The elephant in the room

We live in an age where the use and impact of digital technologies is undeniably evident in all aspects of our lives, and schools are engaging in some serious planning and professional learning to ensure that the programmes they provide for students remain relevant and engaging for todays learners – and of course, the use of ICTs features significantly in all of this. 

Much of my work takes me into schools where i see some inspiring work being done by teachers – fuelled by a potent mix of passion and professionalism. I'm often asked to come and provide further inspiration with a keynote and/or workshops, or to facilitate a planning process to ensure that what they're doing continues to be innovative and worthwhile. Such events are generally very 'emergy raising' and forward-focused.

Increasingly, however, I find myself approached at some point in the day by a principal or staff member with a question – one for which there is no easy answer. It's the elephant in the room that noone wants to bring up in open forums, but reserve for that quiet moment usually just as I'm about to leave. The question is asked in all manner of ways, but for the sake of abbreviation, I'll paraphrase it here as "how do we address the issue of colleagues who simply refuse to come on board and integrate ICTs into their teaching and learning in the way(s) we've agreed to as a school/staff?"

Why is this question so significant? Let's use the metaphor of a waka – all of the paddlers need to be paddling in the same direction, toward the same destination, and committed to keeping the rythm of the team that will ensure the work is evenly shared and doesn't become a burden for a few while others rest. The paddlers will come in all shapes and sizes, with different strengths and abilities, but in the waka they are a team. The waka is no place for individuals – it must be a team. One person not doing their part impacts on the whole team performance, making it so much harder for the others to keep up. 

Schools are pretty much like that – we celebrate the fact that we have staff who are specialists in their different fields, with a range of interests and expertise. They will be remembered by students for their idiosynchrases and things that made their style unique, but in pursuing the common and agreed vision and goals of the school, they are a team. 

Each of us reacts differently to coping with change and adopting different ways of doing things. There's a general agreement with the principles of Roger's work on the adoption of innovation for instance. This is why planning a professional learning programme in schools that caters for the spectrum of needs among staff is critical, and why the 'one-size-fits-all' approaches are well and truly a thing of the past. And if Rogers work is accepted, then there'll always be the late majority and even lagards in our midst – which is where the ideas submitted to a recent eSchoolNews article titled 10 ways to change the minds of tech-reluctant staff may be helpful.

But the questions posed to me aren't really about the reluctant staff, but those who are simply refusers. Their behaviour can be spotted a mile away, and includes:

  • The avoiders – "I'll make time for the ICT PD once I've done everything I need to for NCEA implementation…
  • The excuse makers – "My laptop has never functioned properly, so I can't really do that.."
  • The apologists – "I just don't seem to be able to make it work, it must be my glasses or something…"
  • The debaters – "We really need to be sure we're using the technology for the right reasons, not simply because it's there…"
  • The pessimists – "Technology is leading us down a road to destruction, there are so many problems lurking online…"

I'm sure there are others, but that pretty much covers what immediately springs to mind. While there are very few of these people occupying teaching positions in our schools, their impact on schools being able to achieve the agreed vision and purpose is often considerable. That's because the staff of a school are a team, and not a team playing for the glory of the team itself, or even for its fans. No, these teams are playing for the futures of the students they've been entrusted with. 

This is what makes the issue so significant. Education isn't about the teachers, it's about the learners – their future – and ours. Sure, we are a profession that values and respects the abilities of individuals. We'll generally go the extra mile to support those who are struggling, or to accommodate those who find change difficult. But when it comes to considering how we are working together to affect the futures of our learners, the focus must clearly be on the strategic goals we have agreed on, and on all striving to make that happen. Some may be reluctant, and they can be accommodated, but there isn't any room for refusers

Consider the health system for a moment. Think of a hospital that adopts a new online patient information system, having demonstrated the considerable advantages to patient treatment through having all patient information coordinated in one place and made available electronically to the specialists who may be treating him/her. The system requires that all of those working in it are familiar with and consciencous in using it. What would we make, then, of a nurse or doctor who simply refused to play their part, claiming that they prefered the old paper approach, or defended their position by arguing that the electronic data could be 'hacked into' and thus it wasn't in the patient's interest. Such behaviour wouldn't be tolerated, and most likely, the person concerned would face some sort of disciplinary action.

Consider now the case in a school, where, after consultation with the staff and parents, the decision is made to establish an online environment where resources and learning support can be made available for students to access in their own time. The school and its community agree that this is a positive thing to do in supporting students to become self-managing learners, and provides parents with the ability to take a more active interest in the work their offspring are engaged in. The action is included in the school's strategic plan and signed off by the BOT, with the expectation that every staff member will make a contribution to the online resource pool in order to make the online offerings complete. How do we then regard the teacher who, at the end of the  year, hasn't made any move to contributing, and defends his/her position with excuses/apology/debate etc.? No student has died. No student has been put at risk (apparently). But the fact remains that an expectation, agreed by the BOT and school management hasn't been met. 

This is the elephant in the room. We don't want to offend sensitivities. We make excuses for the teacher(s) involved – they are overworked, they are too old (or too young), they have had a rough year, etc. Other staff attempt to 'fill the gap'. Resentments loom large and rifts begin to occur among staff. Expectations are revised, and in the subsequent year's strategic plan putting materials online for students becomes an 'option' for staff. The refusers win, and the learners lose. 

Having heard of and witnessed such concerns for some time now, I have come to the following conclusions:

  1. It's time for leaders to lead. They must be prepared to take responsibility for following through on the strategic goals set by the school. These are not to be treated as a 'wish list', but as a plan containing specific actions and expectations backed up by evindence-based decision making.
  2. Every teacher should be be provided with opportunities for professional development that is relevant to their needs, and assists them in fulfilling the requirements of the job they do. Without it, such requirements become un-enforceable.
  3. Schools need to have a robust process for involving all staff and their communities in developing a vision and strategic plan, particularly where new initiatives are contemplated. Such decisions need to be reached on the basis of informed, future-focused thinking that is focused primarily on preparing students for their future.
  4. Teachers in schools need to be held to account for the contribution they are expected to make to the agreed strategic direction of the school. there ought to be clear links between the intentions of the school's strategic plan, and the objectives included in a teacher's performance review at the beginning of each cycle.

Such instances in schools may be rare – but where they do occur, it is the impact on students that I am concerned about – and of schools who remain continually unable to achieve the goals they set for themselves in terms of meeting their students needs. How mcuh longer can this be tolerated?

13 thoughts on “The elephant in the room

  1. Thank you for this Derek.  The 'elephant' theme is certainly one most educators can relate to and one that most administrators and other school leaders must acknowledge if barriers are to be overcome.  The comparitive example of the health profession should resonate with everyone as we all have had experiences or know of others where new technologies and approaches have saved lives or eased suffering.  No, we are not in the life saving business but we are in the profession of bringing  LIFE and all its colour onto a new playing field… and certainly out of some of its boxes and traditional models.   If we are still resisting much of the world our young people inhabit, then we can expect school to become a stagnant and avoidable place.  All the more reason for schools to drill down to the blueprints of what they want to bring to their learners and to their learning environments.  Scripting the critical steps if necessary, but doing so in a democratic but also deliberate way.  'Positive pressure' as I heard a colleague describe the other day.  If we all know the plan, then no one should complain when it's time to make the 'add on' (which used to be ICT) into the foundation of the whole property. 

  2. Here, here Derek! This post really hit a note with me. I have had many conversations with teachers who want to move forward but are working in less than fertile ground, the two main things that come up are number one having a shared strategic vision and plan, and then having leaders actually stop paying lip service all the time and actively leading their schools – every teacher, whether they are an early adopter, or less confident and capable can be supported, encouraged, even required to develop their practice for the good of our students.
    As for those who have every excuse in the book – I wish i had a $ for everytime i told one of these teachers – 'Well mate, it's not actually about you – it's about our students.'

  3. To continue Derek's illustration: Just as doctors are responsible for providing the best health care for their patients, so teachers must provide the best education for their pupils. ICT is a collection of learning-enhancement tools, not something to be mastered for itself*. If the 'refusers' believe that learning in their class is better by not using ICT then it should be easy for them to demonstrate that. If not, they should be removed, just a doctor who continued to harm patients by using superseded and proven-to-be-ineffective treatments, would also be removed from the profession after failing to themselves learn from the professional development provided. Patients are not to be harmed, and neither are children to have their education impeded. This is assuming of course that a school has the evidence that using ICT enhances learning. [*Preparing for the future is best done, as Derek mentions often, by providing transferable skills. Having reached my anecdotage, a story: as an advisor I visited a Yr 9 class being taught the details of how to drive Word Perfect. I asked why; the answer was that this was the 'industry standard' and they would need it for the workforce. My reply was that that was five years away and it would be better if they were taught how to write with a word processor, a transferable skill. Five years later, Word was the 'industry standard'. Not only is learning to write with a word processor transferable, it addresses the real problem: that if you have nothing to say you don't need to know how to use a word processor.]
    Now I'd like Derek to address another elephant: the worth of what is taught.

    1. Thanks for the comments Tony, Rachel and Andrew
      Seems like this post has hit a nerve – lots of traffic and messages on Twitter about it – you’re the only ones brave enough to respond here, and I appreciate that.
      Tony – I’ll gladly take you up on the challenge to reflect on the worth of what is being taught – will need to think back to those long car rides we did together when attempting to introduce the technology curriculum 😉
      Will have to park it for a moment though, as I’m head down at the moment writing reviews of the two schools I’ve reviewed this week – and both have similar issues as those I’ve described in this post – so it’s certainly not an isolated concern.
      Thanks again for the feedback!

  4. Hi Derek,
    We really do have to stop blaming teachers for any perceived lack of technology uptake. School management teams reluctant to lose control and  encourage teachers to make full use of web based technologies is probably the real elephant in the room in my view. (not the position at my current school). Often management teams have little to offer by way of leadership in this area. Mostly teachers are willing to change when they see real benefits for student learning, when access to technology is seamless and well resourced. Sure there are luddites but look at the top first.

    1. You make a valid point John, the issue of the ‘refusers’ covers all bases, not only those in the classroom. I am disappointed that you’ve interpreted my post as a ‘blaming teachers’. I’m not actually in the habit of blaming anyone, and certainly not on the blaming teachers bandwagon. What I am interested in is transparency in terms of the process and outcomes – for all involved (classroom teachers and leadership). I can agree with your statement that “Mostly teachers are willing to change when they see real benefits for student learning” – the emphasis being on ‘mostly’. My post was really on thinking about the very small group who are not included by ‘mostly’, whose refusal to change causes much angst and extra burden for the majority. I’m not really interested in splitting hairs about whether it’s a teacher or leader problem – that’s largely irrelevant. If the correct processes are in place and aheared to, such people could be weeded of our system and release the majority to get on and do the great things they’re doing.

  5. Hi Derek,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience on this topic.  I agree that teachers have a responsibility to use available resources and technology for teaching and learning.   it seems that many resist using technology because it   does require some work and learning to change or try something new.  it is very concerning to me that an educator would make excuses to avoid leaning something new.   Perhaps those who refuse are in the wrong profession since teaching is all about learning.    I like the idea of offering support and encouragement but I think that  educators should always be open to learning.   It is a well known fact that we are preparing students for jobs that don't even exist today and most will involve technology, which is one of the very best reason to embrace technology in learning.    In my experience some view technology as a passing fad or an unecessary addition.   People don't miss what they've never had, so until they experience using technology and see how it impacts student learning, it is sometimes easy to resist.    

    1. Hi Leah
      thanks for your comments here – the key here I guess is that while the change and unfamiliarity is certainly the experience of the teachers, the issue for education is that what we’re about is preparing our learners for their future (not ours) – and so comes the responsibility for us all to adopt or at the very least honestly engage with and investigate these new technologies.

  6. If I agree, teachers should be updated of new technologies, because the young are the future of a nation. So if this is not accompanied by a good update tacnologia may not fully develop. It is NOT to panic but it's something that needs correcting.

  7. Thanks for this Derek.
    Many of your points [and the others that have commented too] are valid and are what I have observed in my three years teaching in NZ. I don't have all the answers and I am probably not the best person to ask, but coming from the UK, where ICT is compulsory until Year 11, this wasn't such an issue. Most ICT provision [lessons and cross-curricular opportunities] were part of school policy. All newly qualified secondary teachers now have a compulsory element of their training dedicated to ICT provision in their chosen subject area. I think a [very small] part of the problem is that there is no statutory requirement to provide provision in terms of the National Curriculum. If some of it was mandated then you would have some element of accountability. Vive le revolution – embrace the change!

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