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A senior administrator’s view of technology and learning

An interview with Jordan Tinney, Deputy Superintendent of Surrey School District, the largest school board in British Columbia. He is responsible for the coordination of educational programs, including technology as it relates to the support of learning.

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What are your priorities for seeing that technology is appropriately integrated into the learning program?

The first thing that comes to mind in terms of the priorities is and always will be student learning and improvement in student learning. In my experience, the best way to integrate initiatives is to allow time and space for teachers to collaborate. So the priority for implementation of technology is to find and create opportunities for teacher collaboration with the purpose of creating effective learning environments.  If technology plays a role in creating these environments, that’s great, but powerful learning environments can occur almost anywhere and don’t require technology.

. . . I think the most successful thing we do is provide time or personnel for teachers to collaborate. You can have tremendously brilliant shining spots and examples in any district or in any school with one teacher, but we always see support as coming in teams. Having teachers collaborate is one of the most powerful ways to have their learning be sustainable, for them to see what it takes to implement technology appropriately and for their learning to accelerate as well.

Too often when people say technology they mean computers, and of course it can be so much more. If the priority is learning, [and there are] ways in which the tools and practices can [enhance] that learning, then I think we need to be doing all we can as administrators to support that. 

Why is the discussion about technology so confusing at times?

…the word technology gets used in so many different contexts. One of the touchstones I’ve always used in my life was Ursula Franklin’s great Massey Lecture series called The Real World of Technology about technology as practice and not necessarily a set of tools and instruments. Too often when people say technology they mean computers, and of course it can be so much more. If the priority is learning, [and there are] ways in which the tools and practices can [enhance] that learning, then I think we need to be doing all we can as administrators to support that. Technology gets confusing because some may believe that the attractiveness of shiny devices means a school or district is progressive and embracing what some call 21st century learning. So sometimes the focus gets distracted to the devices and their link with the 21st century but in reality, 21st century learning is about connections, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and all of these things are supported by technology but it’s not about the technology.

What are essential components of effective use of technology in the classroom?

[Integrating] technology into the classroom isn’t just turning over a cart of iPads; that’s doomed to fail. It will be glamorous for a while and it will be engaging for students for a while, but the other thing is however you do it, it needs to be sustainable as well. Technology is uniquely placed as a way to support collaboration, provide access to information and to share learning between and among people. The power of technology used in appropriate ways is absolutely remarkable.  I think of an acronym ‘AIM’ [Access, Inspiration and Motivation] when I think of technology. Technology provides Access to information that students or teachers find engaging. Through that Access, they then are Inspired to pursue topics that link their learning and curiosity to real-world problems that they see around them in school and society. Through inspiration comes Motivation. The Motivation is to apply the learning to go beyond curiosity to engagement and responsibility for addressing and solving real-world problems. So to me, AIM is about Access, Inspiration, and Motivation. A final piece for technology, and this is really important to me, is to use technology to share your learning with others. The sharing is a powerful way of embedding understanding and making connections to learn more.

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Caption: Jordan Tinney
Credit: Surrey School District

...when I see the power that technology gives us in terms of the new ways of collaborating and sharing, and the quality of the resources that people are sharing, I think it’s just changing everything.

What is the right combination of district-level support and school-based activities?

We know that top-down doesn’t work. People will find all sorts of interesting and innovative ways to diffuse and deflect and  . . . they struggle with a top-down approach. And we know that purely bottom-up doesn’t work either. I love the Michael Fullan quote about a thousand flowers where he says that if you take that approach, it turns out that a thousand flowers actually don’t [bloom] and those that do aren’t perennial. It’s a perfect quote. We know that it has to be a balance of top-down and bottom-up. But I think the top-down piece is not ‘hey, you should be doing this.’ The top-down piece is we know that when we put teams of teachers together with a focus that is around improving instruction that they will do great work. But they need some support and guidance

So what does that support look like?

…it doesn’t look like us coming to them and saying ‘hey have we got a deal for you.’ It looks like us saying we believe that implementing technology can support instruction and help support teachers be more effective in the classroom and in some ways make your job easier. We want to make this offer to you. If you’re interested in exploring technology we’ve got some money available for you and we can support you with hardware. Here’s what we’re looking for from you: a commitment of time, a commitment to collaborate and a commitment to share out with us at the end. It’s an in-between. I think it’s top-down in that the top is committing philosophically that we value this and that we will value and support it. And it’s from the bottom up in that teachers want to do this work, they want to do it well and they know they need support. And so they look to the district for that support.

Why are you writing a blog?

A [It] was just kind of a hobby, really...now it’s gotten to a place where I realize that the writing is changing my way of thinking and what I want, sort of my purpose of doing the writing. So I’ve taken the blog (www.jordantinney.org) and I’ve changed it to be a series of lessons in leadership, and I’ve now got it linked up to iTunes so that it’s a Podcasting series as well. It’s very much a work in progress. I’m working with Apple and writing an iTunes U course for a series of seminars or courses, which I will provide free – the whole point is to give it away to anyone who wants to use these modules on leadership on the district level or the school level. Take this, use it, massage it as you will. The reason I tell that story is: when I see the power that technology gives us in terms of the new ways of collaborating and sharing, and the quality of the resources that people are sharing, I think it’s just changing everything. You ask any teacher what they want. They say: time and resources. The resources are there. They just need to be able to get access [to them] and to start to figure out how to use them in a daily way in the classroom.

How is the digital revolution changing how we think about teaching and learning?

I think that the way we envisioned learning in the past truly is about to be left completely behind. The way in which we’re seeing the youth of today – and the adult stuff today – the number of adults I hear saying “I can’t get my student off their texting.” But have you ever gone to an adult meeting and watched how many adults are texting? The demographic is changing and it’s coming with the kids and into the adult life. The ways in which technology is being used is changing everything.

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Caption: Students at Vancouver’s John Oliver Secondary School work with an iPad for a class project.
Credit: Vancouver School District

The whole notion that the teacher is the content expert is just gone. But the teacher is and will always be that magical link between how do you take that content knowledge and apply it to the real world, to the world that is meaningful to the student. So the teachers are just the masters of that, and we know that the research says that the number one thing that improves learning in the classroom is the quality of the teacher and that interaction between the teacher and the student.

But I just think the nature of that interaction is changing, from Dr. Tinney is the guy who knows everything about physics to: Dr. Tinney is the guy who showed us this website and showed us how he was using this, and we can now go here with it. It’s a totally different relationship and it’s far more a coach than it is a content expert. If you’ve played a lot of sports or you know kids who play sports, the respect that they have for their coach and the admiration for what the coach did for them, it’s a different relationship from classroom teacher. And it doesn’t mean that the coach herself was the greatest hockey player or the greatest volleyball player or basketball player, but they knew something that allowed the kids to make it real for themselves. And it was that something that made the coach special. I think the relationship of the teacher is more important than ever, but I think we have to let go of the fact that the content is just gone.

How does the 21st century learner look compared to 15-20 years ago?

There’s no fact that kids don’t know anymore. They can simply Google it. If you give them five minutes, they can find anything out. You can’t say I am going to teach you all there is to know about glaciation in the next six months. They can go find it right now. That changes again the relationship between the student and the teacher, and I think the learner feels way more responsible and way more self-empowered than they have in the past. In the past, the teacher could play the role of a gatekeeper of knowledge. But that gatekeeper is gone. So the teacher has lost that power-over piece. And I don’t mean power in a negative sense. But they were the ones who had the key and they don't anymore. But you still can’t Google what’s in your heart. So while the teacher no longer holds the key to the content, they may still hold the key to “Jordan, what I’ve noticed that what really gets you excited is . . .” and “Have you ever seen  . . .?” It’s that type of a gatekeeper. It’s way more of a guide, but an expert guide, an absolute expert guide. I think the learner has changed completely in that the learners feel more empowered and capable than ever, but they still need that guide.

How do you know quality learning is happening?

You listen to the kids, you listen to teachers. I asked the question the other day online: If there is a set of core competencies for the 21st century, where are the assessments and what do they look like? I don’t know. It’s a fair point. When I sit and talk to a student, I feel I know a lot about what they know because they can describe it to me. But how do we monitor how we are performing as a system? I don’t have an answer for that yet. I really don’t know. But what people will gravitate to immediately will be what are the essential competencies of the 21st century curriculum and how will we assess them? And I wouldn’t be surprised if they come out as something very typical and traditional in reading and writing and numeracy, but then have them embedded in a much larger context around things like civic literacy, environmental literacy, and sustainability.

How do you know technology is making a difference in learning?

Perhaps people need to step away from that and say, look, if you look at the way in which technology is changing society now, life and our knowledge and everything that goes with it, it’s a given that technology is embedded in your life. If it is, how can we make sure that technology is also embedded in school life so that schools aren’t something that are so drastically different from daily life, so that when students then make that transition to life after school, it’s seamless. Yes, I’ve used this before and I’m familiar with it and can apply it in this new circumstance.

EN BREF - Une interview auprès de Jordan Tinney, directeur adjoint du Surrey School District, le plus grand conseil scolaire en Colombie-Britannique. Il est chargé de la coordination des programmes éducatifs, y compris des technologies utilisées pour soutenir l’apprentissage.