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Technology, Generational Power, and the Challenge of Change

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It probably won't help much, but I've come up with a theory to explain why some teachers are reluctant to embrace change, in particular the new technologies that stand, we keep reminding them, to disrupt education permanently and from top to bottom.

When I visit schools I can see it in some teachers' eyes. Often they look startlingly like me, in age and manner, éminences grises in their final approach to retirement, fierce and bright and independent and just a wee bit--below the cordiality with which they greet a visitor--angry. They've put thirty or forty years into their craft and poured their life's blood into their schools and into several thousand mostly appreciative students. Until the past decade or so, there's a good chance that no one ever caused them seriously to question the foundation of their aims and their methods; they proceeded from rookie to journeyman to teacher-leader and often to department chair or administrator. They raised families, passed the point when they no longer needed summer jobs, and have taken up travel again after a hiatus extending back to their college years. They continue to read in the subject matter they love so much that they have been compelled all their lives to teach it. They are scholars, intellectuals, artists, world citizens, but above all they are teachers.

Part of the Boomer worldview to which I subscribe has to do with generational relations. Back in 1970, when I was in college, we saw ourselves as participating in a revolution. Some of us may have been willing to trust a few people over 30 back then, but it was axiomatic that we were prisoners, as our parents and their parents before them had been, time out of mind, in a world utterly of a previous generation's making. Our revolution was going to change all that, to bring an end to racism, the draft, war, sexual discrimination, and oppression in general--especially oppression from the weight of history.

So we became teachers, often enough, as an act of liberation. Sometimes this was self-liberation, actively choosing a low-prestige, low-income service profession in defiance of expectations. And there were kids to be liberated, too--kids whose allies and mentors we would become, shielding them from those lies our teachers (supposedly) had told us and helping them attain a Brave New World of transparency and justice. We would age into a cohort of over-30s who could still be trusted.

And so it went. What some didn't bank on, however, is that technology moved even faster than we did. If we carelessly slept through or ignored the passing of even a single major advance in technology--the personal computer, email, the internet, the smartphone, and currently social media--we were doomed to fall behind not only the world in general but specifically our students.

Technology--and you can point the finger at a handful of guys with names like Steve and Bill and Sergey--turned the tables on us. We are prisoners of our children's generation far more than they are prisoners of ours. Even if we sometimes smirk when we see kids struggle with technology, our students really are digital natives in ways that we can never be, even we who have been eager early adopters of anything subject to Moore's Law. Example: If we want to connect with our kids in college, we text or Skype--no more letters, phone calls, or emails; their way, or no way.

The push to incorporate new technologies into education is relentless. Sometimes the voices of change are hectoring and even a bit cruel, and sometimes they're genial and simply persuasive. It's the bus we all must be on, and we have to reset our internal compasses to make ourselves the right kind of happy passenger. It's not easy, and part of this is the sense that we're playing a high-stakes game of catch-up as the clock runs out.

I can even feel a bit of compassion for the drag-their-feet-niks. The personal resources they brought to this profession years ago--generous spirits, good minds, the best of intentions--now feel inadequate to the changing profession we tell them they are in. It's not enough to know the material and feel the passion and have several decades' worth of successful repertory. And it feels as though technology is the heart of the problem. My friend Nathaniel Philbrick (whose latest book on Boston in the early stages of what became the American Revolution appears this week) observes that for some people, "the computer screen is like the Evil Queen's mirror, telling us we're not the fairest in the land any more."

But time and tide wait for none of us. It's unacceptable for a teacher, as I heard the story told a year or so ago, to flatly refuse to use email. It's unacceptable to shun opportunities to collaborate and share ideas about practice, to turn away from professional development. It's unacceptable to pretend that an old dog can't learn new tricks. My experience with animals and people alike is that old dogs are pretty tickled when they've learned a new trick or two.

I've had experience trying to load teachers on a bus and teach them some new tricks, and to do it well takes a combination of good and timely training, clear and firm expectations, and some continuing efforts to recognize and affirm that old dogs, idealistic old dogs in particular, might still have plenty to offer. Sometimes we change enthusiasts need to take a step back and remember that what we call "progress" has existential repercussions that can't always be processed in a nanosecond or summed up in 140 characters. But progress will come, nevertheless.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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