The truth about instructional tech

One time I went to visit an early elementary school. I had been asked to show them tools for formative assessment. So I did. I showed them a couple actually. They are really good tools. I’d still recommend them.

When I went back to follow-up with the grade levels regarding the tools that I had presented, they were very forthcoming with their experiences. They hadn’t used them. At all. Not a one of them. And in fact, they weren’t even considering it.

They apologized. I think they felt bad. Perhaps they were concerned that my time had been wasted. Perhaps they felt like they were being rude to me. (They weren’t. They were being very nice about it.)

While I accepted their apologies, they were completely unnecessary. On the contrary, this has become one of my favorite moments. The moment when I went out to a group of educators, showed them some tools, and they were given the freedom and autonomy to ask themselves whether or not this is something that will be useful to them. It wasn’t. It still isn’t.

Instructional tech is about fit. It’s about support. A tool could be a great tool, just unnecessary. A tool could be a pretty pedestrian tool and be exactly what we need. (Kahoot! feels like this to me. It’s pretty much a one-trick pony, but it does that one thing better than anything else.) I stopped looking at tools and trying to assign value in isolation. The value is actualized only once the tool is integrated into a well-designed sequence of experiences meant to create student learning.

My role is a strange one. I’ve often described my role as the ultimate support role. Because I’m beginning to suspect that instructional tech isn’t a thing. Classroom management is a thing. Community relations is a thing. Visible learning, formative assessment, data analysis… these are things. You can study and practice and get better at these things. Technology exists to support those things. We’d be wise not to allow it to become a thing unto itself. Computers are valueless without an application, a designer, and a user.

Correctly placing our focus helps drive the conversation when technology gets involved. Start with the problem (and a lack of technology is so rarely the problem). As we design a solution to the problem, we craft our solution with the appropriate vision for the tech that might support that solution. Only then do we start doing things for the sake of the tech. Adding technology to a classroom brings with it additional considerations. And we begin asking all of those important questions: Who needs access? When? Do any tools they currently have do that? How do we manage security? Who’s covering the expenses?

But we don’t want to start with the tech. Likely the problem isn’t “we don’t have enough Chromebooks.” The problem might be “we are trying to create these types of learning experiences for our students and we are struggling to do that.” Let’s talk about the issues we are trying to solve, the realities around those issues and the best solution to fit. A tech solution might not be your best bet. In fact, some processes and problems would be better solved WITHOUT technology. The last thing we need is to spend more money that doesn’t solve a problem.

I recently read a blog post from Michigan educator Ben Rimes who asked if stoicism was appropriate in Ed Tech. “I’m supposed to network with individuals that have an insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm for educational technology in all of its many forms. And yet, the older I become (or perhaps the farther I get from the classroom), the more restrained I find myself when it comes to pursuing new technology,” Rimes reflected. I recognize this “supposed to” that he describes. Instructional tech is often met with tons and tons of energy. Lots of enthusiasm. 3-D printers, Makerspaces, Dot and Dash, lots of good things.

But amidst the enthusiasm, I find myself asking “What type of learning will it support? What types of problems are these tools trying to solve? and how are we going to make sure they are effective?”

Regarding what Mr. Rimes recognizes in himself, he adds, “…it makes me wonder if a healthy dose of stoicism is appropriate for those managing and driving the use of instructional technology. I’ve found myself drifting towards celebrating and uplifting transformative teaching and learning practice, regardless of whether it utilizes technology or not. At the same time, I don’t see many educators that have become “edu-famous” for their contributions to the realm of instructional technology transitioning to a more openly thoughtful reflection on instruction and learning in general.”

Perhaps the main way to create the appropriate amount of attention and energy around instructional tech is to continue to recognize that it flexes it’s muscles best when it is a means. Not an end.

And that doesn’t make it not really, really cool. There are some really outstanding tools out there. Seriously. Some very cool stuff. But they aren’t cool in a vacuum. It’s cool because of the types of experiences it enables students and teachers to have.

Stuff like ClassCraft and ClassDojo are cool. But they are cool because of how they can support effective classroom management.

Stuff like Google Forms, Formative, and Socrative are cool. But they are cool because of their ability to improve the role of formative assessment in a classroom.

Things like EdPuzzle are cool. But they are cool because they have the potential to add high-level engagement to previously passive instructional activities.

Popplet, Padlet, and Dotstorming are cool. But they are cool because they allow for deeper, richer collaborative activities that were difficult without them.

And those cool things all start losing their value if the folks who are implementing them aren’t implementing them well. The poor classroom manager isn’t going to become a better classroom manager simply because they use Class Dojo. A person with a shallow understanding of assessment is probably going to have a shallow understanding of how to use Google Forms for assessment.

And this is the truth about instructional technology. It’s not transformative. It can be fuel that drives a transformation. (Or, as Reggie Jackson might say, it could be the straw that stirs the drink.) But the transformation itself? Now, we have to get back to trusting people for that. And in reality, it’s never been any different. We need to stop looking for the next amazing tech tool, the next big technological game-changer and just support each other getting better at support our students every day.

Upcoming Public Presentations

The age of online social and professional networking has often provides opportunities for people separated by hundreds of miles to feel like they know each other, even though they’ve never met face-to-face.

(It has happened several times that I’ve received hugs from people that I’m ACTUALLY meeting for the first time. But it feels like we’re embracing a friend because we’ve been digital collaborators on lessons or brain-storm sessions for years.)

So, when I give public presentations and learning sessions, I look forward to meeting people who, up until now, I’ve only known in 140-character snippets.

So, here’s where you can find me in the upcoming weeks. You’ll notice that these are all in Grand Rapids. That’s actually by coincidence.

February 20Michigan Flip and Blended Teaching and Learning Conference – Steelcase Learning Center in Grand Rapids, MI

I will be co-presenting a 1-hour session on using instructional technology to approach the goals of Universal Design for Learning. Our lens will be the secondary math classroom, but I believe the content will be applicable to teachers of any content area.

March 3Michigan Center for Exceptional Children Conference – Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, MI

I will be co-presenting a 1-hour session describing two teachers’ story of how they enhanced the learning experiences for their students with significant disabilities by strategic use of instructional technology.

March 9-10 – MACUL Conference – Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, MI

March 9 -I will be co-presenting a half-day preconference workshop on effective blending of technology in classroom assessment. Topics discussed will be effective methods and tools for good formative assessment including giving meaningful and effective feedback.

March 10 – I will be leading a two-hour hands-on workshop for teachers to come and learn how to use Desmos.

March 10 – We will be rebooting the aforementioned one-hour session on instructional tech supporting Universal Design for Learning from February 20 (see above)


I hope you’ll come to learn with us. I look forward to collaborating with you!

The two sides of “should”

I am finding that there is a fondness among educators at all levels and roles for the word “should”.

“Should” is a tricky word. Should implies an assumption. Should is a word that sits between “is” and “is not”. When something is not what we expect it to be, we know that because we has a preconceived “should.”

With that in mind, “should” represents high expectations, big goals, ideas of things getting better.

“Students should be able to do these things by the time they make it to high school.”

“We should be able to reach out to our parents to get their viewpoint on this issue.”

“Our teachers should be able to solve these problems.”

In this way, should has the ability to represent vision. This becoming something different than they are, and preferably something better.


But “should” has a darker side. A side that reflects an expectation. And an expectation creates opportunities for let down. And then what?

“We don’t have time to teach that. You should know that by now.”

“You should be able write a decent test.”

“Well, if they wanted a say, they should have responded to the survey.”

In these cases, “should” represents a passing of the buck. It is a word used as a presumably more polite substitute for “that’s your problem, not mine.”

“Shoulds” that lead us to placing blame are valuable only insofar as they allow us to focus on a potential problem-solving process. Blame for the current state doesn’t equate to responsibility for solving the related problems. The leader in the situation is the chief problem-solver. Because they know the “shoulds”. (Side note: How many of our shoulds are unspoken, implied, or in some dastardly cases, flat out secret?)

When a student shows up in your classroom not meeting all of your “shoulds”, you have a choice to make. Okay, perhaps, it should have been done by now. Yes, the student should have done a better job learning. Yes, the school should have safeguards in place to ensure that doesn’t happen. Should this, should that. But it didn’t. And what are we going to do about it?

Remember, the fact that they should have done this or that means that it is especially problematic when they don’t.

If a student needed to be fluent in fraction arithmetic by the time he/she makes it to your class, that’s fine. But what are you going to do if a couple don’t? Because you have to do something. You can’t simply leave those students hanging out to dry.

If you are going to survey your community and a whole segment of your community doesn’t respond (like they should have), what are you going to do? You can’t simply make decisions ignoring the perspective of an entire group of your community.

If you expect your teachers to have a certain skill set, that’s fine. What happens when you find that some are missing some of those skills? Because you can’t simply leave those skills underdeveloped and you can’t simply fire them.


Perhaps we should consider “should” an incomplete word. It needs a partner phrase. let’s just start referring to it as “should, and if not”.

It might be a nice first step. We are no longer allowed to create any should-statements without also creating a sustainable, effective plan for what happens when people miss the mark. No more incomplete shoulds. Expect to be faced with people falling short. Because they will. In these days of shifting assessments and curricula, teacher mobility, and school of choice, there are plenty of chances for shoulds to not be met.

Also, inasmuch as it’s possible, state your all of your shoulds clearly, explicitly and up front. “Here’s what I expect. Here’s what we have in place to support you if you need some help getting there.”

That is an entirely different message than “You should be able to do this by now. That’s too bad for you.”

We are a growth community. Education’s job is to set the “shoulds” then create the conditions for people… all people… to grow to meet them.



#EdTech Tips for New Teachers

Last night I was blessed with the opportunity to talk to about 50 new teachers about instructional technology.

As I prepared my talking points, I considered what I would have needed to hear when I was 23 and in the midst of my first year in the classroom. Here’s what I came up with.

Here were my closing tips:

Don’t fix things that work well – When you discover a new tech tool that you want to employ into your work (either instruction, assessment, or organization/workflow), don’t attack an area that is currently functioning well. Use the new tool to attack something that really needs some serious improvement. That way, then the roll-out inevitably falls short of your expectations, you are much likelier to be satisfied seeing an improvement. And you haven’t ruined a process that was productive.

Don’t try to do too much – Get really, really good at using one or two tech tools before you try to add to your collection. Sure, you run the risk of students saying, “Guh… we use Socrative ALL THE TIME…” But this won’t last forever. You’ll pick up more tools as you explore more. And it’s a big improvement throwing so many tools at your students that neither they, nor you, get really proficient at using any of them.

Be patient with your students – Don’t get caught up in what they “should” know how to do. In reality, as far as your course, they probably shouldn’t be expected know anything. And even if they’ve explored some of the tools before, you probably use them slightly differently than the last teacher. So, go ahead and assume that each tech tool will need a guided exploration BEFORE you can expect them to engage meaningful content with it. Mixing a new tech tool and a new bit of content in the same activity should be avoided whenever possible. Otherwise, you risk the tool becoming the END of the learning rather than the MEANS.

Ask questions – Find yourself a mentor in your building who will help you explore instructional tech pieces. Take advantage of your district coaches and know who you can reach out to at the county level. Make e-mail friends with these people. Demand to be mentored.

Network, listen, and read – Find a social media platform you are comfortable with and turn it into an non-stop educational brainstorming session. I use Twitter. Use it to get ideas. And then try them out. Talk about them with the teachers near you. Join local PLNs if they exist. (Folks around mid-Michigan can join #CapitalAreaEdTech). The time/energy demands tend to be fairly light and the potential upside is huge.

Don’t fall in love with specific tools – They are going to break your heart. That free tool you loved was awesome… until it wasn’t free anymore (e.g. Newsela). Moodle was IT! Until Google Classroom came out. (Apple is getting ready to unleash an iPad based competitor to Google Classroom, by the way.) You had just nicely gotten the hang of your students’ laptops when the school switched to Chromebooks as a money-saver. Listen… listen… These things WILL happen. It’s not an “if” situation. It’s a “when”. If you tie your professional heart to these tools, you are going to find their removal difficult to recover from. Instead, fall in love with the types of student interactions these tools facilitate. Then, hang on loosely to the tool. It is temporary, as much as we’d like to pretend it isn’t.

Have I missed any? Care to push back? Use the comments. Perhaps share an anecdote from your first year teaching. With the right support, we can keep our young, excited teachers in the classroom.

4 Desmos Activities I’m adding to My Geometry Course

It’s been about 14 months since I last taught Geometry, but that hasn’t kept me from keeping a keen eye out for high-quality activities to add to My Geometry Course.

Here are the goods that I’ve found looking through the searchable offerings on Desmos.

Ryan Brown offers a nice introduction to polygons using a do-it-yourself Polygraph activity. This strikes me as a nice kick-off to an early unit in Geometry. Serves as a good vocab review. For high schoolers, it would likely serve as a nice low-entry point to Polygons and wandering around listening would give a nice window into what your students could possibly missing as you are about to embark on a new unit.

Kate Nowak offers a nice algebraic introduction at circles in her Activity-Builder offering.  I like this because the common core circles standards tend to be a little more algebraic than some of the other units, so we put it toward the end of the year as we are ramping up the students for their next challenge (which is often Algebra II). Using specific vocabulary like “proportional” and having the student drag points around the graph sets a good tone for what students can expect in a second semester circles unit.

Pizza Delivery by Scott Miller is a very interesting take on reflections. I am actually bummed that I’m not teaching Geometry any more because I’d like to see what this one looks like. You’re going to want to look at this one.

Mathy Cathy offers a nice introduction to reflections as well. I really like the questions she chooses and the tasks seem approachable as reflections are explored for the first time.