What makes a good teacher as far as educational technology is concerned?

What makes a good teacher as far as educational technology is concerned?

I’m interested in exploring this question, which I have phrased very carefully. I think whether you’re a teacher of information and communications technology, or someone who teaches with educational technology, there are some common denominators of what makes the teaching good. These are all my ideas and conjectures; I have stated them as though they are facts purely in order to avoid clumsy circumlocutions.

The first requirement is a willingness to experiment and take chances. You never really know whether something is going to work until you try it. A piece of software may be great when used by an individual, but not scale up very well when used with a class.

For example, I came across a program a few years ago which made commenting on a student’s work very easy: it was possible to give comprehensive feedback in only 5 minutes by clicking various buttons. But that would mean 150 minutes for a class of 30 students, and a day’s work for four or five classes.

Clearly, it was the sort of ‘solution’ you may wish to use with one or two special case students, but not with whole classes. But you wouldn’t know that until you had sat down with the software and spent time using it and thinking about it.

Not everything is within the individual teacher’s control. I am thinking in particular of my next requirement: the opportunity to experiment. Too many schools, in England and Wales at any rate, are so frightened of being named and shamed for not having achieved the requisite number of A*-C passes at GCSE that it takes a very brave, stupid or fortunate teacher to feel that they have the time and the support to be able to try things out, especially given the amount of stuff that has to be covered in the curriculum. I admire all those who do, and the colleagues who enable them to do so.

A third requirement is for intellectual honesty. I think one of the most difficult things to do is to admit to oneself, let alone one’s colleagues, that as far as achieving X is concerned, the last 3 weeks have been less successful than one would have liked. But there are a few counters to this way of looking at things:

Firstly, adopt the scientific view: an experiment is only a failure if it yields no results at all, ie you find out nothing from it. If you get negative results, you’ve learnt something which will be useful to both yourself and your colleagues.

Secondly, take a cost-benefit approach. Basically, even if the experiment looks like having been a waste of time, if the benefits outweigh the costs, than it hasn’t been. This is all a bit subjective, of course, but let’s consider an example. Suppose the use of a website or application has added nothing to the knowledge of 29 of the students in your class, meaning that you wasted a few hours preparing the lessons based on it, and those 29 pupils have wasted the one or two lessons they spent on it. But at the same time, one student, who was thinking of quitting the course, and who has already mentally opted out, is suddenly fired up by the experience and really starts to ‘get it’. It’s arguable that the net gain has outweighed the net cost.

Thirdly -- and this leads on nicely from the point just made – it may be that your success criteria need to be changed. In the example of 29 students gaining nothing in terms of learning anything new, if I was the teacher I would ask them to analyse why they gained nothing, and how the resource (or my use and teaching of it) could have been improved.

Also, academic achievement has to be balanced by other kinds of development. If the website or program added nothing to their knowledge or technical skill set, but facilitated critical thinking or collaborative working – even though they may not have been the intended outcomes – then I would suggest the whole thing has been very worthwhile.

A fourth requirement for good teaching is a love of the technology. That does not necessarily mean being a geek, but having a love of what the technology can enable you to do. For example, I love my digital camera. It’s not good enough for professional photography, but it’s good enough for me. I can slip it in my pocket or briefcase, and I use it to take shots which are either interesting in themselves, and which I could therefore use as stimulus material, or to illustrate articles.

Also, call me ‘sad’ and perhaps needing to get out more, but unlike a lot of people I do not find spreadsheets boring. On the contrary, I think a well-constructed spreadsheet is a thing of beauty, to be marvelled at! (I’m being serious: when I have more time I will explain myself in this regard!)

A fifth requirement is a willingness to not know everything. I think that when it comes to technology, there is every chance that at least one student, and probably all of them, will know more about at least one aspect of it than you do. That’s why I have no hesitation in asking teenagers I know how you do certain things in Facebook or Blog TV. They know things I don’t. I also know things they don’t. What’s so threatening about exchanging knowledge and ideas as equals?

Does this mean that I go along with the old chestnut about teachers being a 'guide on the side' rather than a 'sage on the stage'? No, because I think that is a false analogy or an abrogation of responsibility. I see no point in spending an inordinate amount of time encouraging kids to discover something that you could have told them in 5 seconds, so the guide on the side thing is not appropriate in all circumstances anyway.

I don’t have a catchy phrase to express this idea, but the way I see it, the class is like a group of walkers going on a guided ramble. You have the leader, who knows the terrain and knows what to look out for and to point out. But at the same time each person on the walk is making sense of it all in their own individual way, and discovering other delights that the leader has not pointed out. That sounds to me more like the guide at the front than the guide on the side. I told you it wasn’t very catchy.

There are other factors which make for good teaching. My fifth one is the opportunity to have excellent professional development. Note that I use the word ‘development’, not training. I am not sure how, in most cases, spending a day being bombarded by bullet points, which they then give you in a pack anyway, can be as useful as having an opportunity to explore and discuss ideas of your own choosing in depth. In fact, as far as feedback is concerned, the most successful training I ever provided consisted of doing absolutely nothing except provide a room, some software, and myself and a technician, to enable a group of teachers to develop their area of the school’s website.

My final factor is an amalgam of what good teaching is all about anyway: a love of one’s subject, a love of exploring new avenues with other people, a love of being with young people and helping them along the path, a fanatical insistence that each person achieves their own personal best, and a willingness and ability to employ a whole range of techniques, such as questioning, facilitating group work and giving meaningful and useful feedback.

I’d be interested to hear your views about what makes a good technology teacher.

(Also posted on my website.)

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