Essential Questions

February 17, 2009

Last week at the Oklahoma Technology Association’s 2009 Learning Technology Conference, I presented a session titled, “Social Networking and the Learning Process.”  What was originally intended to be a showcase of how my wife and another literature teacher at Bartlesville High School use social media tools to engage students morphed into an altogether different format when my two teachers were told by their school that there wasn’t money for them to attend and present at a state technology conference (I’ll share my dismay and disgust another time).  

Instead, I spent twenty minutes or so establishing a sort of “baseline” for what the terms social networking, social media, and Web 2.0 meant, and talked about how integrated and relevant these are to the lives to today’s students.  Then it got cool…

As I froze Keynote on my laptop (and if you do much presenting, Keynote will change your life–get a Mac and use Keynote!) we began a roundtable discussion of the advantages and challenges of using social media and their related “means of access” in the classroom. My view from the front of the room was spectacular!   Half the room sat on the edge of their seats, many earnestly contributing to the discussion.  The other half sat grim-faced, many with arms folded and brimming with dissent.  It didn’t take long for the discussion to get around to issues of policy: Content filtering, cell phones in the classroom, etc.  

A perfect shift, because here’s what I’ve come to understand more clearly in recent months…

1.  There are great discussions happening at conferences, board meetings, PLC team meetings, PTA groups, etc. regarding how to engage students “where they are” using the “native tools of digital natives.”  Great minds with great ideas, such as Will Richardson, Wesley Fryer, and Dawn Danker, who gave compelling cases at the same OTA conference, do a much better job than I can.  

2.  Far too often, and I can’t emphasize this enough, the steel will of technology directors or network administrators who don’t understand their role in the mission of a school district, overrides the needs of learners and facilitators.  Fear, uncertainty, and doubt drive irresponsible mindsets that default to “block and deny” in the interest of protecting the precious network and those using it. This invariably results in vast sums of money spent building a technology infrastructure that serves its own interests ahead of the central mission of its existence, facilitating learning. 

Thusly, I have a keen interest in the attitudes and logic that form this sort of dangerous perspective.  How do we as technology directors and school leaders get so disconnected from our core purpose?  I hazard that much of the problem relates to what we allow to filter or distort our view.  Eric Hileman, the Instructional Technology Director at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, uses the phrase, “the lens through which you look at it,” which appeals to me as a photographer.  While I don’t have all the answers, and can’t account for all of those lenses, I am certain of this:

We won’t have the answers we’re looking for until we start asking the right questions, and that’s what excited me about the discussion in Ballroom B that Wednesday afternoon in Oklahoma City.  One after another, teachers, administrators, and even tech directors began asking meaningful questions–questions that moved issues of education technology policy back into the realm of learning where they belong.  

Instead of asking, “Why are all of these sites blocked by our district’s content filter?” …we asked, “How can we capture back the teaching moment, and help students understand how to be effective and responsible participants in cybersphere?”

Instead of, “Why can’t we use cell phones in the classroom?” …we asked, “How can we include the use of mobile Internet access tools in a way that makes learning more authentic, relevant, and productive while teaching students how to use them responsibly and safely?”


What other essential questions should we be asking as we seek to transform schools into effective 21st century learning environments?


“Once you have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate questions, you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
Teaching as a Subversive Activity