librarian and we talk about the research process–English teachers discuss the writing process–Science teachers the scientific method….all of these are also process approaches to learning.

    I think the issue of testing becomes a sort of label that obscures what can happen beneath, in every classroom, if we want it to?

    My thoughts on that at least 😉

    Patrick, I so much agree that schools need environments where teachers feel free to innovate and to be learners themselves. And I feel we need to be having these conversations within our own buildings–because it seems it is the conversations where things can begin?

    Thanks for the ideas.

  3. I am a change agent from the bottom up (and I should add that we are a classroom for the future school so we are slightly top down with tons of resistance). However, there is resistance amongst my peers for what I am doing. Is that because of the also top-down we are facing or are they truly stuck on the burning platform?

    My wiki looks slick but I am sure not completely. I am really trying to focus on process and document for others to see. I still have a way to go. I am lucky to have a principal who is willing to let me fail but it is tough on your own.

  4. Bill, Carolyn, Maine:

    I have to agree with Carolyn on this one that teaching the skills that enable children to “learn how to learn,” will trump any testing situation or psychometric assessment. In that case, the process can, and does, win out over the product.

    In her latest blog post, which I recommend, “Your Wild and Precious Life,” Carolyn uses the slogan from Mabry Middle School as an example of how to phrase a key principle that we all should model:
    “Making Learning Irresistible for 25 Years.”

    With a mindset like that, I don’t see how failure to engage is an option. How can I make this lesson/unit/curriculum so desired by our students that that they have to have it? Great questions to ask yourself.

    My reasoning for writing this post was partly inquiry, but also to show how we are doing things. I want more than anything teachers in my district to come to me and say “Hey, look at this lesson I want to teach. It’s pretty out there, but look how it relates to what we have to teach, and look at the engagement level!” I don’t see it yet, but I know it is there.

    Ken Robinson, in “Out of Our Minds,” talks about the battle to develop the creativity of your brightest employees or lose them to someone else, but he is talking about the corporate world. In many ways, I wish I was battling for that. As an administrator, I want to develop our staff to a point where they marketable, and then I want to do everything to keep them. That’s a culture of healthy competition.

    This response has suddenly become a post!

  5. Carolyn wrote:
    When students learn how to learn, that will show up on any standardized test or real life test that they face, because they will know how to adapt to any learning situation.

    You know guys, I’ve had the opposite experience (unfortunately!). In fact, I’ve taken a ton of flak in recent years because my students—who are generally involved in higher order thinking opportunities all year long—score the lowest on test after test.

    For me, those experiences haven’t translated into success on tests—and I’m not sure why. It could be that what I see as “high level learning” may not be as sophisticated as I think. It could also be that my middle schoolers are just plain inconsistent creatures who demonstrate mastery some days and misery others.

    And I’m willing to take the “leap of faith” to believe that I’m serving my kids well regardless of what the exam says….but my leash seems to get shorter year after year as the “stakes” get higher.

    Pat then wrote:
    With a mindset like that, I don’t see how failure to engage is an option. How can I make this lesson/unit/curriculum so desired by our students that that they have to have it?

    This resonates with me….and it’s a question I’ve often asked myself after lessons/units. It first crossed my mind when kids started pitching their work in the trash as soon as it was handed back!

    That’s when I knew an assignment/activity/experience was a complete flop!

    Here’s another interesting question: Does there come a point when kids have become completely convinced that school is useless and decide to check out? Has that point been moved closer and closer by standardized testing—-or more accurately, our responses to it?

    Enjoying the conversation…

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