Making critical research a central focus of the classroom

by Mr. Sheehy

I am not a professional conference attendee. My experience is limited to two South Dakota affairs (a pair of TIE Conferences) and the T+L Conference this past fall, but even in that short experience, I have a decent feel for what the keynoters are saying at educational technology conferences around the country, perhaps because I spent a year gobbling up the blogs of people who seem to make a living flying around speaking at conferences. Whatever the reason, folks are telling us that we need to change and change now. Often it’s a dressed-up, conference version of the Shift Happens video, or a call for a particular strand of  some current big idea in education.

I kind of expected this when I sat down last week to hear Alan November at the TIE Conference. In one small sense, he followed the formula, championing project-based learning by kidding that the instructor should be able to go out for coffee for a half hour and then return to find her students still working, having not noticed the teacher was gone (at the conclusion of his remark I leaned to the person next to me and admitted that my students constantly ask if they could please leave, while I am actually there). In other areas, however, November broke the mold of these change-speakers and used a particular focus that has left me convinced that my practice as a teacher, and the practice of my colleagues, does need to change.

That does not happen easily for me, least of all when I am listening to folks at technology conferences. The only other speaker or writer in education who struck me as this convincing was Cris Tovani, and I found her very convincing–so this is a big deal.

What November did for me was point the emphasis away from the technology and to the information. He calls the technology the plumbing, and information the revolution. That works well enough for me and is not a particularly new insight, but where he gets me is where he applies this idea to the classroom. If information is the revolution, then we should be spending less time embedding technology and more time embedding critical researching skills.

That is the piece that sent me into glee. It strikes me as the angle of importance for technology leadership teams in school districts. My colleagues, for example, are pretty tech savvy. They adapted amazingly well to a rough launch of an online grade book and picked up almost without incident an online calendar to summarize daily class activities. What they don’t know is how to research amazingly well on the web, and that is what November is challenging us to teach our children.

Obviously we have to learn first, and while that is a challenge it seems to me that it is feasible. The feasibility rises from the emphasis on skills instead of tools. In my mind, November’s emphasis avoids communicating the message teachers often receive when talking about implementing technology. That message runs like this: “You have to stop doing what you’re doing the same old way that appears to be working and do it this way because this is the new way, and no one is going to be doing it your way anymore and it’s no use complaining when the new way doesn’t work for you half the time!”  That’s one reason why they hate conversations about technology integration.

With November’s emphasis, we’re essentially telling them this: “You know and I know that our methods of retrieving information are outdated and no one is using them anymore. It’s time to learn how to do it well with the tools that are now dominating the world of information. Then we can do it more often in our classrooms and together we can teach our students how to do it well.” It leaves me singing a tune: “Good-bye technology integration, hello research (information) integration.”

I know others have said similar things (David Warlick springs to mind) but somehow November’s statements resound more clearly with me. Perhaps it is because he has not pitted my old curriculum against a new one, or suggested that the ‘old’ literacy is bad, so much as emphasized how crucial critical research skills are. The old way still applies, it just needs the tweak of the critical eye. And I don’t think teachers will be nearly so resistant when we approach them with the need to teach students skills instead of tools.

Thanks for reading.