Sunday, January 24, 2010

"If things seem under control, you are just not going fast enough." (Mario Andretti)

I was reading The Learning Blog by Todd Wandio this weekend and came across the quote that forms the title of this blog post, and it started me thinking of how things have changed at my school since my arrival 6 months ago. I arrived in Switzerland after spending 4 years in Thailand, and before that I taught in Holland. In 2005, when I moved to Thailand, I think it was true to say that technology in schools in Asia was quite a way behind technology in schools in Europe. Where was my interactive whiteboard? Why were students still coming to IT 1 lesson per week rather than when they actually needed to use IT? Why didn't the school have a website where student work could be posted and shared? Why was the only software on the computers Microsoft Office? And had anyone ever heard of ePortfolios?

In the past 5 years things in Asia have changed rapidly! I know we are constantly seeing updated versions of the Did You Know? where we are told that the USA is falling further and further behind countries such as India and China, but in my years in Thailand I actually lived through that change. Our school became the first tablet school in Bangkok - every student in Grades 9-12 had their own tablet. In the elementary school in Grades 4 and 5, there was a cart in each room with enough laptops for half the class (if teachers wanted each student to have one to themselves they just negotiated to borrow the cart next door with their colleagues). Teachers obviously had to change their teaching as a result. We developed a website for elementary students where they could post their work. We introduced ePortfolios for Early Year students to record what they were learning. Students in Grades 4 and 5 started making their own ePortfolios. We started blogging about the PYP Exhibition. Teachers had their own wiki pages on the school portal. We bought software that was specifically designed for elementary students, as well as using Web 2.0 tools. We came up with IT benchmarks, and then integrated them into every subject so that IT was taught through the units of inquiry in elementary school and through the various subjects in secondary. By the time I left we had got some interactive whiteboards too. We had class sets of cameras and video cameras, digital microscopes, roamers and beebots. Teachers were leading their own IT lessons, and I was out there in the classrooms helping them. Life was good!

And then we moved back to Europe. Now this was a family decision, rather than a career move for me and it was a bit like deja vu. Where was my interactive whiteboard? Why wasn't there a school website with student work on it? Why don't we have laptops in every class? And do you seriously expect me to write IT reports on a stand-alone basis for over 400 students - why isn't IT integrated into the curriculum here? Do you get the picture? It was like going back in time all over again. I was experiencing reverse culture shock, as for some reason I had expected that technology in Europe would have moved forward at the same pace as it had in Asia. Actually I was expecting that my new school would be ahead of the game, but it isn't, and having got used to IT supporting the curriculum and being used as a tool, coming here was a bit of a rude awakening.

So bit by bit I have started to change things. Out has gone Microsoft Office, in has come all the free Web 2.0 applications. Out has gone the fixed lesson times, in has come the flexible schedule. We have a website too now. But what hasn't really changed is people's mindsets - it's what Ian Jukes called TTWWADI (That's The Way We've Always Done It). The last time I mentioned that I wanted to see teachers leading their own IT, I was told that we need to "manage change" so that it's not so stressful (which means I am moving too fast). My response has been that we are already far behind. If we are not moving fast the gap between us and them is getting bigger by the day. In fact in IT if you stand still, you are really moving backwards.

This Christmas holiday my family and I went to Wengen, a ski resort in the Alps. The photo above is of me on a toboggan, right by the north face of the Eiger. I had never been on a toboggan before. There I was at the top of the mountain, looking at a run down into the valley of about 8 kms. Some bits were steep. I had asked the guy who rented us the toboggans if it was safe - yes, he said, as long as you're not drinking! I could see families with children on these things, zooming off down the mountain, but for me letting go was scary. There are no brakes and nothing to steer with, and fairly sheer drops at the sides of the run. Not to mention the skiers and snowboarders who come hurtling down right across your path (apparently they have to give way to you as they are going faster - ha ha). For the first few kilometres I wanted to dig my heels in ALL THE TIME. I definitely didn't want to go faster. I was sure I would lose control and hurtle over the edge. But what I discovered is that if you don't lift your feet up you don't move. And being stuck on the side of a mountain is no fun either. You just have to tuck up your feet and go with the flow, lean a little this way, lean a little that way, and trust that the many thousands of people who have gone down before you know what they are doing. And if you fall off, well most of the time it's no big deal - you just pick yourself up, climb back on your toboggan and set off again.

Somehow I realise I have to encourage this same attitude in the teachers here with regard to technology. They don't have to be "in control" all the time. They have to go with the flow and stop digging their heels in. It can be exciting and exhilarating to let go and see where the ride takes you.

Anyone for tobogganing?


  1. I am having so much fun reading your posts Maggie. I am re-evaluating some of my perceptions about what is happening in the rest of the world (and right here). I hope you don't mind if I blog-lift your acronym of TTWWADI :) I am right smack dab in the middle of this. "I have been doing it this way for 30 years, why would I change it now?"
    I keep trying to step on the gas because I know that we are already changes the game so exponentially fast that we can't just inch forward. I know that it isn't reasonable to expect everyone to be up on every new technology. But at the same time, those students that we are teaching right now are missing out on important learning.
    What is working at your school to get teachers to join you on the toboggan adventure?

  2. It's really a question of working with the willing. I am trying to identify one teacher per grade level who seems ready to move forward at a faster pace. Someone who is not the grade coordinator (they have enough to do) and someone who will be staying in the same grade next year. I want to spend the last half of the year giving those people extra time and attention, working in their classrooms in order to get them ready to pick up their feet and started on the downhill journey. I am hoping we can share these achievements publicly - at a staff meeting for example - so that other teachers will want to get onboard too. My aim is that these teachers will then become mentors next year to others in their grade. I'm thinking it won't be until my 3rd year here that we really see a majority of teachers using Web 2.0 tools - and my fear is that the rest of the world who are moving at a faster pace than us will be even further ahead by then. Baby steps are not enough right now. You can't leap a canyon in two bounds. We just have to go for it!