Tag: risk-taking

No Fear

While at a campus I serve recently, I had a conversation that is being repeated a lot in education right now. We discussed the importance of giving our kids the opportunity to participate in a rich array of learning experiences. We talked about the importance of students using technology. The teacher with whom I spoke got an “amen” when she bemoaned the lack of art in the daily lives of students. We spoke of how powerful, engaging, and meaningful these things were, and how they made students want to attend school. We also talked about research that proves the value of such experiences in producing well-rounded, thinking kids who also, by the way, ace those ever-present tests. We talked about how everyone already knows all of these things.

Yet, walk into the average classroom, (particularly the older students get), and what do you find? Very often, you find good teachers and good kids undertaking routine, meaningless tasks. You see worksheets, lectures, and drills. Writing is by formula, as are math and science. History is reduced to memorizing dates or parrotting theme statements. Art and music are…well…down the hall in the kindergarten class (Although some are beginning to advocate eliminating that “fluffy” nonsense.). You see high-quality educators engaging in low-quality tasks with a dogged, single-minded purpose: to get students to pass the tests.

The value of these assessments won’t be debated here. That they are our present and near future reality is beyond debate. We can love them or hate them, but they are in every classroom, staring at us from the middle of the front row. How we respond to them, however, is not set in granite, and this is where we are too often falling short. We attend workshops, read books, and listen to keynote speakers with charming anecdotes and impressive statistics, and we believe. We believe that, when we make learning about solving big problems, working with teams of other learners, creating and sharing beautiful products with a global audience, our kids will succeed on those tests. They will succeed because they have already done tougher things on a routine basis. They will succeed because the research says they will.

Our beliefs, however, falter under the weight of today’s high-stakes system. The pressure to see our kids perform well on formulaic, standardized assessments leads us to implement formulaic, standardized instruction. When the goal is for all students to achieve the same things at the same time, we sacrifice the engaging and individualized learning opportunities in favor of whole-group, single-minded tactics.

There are 2 alternatives:

  1. Continue down the current path, achieving the desired test scores for most, but sacrificing individual needs and real motivation to learn.
  2. Change our tactics, having faith that the research is sound, and believing that kids learn best when engaged in meaningful, powerful tasks, and the tests will take care of themselves.
I believe the ability and desire to take the second path is in the heart of the vast majority of educators. We want to see our kids accomplish great things, develop their unique abilities, and become equipped with knowledge and skills that far exceed those of the tests. To achieve this requires us to rally together and attack our work as a unified team. It requires us to seek out opportunities to learn and grow in our profession, to master the art of teaching. And it requires us to take risks. Of course, the research says the risks are not real, only perceived, so we first have to really believe.

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jp-/2301224820/sizes/s/in/photostream/




Meaningful Leadership

The past 2 years have seen exciting utilization of technology in Birdville ISD. The impact of tools of the lighthouseread/write web, online courses, and digital media have been particularly great. One significant unifying factor in the campuses where these tools are being most broadly used is the support of the campus principal. As Tom Landry said, Leadership is getting someone to do what they don’t want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve. Principals have gone beyond simple endorsement and encouragement to taking on the roles of facilitator and role-model, and they have found innovative ways of applying technology to their own practice. I believe the adminstrators whose campuses have taken the lead in using technology succeed for three important reasons.

1. “If you build it, they will come.” Effective school administrators make sure that the resources needed are made available. In technology terms, much of this has occurred, certainly, at the district level. Computer purchases, network equipment, training, forward-thinking acceptable use policies, all are vital components. However, the role of the building principal is also essential. Principals must provide time for planning and collaboration for teachers, utilize campus budgets to purchase technology tools not provided by the district, and ensure opportunities for professional development which support effective technology use (Owston, 2008, p.27). Campus staff development time, for example, was set aside for teachers at Walker Creek Elementary to learn about web 2.0 tools. Other campuses have scheduled similar training, in addition to sessions on digital storytelling, podcasting, and other applications. Greg Farr, principal of Shannon Learning Center, used campus funds to purchase digital video cameras. Several principals have allowed campus funds to be used to pay for substitute teachers in order to allow teachers to attend off-campus training and conferences.

climbing2. “Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.” Risk-taking is a vital piece of the technologically innovative campus. Carolyn Ridenour and Darla Twale described the typical pace of change in education, stating, “Education is a culturally conservative profession that rewards conforming rather than bold behaviors.” (2005, p.158) This is especially true in the current environment, where standardized assessments focusing on limited skills seem to reward the utilization of a narrowly-focused curriculum, using traditional methods which encourage successful regurgitation of skills on the tests. It takes a bold and confident leader to encourage teachers to move beyond this tunnel vision and to see the bigger picture of the world where students will one day live and work. It takes faith in the teachers and a belief that good, relevant teaching that uses real-world tools can and will produce the desired results while still enabling students to achieve the desired test results.

3. “A good example is the best sermon.” Perhaps the most exciting development to me, personally, is the embracing of technology tools, including Web 2.0, by our principals in their own practice. Principals have taken the lead by starting blogs, for instance, to communicate with faculty, parents, and students. They have created podcasts and several are exploring the possibilities of streaming school events, meetings, etc. By applying the technologies in their own practice, they send a clear message to their teachers of their belief in the effectiveness of such practices.

The role that my department has taken in the process of creating technology-focused principals is to provide training and support. This summer, more than 20 principals attended training in digital media and Web 2.0. Their response was very positive. We have also shared ways to use such technologies in conjunction with instructional practices that are proven effective during administrative meetings throughout the school year. Efforts are made to share new tools and discuss means of applying the tools in less formal interactions, such as face-to-face meetings and email. Technology leadership is a group effort, involving district-level administrators, campus leaders, technology staff, and teacher leaders. However, perhaps none is as vital as the principal in setting the tone for the practices in the classroom. Cafolla states, “Leaders will act in ways that are consistent with their beliefs.” (1995, p.558) Get them on board, and good things will usually follow.


Cafolla, R. & Knee, R. (1995). Factors Limiting Technology Integration in Education: The Leadership Gap. Technology and Teacher Education Annual, 1995, 556-560.

Owsten, R. (2007). Contextual factors that sustain innovative pedagogical practice using technology: an international study. Journal of Educational Change, 8(1), 61-77.

Ridenour, C.S. & Twale, D.J. (2005). Academic Generations Exploring Intellectual Risk Taking in an Educational Leadership Program. Education, 126(1), 158-164.

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