WHY WHY WHY… Keep asking WHY.

In a former life I was an Ed Tech Director. One day, my boss asked me to form a committee to develop a plan for a refresh of our classroom technology. He wanted to know what new classroom technology to buy, at what cost, and and on what timeline.

I responded. “Sure, but before I do, I have a question for you. Imagine you walk into a classroom and think to yourself, ‘Wow, THIS is the best example of teaching and learning I have ever seen. If only every teacher and student could have an engaging experience like THIS, the learning for students in our district would be off the charts fantastic.’ Can you please describe for me what it is that would make you think that?”

Why ask that question?

Technology is not the driver of learning. It seems ridiculous to have to say that, but I do.

I am part of a Facebook support group for teachers that use a specific technology product. A question was posed to the group:

A screenshot of a facebook post that reads "Question: What are your favorite virtual activities that work for engagement?" It shows 7 likes and 31 comments.

Quickly teachers chimed in to offer ideas.

A slide with screenshots of Facebook comments, including: Nearpod, Jamboard, Book Creator, Quizizz, Kahoot, Whiteboard.fi, Mentimeter

Here’s the thing…

The initial question didn’t ask what technology tools do teachers use to check for understanding or to provide for collaborative learning space. The question asked for “activities” that work for engagement. “Activities” signifies that the response should be a verb, but the responses were nouns.

Why is that?

Before I answer that, let’s look at Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle.

Sinek’s Golden Circle asks people to start by defining the WHY. It’s what drives us to do what we do and how we do it. In education, people may define the WHY as standards, or high stakes testing, or maybe college and career readiness (the new buzz phrase) but it’s deeper than that. The WHY is (or should be) something along the lines of providing students with the skills, knowledge, and capacity to lead a meaningful life.

Once we have an idea of what those skills and knowledge should be (WHY), we connect it with the standards we are told to teach (WHAT) and develop objectives and lessons (HOW) that guide progress towards achieving the WHY. Without the WHY, we’re back to the old factory model of “Open head, pour in content, move to next grade” education system.

So what’s this have to do with that Facebook post?

The teacher asked for ways (i.e. activities) to engage students in a virtual context. I would have expected responses like this one:

“I post a photo of a Renaissance painting to facilitate student-led conversations using the Step Inside Thinking Routine so that students can explore the historical era through a persona perspective. I have them share their responses in breakout rooms so that they can engage in authentic conversations which my students seem to enjoy. They then share a summary of the conversation when we reconvene.”

This type of answer engages in WHY. I can see from it that the teacher’s WHY includes: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, open dialogue, and reflective thought. It also shows the WHAT by connecting to world history and art standards. And there’s even some HOW in the explanation of the activity steps and the use of breakout rooms.

Technology products aren’t what create engagement or learning. People do that. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) defines engagement as the WHY of learning. It is how learners get engaged and stay motivated through challenge, excitement, or interest. Because engagement is the affective domain of the brain, “some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential” (UDL Guidelines).

“Some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.”

UDL Guidelines

For every product that was shared on that Facebook question as an engagement method, I can list ways in which that tool could also be used to disengage students from learning. The tool is just a tool. A hammer is great, but not when I need to loosen a screw.

As teachers, we need to be careful not to get caught up in the edu-glitter of Ed Tech tools. Today it’s JamBoard. Before that it was a SmartBoard. And a white board. And way before that, a chalkboard. The tools shift, but our focus on the WHY should not.

Oh yeah, back to my story…

I never got a response from my boss. And so he never got a refresh plan from me.

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