The Road Ahead: Schools Can Be Different

Schools can be different. Students can be trusted to do great things when given the opportunity. Will Richardson

The word perhaps most frequently used in conjunction with the use of technology in our schools today is appropriate. This predominant concern with the word appropriate when it comes to technology is bewildering. While not wishing to dismiss the importance of the appropriate use of technology, it is time to radically shift our focus on technology in schools from concern to opportunity, from control to empowerment.

Implicit in the ongoing focus on the appropriateness of technology use resides a fundamental, almost subliminal fear of the unknown, the uncontrollable; ironically, the possibility that students might learn without us. Many schools approach this issue under the guise of an archaic concept or control mechanism known as Digital Citizenship. What has always amazed me about “digital citizenship” is that it only seems to apply to students, rarely teachers or parents. It would be interesting to apply the logic of appropriate technology use to the latter or, more broadly, to everything we do in schools.

I sometimes wonder if, perhaps, we should add the word “appropriate?” (with the implicit, essential question mark) to all practices that underestimate the transformative potential of the digital landscape we live in today.

Is that worksheet appropriate? Is that poster assignment appropriate? Is passively taking notes for an hour appropriate? Is that test based on the outdated textbook chapter appropriate? Is that project that requires a shoebox and a glue stick appropriate? You get the picture.

Terry Heick recently suggested that we need to shift our focus from digital citizenship to digital leadership. (Thank you, Scott McLeod for sharing.) At its most basic level, Heick’s philosophy, quite simply, represents a shift from a suspicion of the worst outcomes of some students to a trust in the best potential of the majority. Referencing the work of Sylvia Duckworth and Jennifer Casa-Todd, Heick cites the following key definitions offered by George Couros:

  • Digital Citizenship: Using the internet and social media in a responsible and ethical way
  • Digital Leadership: Using the internet and social media to improve the lives, well-being, and circumstances of others.

Given this clear distinction, do we really need to continue spending precious time pondering which realm we aspire to for our students? Digital Citizenship is essential if we are to develop Digital Leadership, but where do schools mostly tend to focus? Should we continue to legislate with school policies for all based upon the possibility that a few might make mistakes? Do we, on the one hand, claim a belief in risk-taking and learning from mistakes as part of our learning philosophy and, on the other hand, model an actual conservatism that indicates we are positively nervous or insecure about technology in our schools?

We should question the appropriateness of everything we do in schools, not just how our students use technology. Is the commitment of policymakers and school leaders to educational technology appropriate? Surely it is time to move beyond the old thinking. We were warned a decade ago that shift happens. The response of schools has been a mixture of declaring vacuous, ambitious intent coupled with a softly, softly, this-is-hard-for-teachers approach. Every teacher I know is better than this, deserves better than this, is capable of and doing much more than this. Teachers are not reluctant. They simply ask for time and support. It is time to celebrate the hard work of teachers and leaders in this field, the capable, talented students waiting to be empowered.

The truth is … shift happened. So, what does it mean? According to Heick:

“The idea behind the shift? A kind of empathy–moving beyond seeing one’s self, and moving towards seeing one’s self in the physical and digital company of others. As digital technology and social media become more deeply embedded in our lives, and more nuanced in their function, this is a shift whose time has come. The question becomes, then, what’s the next evolution of this idea?”