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The Immune System of a School: The Myth of the Contagious Technology Practicioner

I haven't had my flu shot yet, the one that is supposed to save me from the dread H1N1. This is not because I am negligent or uninformed about the dangers of this new virus. I'm just not in an age group that is the target of this virus so I'll have to wait until more serum is available. The experts say that some of us may not need it, at least not urgently, because we are immune to the disease from previous exposure. Good for us! Those antibodies are not only potent but persevering.

This year's experience with the flu reminded me of some of the stories, myths actually, that I've heard regarding a way to get teachers to integrate technology into their classes. The myth goes like this: if one teacher can get "trained" in the use of technology and will then integrate these modern learning tools into a classroom, then the practice of integrating technology into the curriculum will spread from teacher to teacher, like a virus. Soon all the teachers will be integrating technology into their classes and the school will become a kind of techno-utopia.

Been there; done that; doesn't work!

The problem is that the school itself has an immune system that resists such changes to the tried and true "Stand and Deliver" model. And that immune system is strong and has "antibodies" that can kill off every attempt at substantial reform. The school has lots of experience fighting off these "infections" and resists them all with a vigor that rivals the immune system of a feral alley cat.

In other modern, entrepreneurial enterprises, resistance to exciting new methods prompts strong action. Naysayers and resistors are given opportunities to adapt to the changes, but they don't have years to do so. Employees who refuse to adjust are told that in order to continue to be an employee, changes must be made. Those who won't learn to use the new methods will be, not might be, shown the door. For the company, there is an urgency about this. Competitors who adapt earlier to the new, more productive methods are a threat to the business.

Schools are different. Competition is present but the urgency to change is not there. Schools live in a world apart with their own rules. Teaching is an insulated industry that has been able to stand apart from the changes that have occurred everywhere else. Banks, insurance companies, hospitals, and industries of all kinds do business in a radically different way than they did 15 years ago. They're doing business differently or they're no longer in the business at all, because more fleet-footed competitors have passed them up. It has been rightly said that the only place a time-traveler visiting our world from a hundred years ago would be comfortable is if he or she was in the classroom cocoon of one of our "modern" schools. So what do schools do with a world changing invention like the digital computer? What should schools do; what should they have done;" How should they have dealt with their faculties?

What they have done is to throw money at it. Consultants, presenters from other organizations, and expert educators of every stripe have been the ones catching the money that has been thrown around. Talking heads, some of them richly articulate and frequently entertaining, come and spend a day with the teachers - a professional development day - and the school breathes a sigh of relief. The Administration feels the righteous balm of spending the money ("We spend almost as much money on staff development as we do on the hardware!"), the outside expert has outdone him or herself in exhortations and takes away a healthy fee, and the teachers are relieved to have had a day off from regular classes. And then they go back to their classes and do exactly what they were doing before.

Little discussion occurs about what was done on the professional development day and there is little if any follow-up on how the teachers are making use of what they learned. No one comes to their classrooms to see the changes the teacher has made or to make recommendations to those who haven't tried out any of the new ideas. A month or six weeks later, no one can remember the name of the famous consultant who visited the school for that day and everything settles in, and the administration starts trying to arrange and finance the next professional day with another celebrity consultant.

So what's to be done?

Returning to the idea of the school having an immune system, think about eliminating some of the "antibodies." Competition may not make adoption of technology urgent but developing our students into creative, inquisitive learners should be all the urgency we need. Recognizing that any change is likely to be slow, here are some suggestions for a principal or curriculum director to defeat the school's immunity to the changes for which technology can be the catalyst:

1. Build a culture of learning among the teachers. Start a book club; reward the volunteer work that teachers are forever doing around the school with some token that is a compliment and a challenge, like a gift of a professional book which you have read (not a gift certificate!). Keep a supply of these in your office for this purpose.

2. Celebrate the ingenuity and creativity of teachers in their classrooms. Visit classes not to judge but to learn. Publicly commend them in an email that is copied to all faculty. Don't have an email system in the school? Get one.

3. Drop the professional development days and substitute half days, and design creative ways to use these times, perhaps with smaller groups or departments. These could center on a video of one of the teachers doing an excellent class, using technology.

4. Note faculty achievements, like recognition they've received outside of school, or that they have had a letter to the editor or an opinion piece published.

5. Have and use personal accounts at LinkedIn, MySpace, FaceBook, Twitter, Audible and eBay.

6. Identify the resistors, luddites and naysayers, and keep them closer than the great integrators. Pay special attention to them so that you can reward any step forward they might make. But clarify expectations and the time period in which these expectations should be met.

Joe Hofmeister is a highly experienced educational technology consultant. He has particularly been involved with schools that are either starting a 1-to-1 program or that find themselves needing to get their laptop learning program back into high gear. As long-term technology director at Cincinnati Country Day School, he led the school's pioneering efforts with one of the nation's first immersions into a laptop program. Joe has spoken at many conferences and seminars and has been on advisory boards at Apple, Microsoft, Toshiba and the Bertelsmann Foundation. He has co-authored eight books for classroom integration of technology and has contributed chapters and articles to a number of other publications. Along with serving as an AALF consultant and coach, he is presently a member of the NAIS Technology Task Force and recently was invited to take part in Ohio's Institute on Creativity and Innovation in Schools. He can be reached at: joe.hofmeister@mindtoolsconsulting.com
January 14th, 2010 @ 1:14PM

I think you are correct Joe about, "Identify the resistors, luddites and naysayers, and keep them closer than the great integrators." I can back you up on this. It is not always the early adopters who win people over. It is more often the respected teachers and key underground movers and shakers on staff.
Posted By: Charlie O'Sullivan on January 17th, 2010 @ 3:23PM
Disrupting Class
An analogy might be to look at other professions - if one doctor is trained in a new procedure then the practice of that new procedure will spread from doctor to doctor. (But not any doctor I would want to treat me!)

Systems try to protect themselves from attempts at substantial reform; this is the theme of the book "Disrupting Class" (Clayton Christensen) which basically says that for substantive systemic change to take place, it needs to do so outside the existing structure - precisely because of those "antibodies" and all that they imply - resistance, just enough change to mollify, protection of the status quo.
Posted By: Jeff Branzburg on January 19th, 2010 @ 6:39AM