Keeping it real

Lee Kolbert wrote a blog post (Dear Will Richardson ) that I see as a real call to action for those of us who promote ourselves as experts working to help teachers do their jobs better. The basic suggestion is that those of us who have been out of the classroom for 5 to 10 years should take a year or two and go back into the classroom for a year or two. Things in education change. Or sure we like to think things change glacially slowly but in fact some things do change. The emphasis on high stakes testing for example is largely new in the last 5 to 10 years. It is easy for people to forget what the classroom is really like after a while. When things change that speeds up the disconnect between experts and teachers currently in the classroom. Being out of the classroom does have some advantages for experts. One of these is a sense of perspective that you get by being able to look at something from the outside. It lets you be a little more objective about things. Another is the freedom to do more research and spend more time thinking about the “big picture.” Those are the reasons that experts get brought in to situations in the first place. But we have to remain aware of how things are in the “real world.”

It is incredibly important to understand the realities of schools, classrooms, and the educational environment as it changes. This can be difficult when you are not a full-time educator. I worry about this myself. I have some help keeping current as my wife is a full-time classroom teacher. My son is an elementary school assistant principal who was a special education teacher for a number of years. Neither one of them hesitate to bring me down to reality when I get too theoretical. For computer science education specifics a number of friends – locally and online – are wonderful resources as well. One of the things I try very hard to do when I meet with teachers is to listen. I find that most computer science teachers are more than happy to give me an earful. And I am grateful for that. I believe that it is important to understand the issues that teachers face, especially those that are barriers to adoption, before trying to suggest new things to try.

Most educational conferences I attend from SIGCSE to the CS & IT conference tend to have many more speakers who are current practitioners than consultants or industry representatives. Not that they exclude industry representatives or I’d never get to speak at them. Smile But there is a lot of value in people talking about what they are currently doing and how it is working in actual classrooms with students in them and all the complexities of that environment. After being out of the full-time classroom for almost 9 years (time flies when you are having fun) I find that the professional development presentations I do I enjoy the most are those where I team up with current classroom teachers. I like to think this helps bring a balance of theory and practice to the discussion/presentation.

I do a fair share of talks on my own and I enjoy them. In the last month or so I have done presentations or workshops with students from middle and high schools on Kodu, Small Basic, Expression Suite and Windows Phone development. I’ve found this very helpful to me in terms of learning how to present these materials. I’m not sure you can talk to teachers about how to present material to students without actually testing those methods with students. Every time I present material I learn something new. Students are great for teaching what works and what doesn’t.

Teachers make great audiences as well. I know – the standard belief is that teachers are a tough audience. To some extent that is true especially if you are really comfortable with “sage on the stage” talks where the audience sits still, listens and asks questions only when the “sage” tells them is time to ask questions. Teachers are terrible about waiting their turn to ask questions. If you like active participation and dialogue with “students” than teachers are the best audience you could have.

So what did I take away from Lee’s blog post? Well I agree with her suggestion that experts go back to the classroom from time to time. I’m not so sure it is practical for me right now. Since I can’t do it full time I do think it is incumbent on me to listen a lot to teachers who are in the classroom, try to get as much classroom teaching like time that I can but most of all to remember that I don’t know it all. I can have my ideas and share them all I want but being too judgmental about those who don’t take my advice is a recipe for failure.