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EdTech's Secret Power (It's Not What You Think)

Note: Eric Westendorf, co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.com and former principal of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, DC, is guest blogging this week.

Much of the current buzz around EdTech in K-12 focuses on personalization, adaptation, gamification and self-directed learning. I think these ideas have great potential, but miss EdTech's greatest benefit. Given the siloed world in which teachers have historically worked, I believe EdTech's greatest contribution will come from connecting teachers, enabling them to build from best practices, collaborate with colleagues, and share with the world. In so doing, technology will bolster the most powerful lever we have for school improvement -- the talent of our teachers.

Build from Best Practices
When I was principal at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, a constant frustration was knowing that the school's exceptional teachers were regularly re-inventing the wheel. If one teacher figured out a great way to teach division of fractions, the knowledge rarely spread. The problem wasn't that teachers disliked sharing, or that they believed that their lessons were superior to those of their colleagues. The problem was effort. It took less time and effort to create a lesson from scratch than to identify and schedule time with the right expert for the lesson at hand.

One day a few years into my tenure, I observed Andrea Smith, a 6th grade math teacher, teach a lesson on the division of fractions. She had an elegant five minute explanation for the concept, which was significantly better than anything I had seen. In that moment I wished I had known about her approach when I was teaching middle schoolers; it would have saved me planning time and yielded better outcomes for my students.

And then it struck me: why not ask Andrea and a few other strong math teachers to capture their expertise on screencasts, and then share that with other teachers at E.L. Haynes? And so we did. It worked so well it became the inspiration for LearnZillion.

Borrowing from experts is not just practical, it's also critical for talent development. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist recognized for his research on expertise, writes, "We're prewired to imitate. When you put yourself in the same situation as an outstanding person and attack a task that they took on, it has a big effect on your skill." Most people would agree that whatever the activity, it's critical to have continuous exposure to mastery; practice becomes the act of bridging the gap between your current self and your imagined self.

Collaborate with Colleagues
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, newly-retired teacher Patrick Welsh noted that during his four decades of teaching "education reform didn't make me a better teacher and haven't made T.C Williams a better school." He did, however, note that one kind of experience was useful. He liked "fellow English teachers sharing what worked in their classrooms."

The sort of deep practice that leads to talent development is often facilitated by collaboration. "The best learning," points out author Dan Coyle, "happens when humans are in intense collaboration."

So why doesn't more collaboration happen among teachers? Most teachers love working together. The problem, again, is logistical effort: finding the right time and space.

The teachers who participated in TeachFest, the event I wrote about in Monday's post, came from 42 states. They worked together for three days, and then returned to their hometowns to complete their lessons over the next several months. Yet their camaraderie and collaboration, facilitated by technology, only accelerated.

These TeachFest participants, whom we call our Dream Team, regularly asked each other for advice on lessons. Typically, they got multiple responses from colleagues within minutes. Responses included suggestions, documents, and words of encouragement. It's deeply inspiring to witness this collaborative advantage in action. Each individual benefits from the collective wisdom of his/her colleagues and, thanks to technology, it all happens easily, and fast.

Share with the World
One year, while teaching in Raleigh, North Carolina, I created a game for a unit I was teaching on economic development. Each student was given a map of a fictional city and a description of their role, and then left to negotiate with each other for two days over zoning, traffic, and quality of life issues. The unit was a success, and a colleague of mine asked to use it in his class. I felt immense pride when he suggested I publish the activity for more teachers to use -- it hadn't occurred to me that the creative work I put into a lesson might benefit other teachers in other classrooms. I spent the next week plotting possible ways to share my idea with others, but nothing obvious came to mind, so I dropped it.

Contrast that experience with that of Becky Halsey. Becky is the intervention and support teacher at Aspire Public Charter School in Morada, California. For years she has been teaching math lessons to dozens of students. Two years ago she was selected for our Dream Team and worked on 20 lessons focused on the number system. We recently took a look at her lessons to see how frequently they'd been used by teachers or students coming to LearnZillion. The answer was impressive: in eight months over 75,000 people had watched Becky's lesson -- over 1,000 times the number of people she typically impacts in a given school year.

From supporting Becky's lesson creation to providing a platform for distribution, technology made this broader impact possible.

In Friday's post, I'll show how, by combining technology and talent development, we can pave the way to a participatory curriculum--one that leverages technology to create a virtuous circle between curriculum and professional development. Thanks for your comments, and I'll see you on Friday.

-- Eric Westendorf

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