DO NOT “integrate technology” into the curriculum

We hear all the time about “technology integration.”

I recently read a job description for an upper school technology director, and one of the responsibilities of the position is to: “Partner with Upper School administration and department heads to set and employ a strategic vision for integrating technology into the curriculum.” [emphasis added]

That sounds reasonable, right? A technology director should work to help teachers do what they have been doing for several decades, but come up with a strategy to use technology to better deliver the curriculum.

There’s a problem, though: the world has changed significantly in the internet age. Students today are walking around with iPhones (or equivalent devices) that give them access to the world’s information. They can — and do — learn anywhere.

The jobs they will hold — many of which don’t exist yet — won’t have much of a correlation with the current industrial age curriculum that was established about 100 years ago and that divides the world into boxes called “math” “science” “English” and “social studies.”

The plan should not be to “integrate technology into the curriculum” because that presumes that the existing curriculum is appropriate for today’s world. It’s not.

The real task is to sit down with administrators and department chairs and teachers to have a difficult but necessary conversation about how the curriculum — school-wide — should be re-designed in light of 21st century learning realities. What skills do we want students who graduate from our schools to have?

As long as tech directors’ roles are limited to “integrating technology” into the existing curriculum, I fear that there won’t be much meaningful change at a time when we desperately need a new approach.

At Triangle Learning Community Middle School (opening in fall 2014), we do not break the world into traditional academic disciplines. We have a very different schedule, and one that can be flexible to take advantage of learning opportunities that arise in the Triangle and around the world.

We also have two teachers following the same group of 20 students from sixth through eighth grade so they get to know each student well as an individual. Students will constantly create authentic content for a global audience as they learn to be empathetic citizens of the world. They will learn, for example, about the Syrian Civil War by making a web page that shows both what they have learned and what unanswered questions they might want to pursue in the future (because you can’t fully understand that conflict in just a few months of study).

Are students capable of this sort of work, where they take primary responsibility for their own learning in an environment where thoughtful adults support them as they pursue their passions?

Seymour Papert, an MIT mathematician, computer scientist, and educator, thinks so:

“I believe in “Kid Power.” Our education systems underestimate kids. It INFANTALIZES them by assuming they are incompetent. An eight-year old is capable of doing 90% of tech support and a 12 year old 100%. And this is not exploiting the children: it is giving them a powerful learning experience.”

Source: Papert, Seymour. (2006) Seymour Papert on USINFO. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE. Bureau of International Information Programs USINFO Webchat Transcript. November 14, 2006.

Should students be taking tests to make sure they know some basic information? Sure, but here’s a twist: let them take the tests on their own to demonstrate mastery. Don’t require everyone to take the same test on the same day. Don’t grade them. Let students grade and report their own work. Trust students to show that they have mastered the basic skills. Then verify, by having them apply those skills to make something meaningful. If they can’t apply the skills, it will become apparent which skills they have to work on more.

We live in a multimedia world, and in this interactive visual world, our children must be able to create and publish original digital products that they can use to communicate with just as effectively as they can with text.

Source: http://www.fluency21.com/fluencies.cfm

Are students in your school’s curriculum creating and publishing original digital products the way Shelley Wright’s class in Canada is doing with the topic Slavery Still Exists? If not, why not?

So just to be clear (and because it’s fun to use capital letters): we SHOULD NOT integrate technology into the existing curriculum.

We should completely rethink the existing curriculum in light of the learning that’s possible using 21st century technology.

If department heads are looking out for their own fiefdoms, and if the directive is to “integrate technology into the curriculum,” then the overall curriculum will stay basically the same. And we’ll miss out on the learning opportunities that our world presents.

This is not to say that there are not great teachers in various traditional disciplines — there are. And yes, it “worked” for those of us who went through the system. But I think we figured out, after we graduated from school, how to do some of the important things we need to do in life.

If we let the traditional curriculum dictate how we do things, school remains too much about disseminating knowledge (which is reasonably easy to measure on end-of-course or AP tests) when it should be about coaching students to become life-long learners and empathetic global citizens.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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8 Responses to DO NOT “integrate technology” into the curriculum

  1. Karl says:

    I think you nailed it and I would like to think schools are looking at something beyond adding a computer to a classroom in order to call it current best practice. Here’s to not doing more stuff that makes no real world sense:)

  2. Your school sounds exciting. I signed up to follow your posts and the school’s innovation. Thanks for sharing the story and perspective.

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Hi Maureen. Thanks for checking out my blog. I just looked at your blog, and I like the concept of “lesson choreography”. We’d also do well to remember that 10 minutes is a maximum amount of time students (or adults, frankly) should be sitting before they are asked to create something of their own.

  3. callanrg says:

    Thank you for articulating something I felt but didn’t realize until now. Although it’s difficult–the more you know, the harder it is to deal with those who remain ignorant. But… we’re educators! We can do it!

  4. Steve, this post is brilliant. And it needs to be shared with and read by every stakeholder in K-16 education in the country. I’ll do my part to share it as much as I can. I could NOT (you’re right, caps are fun) agree with you more.

    –Ben

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      Hi Ben (or should I say, HI BEN!) 🙂

      Thanks for your kind words. I look forward to reading your blog. I’m now following you on Twitter.

      Take care,

      Steve

      • Yes, I’m following you, too. VERY excited to read more about this middle school you’re starting. I have to be careful, though…just from reading this one post, I have a feeling it will make me want to open a school of my own, too!

        -Ben

  5. The question that remains is how to help teachers and administrators make that shift (and I agree that it has less to do with the technology than the philosophy and pedagogy). I’ve seen more openness to this in my own state now with the adoption of the Common Core (and to be frank, it is surprising to me that this is a result of our state’s adoption but it is, thanks to emphasis on use of media and technology).
    I think a lot of teachers are waiting to get support from their administrators. If that is not there, nothing changes. Or very little, and only in small pockets. But I agree that everyone needs to be in the room to talk curriculum shifts. The problem is that the power for change is not equal. Administrators hold it. Teachers push against it. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.
    I think it is great you have a great vision for a charter school (is that right?) and I hope that what works for you gets shared with the public schools, which need to see more examples. In our areas, our charter schools are like little isolated islands that we public school teachers never hear from … ever. They may indeed be doing innovation, but we never learn about it. It’s incredibly frustrating (given that they are run with tax money and touted by our state leaders for their innovative learning environments).
    Good luck.
    Kevin

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