Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

From Compliance to Commitment: Technology as a Catalyst for Communities of Learning

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

From Compliance to Commitment: Technology as a Catalyst for Communities of Learning

Article excerpt

A two-year professional development project centered on technology and learner-centered approaches transformed the classrooms of teachers from six schools. Ms. Burns supplies the details.

Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water.

-- Loris Malaguzzi, Italian early childhood specialist

IN 1998 MY colleagues at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) and I embarked on a two-year project with 160 K-12 teachers: Applying Technology to Restructuring and Learning (ATRL). Despite the cumbersome moniker, the aim of the project was fairly straightforward: to help teachers create learner-centered learning environments supported by technology.

The task promised to be somewhat daunting. The six schools with which we were to work were poor. Several were defined as "at risk" or "low performing" based on attendance rates, student demographics, and state test scores. Most of the classrooms had very low computer/student ratios -- 1:25 on average; in some instances, 1:35. The demographics of the teaching force, clustered at opposite ends of the experience continuum, threatened a difficult professional development task: many teachers had taught for more than 20 years (veterans who might prove unwilling to change practices), and many others were first-year teachers (novices who might be overwhelmed by new approaches).

For the most part, instruction in these schools was very traditional and teacher-centered, and technology use was virtually nonexistent. In my first classroom observation at one school in the spring of 1998 (preceding our initial professional development session), computer use was limited to some skill-and-drill software. Indeed, the defining image of technology was that of the corpse: computers, still and silent, covered by sheets. In keeping with this funereal theme, instruction was often lifeless. In 21 of the 25 classrooms I observed, teachers prompted students for short or rote answers, and students sat mostly in rows, working silently -- or perhaps sullenly.

While there was evidence of some warm teacher/student relationships, for the most part interactions between teachers and students appeared distant at best, adversarial at worst. The intellectual and emotional distance between teacher and students was compounded by their physical separation: most teachers sat at their desks or stood at the front of the classroom. Physical and verbal interaction was confined to a "hub and spoke" pattern: all exchanges went through the teacher. Overall, the classroom atmosphere was sterile, even stultifying.

The teachers in this school were fairly representative of teachers in the project as a whole. Based on similar classroom observations in the spring of 1998, 47% of project teachers were classified as "low" in terms of learner-centered approaches, and just 25% reported using technology in their classrooms (the major use being Accelerated Reader). On the opposite end of the instructional spectrum, baseline classroom observations categorized 5% of all teachers (just a handful of individuals) as "high" in terms of using learner-centered approaches.

We had carefully fashioned the infrastructure of this project: administrator support had been secured, and a minimum of 25 teacher participants from each campus would ensure a critical mass, create a shared vision, and help to make systemic change on a campus level. Yet clearly the problems at some of these schools extended far beyond the realm of technology or pedagogy. While many students were "at risk," so too, it seemed, were many teachers1 -- with no sense of a shared purpose, no joy in either teaching or learning, and little sense of collegiality with colleagues or students.

The first two professional development sessions did not portend a change for the better. …

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