Just let go


I was talking with our outstanding integration specialist at my school and we were trying to figure out how to get teachers to integrate more. When initially proposed to the idea, teachers seem very enthusiastic and open to ideas. It is an exciting time – then comes the action, the execution and instead of something special, engaging and meaningful we are handed excuses.

Here is what we hear:
* I’m too busy right now – my schedule is crazy and I just don’t have time to figure something new out.
* I don’t know – it sounds a little too complicated. What if the students have a question that I can’t answer?
* Let me talk with the rest of my team – if they are for it – let’s do it! (Usually there is at least one objector which puts it on hold or kills it)
* I already have a unit that works pretty well – don’t fix what’s not broken right?

There are others but let’s not beat a dead horse. While these are all decent excuses, being a classroom teacher myself I know that they just usually don’t hold up under real scrutiny (though the first one can at times). I’m not going to pull these excuses apart because that isn’t going to address the issue. Instead, I’m going to talk about why I think teachers are reluctant and how to get them on board without making the teachers feel small, inadequate or dumb.

Why not?

First, the teachers I work with are intelligent, experienced and well trained. They are passionate about what they do and almost always think about their students first, so why wouldn’t they want to explore new and possibly better ways to engage their students?

Well, it is a different way of thinking. Our students and teachers are use to creating and following lesson plans. I’ll plan the unit like this with lessons where students will do these tasks. I should expect work to look like this of this quality. Throughout the unit I will explain what is expected to be learned and how to demonstrate that learning. An A+ will look like this and an F will most likely look like this.

It is all directed by the teacher. It is predictable and it works and this isn’t a bad thing people, but it doesn’t allow for a a wide variety of creativity or expression. For example having students do a PowerPoint. You know what you’re going to get. All PowerPoints behave the same and it is well…boring and once students know what it should look like many of the presentation created will look the same like a cookie cutter.

Technology can give students choices of how to demonstrate their learning. Students get to determine what information to present, how to present it to make an impact on their audience and how to publish this on the web for others (not just their class or teacher to view). Some students could make a blog while another will make a video while others still will create a website and some will not use technology at all. This choice allows the students to better evaluate their tools and how to deliver their message more effectively.

This scares a lot of teachers. Teachers may be delivering and guiding students to the knowledge, but now technology enters into the picture and students have to synthesize and internalize that knowledge a little more in order to better mold it to a specific digital container. With a wide variety of choices out there, students need to make some critical decisions. This means that teachers can no longer direct everything. They are no longer in complete control of what is happening in the class. They are more guides now, they need to let the f#*$ go. Just let go and take a step back, give lots of choices and see what happens. It’s a little scary, like letting a child drive a bus.

This is not easy – it wasn’t for me and I doubt it will be for others.

It means taking a step back from directing the class and now you are observing, guiding, questioning students and asking them to defend their choices making sure essential questions and the content is paramount. Some students may make a video, others may make an interactive story while others may just use a PowerPoint or use no technology at all. Focusing more on the content and less on the container makes for a more meaningful experience.

That’s great but not for me

Some teachers don’t like this. One reason is the technical aspect What if the students have a technical question and I can’t answer it? This is a valid concern and here is what I tell people. Well, then you can’t answer it. Most programs are meant to be used by just about everybody. Which means, if you don’t know how to put a picture in a Prezi, you can probably find out how through their support page, a short YouTube video or just by Googling it. These three choices usually can solve the problem, if it doesn’t – let go and see how the student solves the problem? Maybe they find a work around, maybe they find a different way to present the material or maybe they abandon that tool altogether.

It is the last choice that scares teachers and students. As educators – there is this misconception that we have all the answers – but NO! We clearly don’t nor are we meant to. Education is a journey more than just a quest. We aren’t just spoon feeding information but helping students to find meaningful information not just something that students can recall for a test. What if they need to start all over again. It happens, in schools, in business, in life. At that point is when I usually step in to assist, but only a little, just enough to show them that it is possible to reach completion.

Another reason is that teachers may feel students will focus more on the technology and not the content. I’ve seen this too – hell I’ve even made this mistake in my teaching. I taught a podcast unit and focused on the software of the podcast instead of the content itself. What I ended up with was thirteen painfully boring, uninformative and uninspired podcasts. Students were merely checking boxes and didn’t care that much about their end product and were more interested in the process. Not what I was hoping for.

How did I fix it? I didn’t, I had to reflect and try it again the next year. It was a failure but from it, I learned a lot and even talked about it with my students and discussed how they could have been better.

The next year I let go and focused more on the product and very little of the technical process. That’s not to say I didn’t have issues, I stepped in when I felt it was necessary and questioned their creative process, topics and how they planned and helped with specific technical questions. In the end, I ended up with fourteen podcasts of varying quality. Some very good, some not good and most with nice qualities that had their moments but all had topics that they cared about and wanted to share it with a larger audience which made it a better product that they, and myself, were interested in. There was passion behind most of them and they varied with their creativity. Yes-that’s what I’m talking about!

Yet another reason is the fear of failure. When I heard that first batch of podcasts, I didn’t even try to grade them. They were just bad. I was depressed – I failed. I wasn’t sure what the students got out of the unit. They clearly knew the process but completely faltered at expressing ideas to their audience. Only part of the unit got through and I would argue the wrong part.

So what do I do? To go back and do it again, would mean sacrificing another unit and be out of sync with my colleague. How would the admin fell about that? How would parents feel about that? I can’t necessarily throw the curriculum in the garbage can I?

Lots of questions and as you read earlier I had a few days of listening and discussing with my class that yielded very good results. I felt OK moving on after that but I was pretty disappointed and scared on how to “fix it” initially. This leads to a larger question of curriculum mapping and if it is valuable tool or a limiting one. I am not prepared for that question folks-maybe at a later day.

How to get teachers on board?

As you’ve read there are a lot of issues here that are hidden behind those one or two sentence excuses, so how do we get over those issues? I talked about letting go but how? Let’s focus on that

Know your goals

One thing that this important (whether you are using technology or not) is to know what you want to accomplish. That will help you and your students stay on task. If they come to you with some crazy IT heavy presentation, point them back to the original goal and ask how this project achieves that. If they can’t defend it – they need to go back to planning.

Integration specialists? Use ’em!

If you have an integration specialists (this role can have different names) use them! In my experience, the people I’ve met in this role (I’ve been one informally before) have been awesome! They can make the guides, help team-teach, or give suggestions of different tools to use and how to bring it into the classroom meaningfully.

These people also have an excellent handle of assessing failures and areas of improvement. You don’t need to do everything yourself.

Don’t go it alone

If you work on a team get them to help out. Have an integration specialist? Use those people. One thing I see, is that some teachers try to integrate and it falls short of their expectations and they then abandoned it altogether. No real discussion, no other thought and minimal reflection. If you are working on this with another colleague then these rarely happens. You have someone to share the joy of success or the dread of failure and then someone you feel comfortable with talking about why the unit ended up the way it did.


Changing the tools you use, the way you approach lessons and having a more collaborative approach to tech integration takes time. Don’t force it, more often than not, people who force tech into their lessons aren’t terribly interested in thoughtfully planning it out or thoughtfully reflecting on the outcomes. Take your time.

When I introduced my school to Edmodo through a workshop, I believe no one from that workshop ever used it. I know this because I followed up with each of them. Was it discouraging? Sure, a little bit but you know it was the end of the year. Then I did the same workshop the following fall. This time 3 our 25 people started using it. Then it became a snowball. More and more people jumped on because they heard and saw how effective it was in other people’s classrooms – that’s what I’m talking about.

It took time though for people to come around to the idea of using a learning management system.

Also my podcasting unit took three years to develop into something that was pretty special. It took time, reflection, and collaboration.

Resilience and being risky

This is a biggie. You have to be prepared to possibly fail. You also have to prepare to bounce back from failures which inevitably happen. Both of these ideas scare the shit out of people – ALL PEOPLE. Few people I have ever encountered like to fail and the stigma associated with a “failure” is mighty powerful, so putting oneself in a position where they could fail is not high on many people’s to-do list, but if you want to be a great teacher then you have to be prepared to see how far out you can go.

Whew – that is one damn long post. If you’re still reading and we ever cross paths remind me that you read to the end of this post and I’ll buy you a refreshing beverage of your choice and we can talk more about education technology – or whatever you want. You earned friendo.

2 thoughts on “Just let go”

  1. Mate, I read to the end. Mine’s a Leffe Blonde. Seriously, great post. Can I suggest that the answer to curriculum mapping is a complete re-write of the curriculum and how it is delivered and assessed? I’m finding that writing detailed rubrics for every topic, covering existing objectives but also incorporating values, attributes and skills we want our students to acquire, helps to force a change in approach. In doing this, we can communicate clearly what we value, whilst framing objectives in a way that allows students the freedom to create and meet objectives in their own way. This doubles as the planning and frees up the teacher to facilitate learning as the students progress. There’s a teacher in NJ taking this to another level, incorporating scaffolding resources to help guide students as they make their own way through each topic: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/interactive-rubrics-assessment-for-learning-michelle-lampinen?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=blog-interactive-rubrics-assessment-image-repost
    Hope this is helpful.

    1. Phil, thanks for the comment and we need to meet up at the Belgium Beer Cafe to redeem your prize! 🙂 I like your idea on being more detailed for curriculum mapping. I love that transparency it makes it much easier for students to make connections and to understand how it fits in with the bigger question.

      I new idea that I’ve been playing around with is the idea that all curriculum is bad. I’m not on board with it yet, but there are some interesting arguments to be made here. The first time I encountered this thinking is with this article from Gary Stager: http://www.stager.org/articles/dangerousidea.html

      What do you think? It is a bit radical.

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