Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Tech Transformation Starts Here

The final week of our term, four months into our school year, and at today's staff meeting the technology transformation has finally got the seal of approval: when we return from Christmas holidays the IT department will start on a flexible schedule. Welcome to the 21st century!

I've been at my new school since the summer. I moved here from NIST, one of the top IT schools in Thailand and knew it would be a real challenge to implement changes and move the IT forward. My first few months have been spent building relationships and modeling new ways of approaching teaching and learning. My aim was not just IT integration into the units of inquiry, but that IT would be totally embedded into the entire PYP curriculum, transforming teaching and learning. For many months I have been hungry for change, knowing that it would be difficult to move forward with the traditional model of classes having one 40 minute period of IT each week.

I first introduced a flexible IT schedule when I was working at the International School of Amsterdam about 7 years ago. The purpose of this was to increase students' understanding and adapt to their needs using both a flexible schedule and more collaboration with my colleagues who were classroom teachers. I had become concerned that time was the driving force of the IT programme as lessons were based on a rigid schedule, planned as one lesson per week for the duration of a unit of inquiry. This meant that at times students had to do an activity before they were really ready for it and some projects seemed to last indefinitely. As well as that it seemed that IT was viewed as an independent subject by both the students and the teachers, rather than a tool to support learning. Sometimes forced connection were being made between the IT skills and the content covered in class. A main concern of mine was that students didn't necessarily transfer skills from one area to another and that students didn't see the connection between IT and their learning. I also noticed that some classroom teachers would feel at a loss or overwhelmed during the IT lessons, especially if there was pressure on these teacher to be "ready" content-wise for the IT class. On other occasions I noticed that these teachers did not know that IT could make the students' task easier and therefore they did not think of bringing the students to the lab or booking out the laptops for them to do it.

Following a Harvard Project Zero summer school, I started working with a small group of teachers at ISA to pilot a new way of approaching IT. We started with many questions:
How can we better integrate IT?
Who is responsible for what?
How can IT support students’ needs and learning as well as the curriculum?
How can we find a balance between the classroom needs and the IT curriculum?
How can we efficiently communicate between ourselves?
How can we get the students to see computers as a tool to support their learning and expression?
How can we implement change?
How can we support teacher’s own understanding of IT so that it positively impacts their use and teaching?

The first change we made was the introduction of a flexible schedule for those teachers (one per grade level) who volunteered to try this out. Lessons were not timetabled but scheduled based on the students' needs. This meant that classes could go for periods of time without any IT lessons, but would then have longer or more frequent lessons when they were needed. This allowed us to focus more on curricular and student needs and allowed for more individualized work. I met with the class teachers regularly, but often on a more casual basis, to discuss what was needed - this became a better use of meeting time as we were focused on immediate needs and this led to more mutual trust and appreciation between us. Now that we had a shared responsibility for the lessons there was much more co-planning, with each of us focusing on our particular area. At the same time I worked on empowering the classroom teachers so that they could lead at least one of their units of inquiry in the computer lab and could independently continue work done in the IT labs back in their classrooms using laptops, or they could have the students apply the skills learnt in the IT lessons back in class in a different context. We moved onto collaborative assessments, designing rubrics that we were both responsible for completing though with different areas within the assignment for each of us. The IT activities started to show more students' understanding.

At the end of the first year we assessed where we had come and what the impact had been on student learning. This is what we found:
  • IT was used according to need and not according to a fixed timetable.
  • Students had become able to determine when using a computer was appropriate. We constantly asked them "Is this the best tool for the task?"
  • Students' attitudes had changed: IT was seen as a tool.
  • The new way of teaching allowed students to get to higher levels of thinking.
  • There was a better balance of time. Some teachers reduced the amount of time spent in IT lessons because the activities we did directly related to the curriculum, others increased the amount of time spent in IT because they now saw the relevance of it
  • Lessons were better done when the students had the understanding they needed - sometimes this was at the end of a unit of inquiry as they worked on a summative assessment, sometimes it was at the beginning of a unit as IT was used for tuning in and finding out.
  • It allowed for an authentic and growing curriculum.
  • Students became more accepting of differentiation through IT.
  • It allowed me as the IT teacher to think from a macroscopic view instead of a microscopic one.
  • I had become responsible for the IT development of both students and teachers.
  • I had started to explore new boundaries with the aim of integrating and further enhancing understanding.
  • Assessments were more meaningful as different lenses were being used to look at the students, and as a result we were more able to appreciate each child's development.
This journey has not always been a smooth one - over the years I have seen tensions and growing pains. For example there have sometimes been problems when classes in the same grade have been doing different activities, in particular some of the teachers who were not part of this process became insecure and wondered if their students were being "neglected" as the perception was that the teachers involved in this project got more support in general. The teachers involved could also get frustrated when having to deal with the inflexible structure others were using. Some teachers initially found it difficult to let go of the weekly lesson routine, others had a problem with time management.

Seven years on, and now in my 3rd school where I am about to introduce a flexible schedule, I feel I have learnt a lot along the way and that this journey will, this time round, hopefully be easier. Now, as well as introducing the flexible schedule I am also introducing more Web 2.0 tools and 21st century literacy skills. I often think that is one of the best things about being an IT teacher - everything is constantly moving forward and I almost never have to teach the same thing twice! I am looking forward to exploring new ways of doing things and developing the students, teachers and myself all at the same time.

Photo Credit: Ghost in the Machine by ehoyer

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