Name: Ethan Delavan (@ethandelavan | school blog | personal site)
School: Seattle Country Day School
Current title: Technology Coordinator
Selected accolades: board of directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Education (http://namle.net), NAIS Stories of Excellence featured curriculum
What is your role at your school?
I help connect teachers and students through technology use. This includes making computers work, teaching advanced students, staff training, and database management. It’s also my job to be at the cutting edge of what is available to make our school’s mission effective and efficient.
What is the best part of your job?
I leverage my position as an agent for innovation. Any school needs to move at a reasonable pace to keep parents and educators on the same page about what’s best for children. Small schools have the chance to move quickly in response to new technologies; ones that show potential for reaching educational goals, especially if teachers can be empowered to bring curriculum to students. Being on the frontline is a never-ending and exciting challenge.
From where do you draw professional inspiration? How do you stay connected and grow as an educator?
My fascination with technology comes down to a fascination with human culture. Technology isn’t some robotic thing that a few very smart people invented to make us all shop online. Technology is our way of interacting with the world, an expression of our humanity. It’s been with us since before we were humans, and it continues to evolve in light of a changing world. I love witnessing the cycle of development that continually rediscovers and re-envisions human potential. Each cycle seems to pull in a new breed of thinking, while shunting off an older mode of thought and its concomitant skill set. This leaves chagrin in its wake, even suffering. But the lesson is that “lifelong learning” isn’t just a slogan to make us feel good about the money we’re paying schools right now. It’s a societal demand on each of us. Keep learning or die.
How do I do this? It takes a great deal of ignorance. The willingness to admit I don’t know is the first step for any learning journey. I strive to learn from any new source: the Internet, colleagues, and — ever more importantly — my students. I’ve had to give up the idea that I know, and after I’m done with them, my students will, too. The state of technology today is one of constant information exchange. This can be difficult for the human mind, because it often asks us to give up not only this or that fact, but also this or that deeply held belief about the world. Constantly reinventing oneself in these little ways can feel like a burden, but after a brisk bike ride in the morning (and a bit of good dark chocolate), I’m eager for the task!
For a teacher looking to use technology to connect with students, enhance learning or embrace 21st century skills, where do you suggest one begin?
There are so many starting points it can be hard to know. Two threads that jump out at me are media arts and online collaboration.
First, media production (which is just code for “very modern art”) is inherently engaging to kids, as is any art. It’s very inexpensive to get a small camera that will shoot good stills and video, and any computer will run free software that will edit that material. A wide variety of subject-area content can be approached and effectively conveyed, analyzed, summarized and assessed through media production. Digital media have their own demands of rigor and clarity that encourage high-level thinking, when a teacher tailors the inquiry to the medium. Beyond this, the media arts are a subject of study in themselves, demanding a depth of knowledge that will become ever more important in our children’s world.
Second, collaboration is the key to any successful enterprise in the 21st Century. (It always was, more or less, but now you’re DOA without it.) Interaction in the workplace has become integrally dependent on asynchronous global collaboration on complex, long-term tasks. Not only are there intellectual concepts to be grasped about this, but the ethical issues it brings up are enormous. Any curriculum that introduces students to online collaborative tools (Google Apps, MS Live, Ning, blogs, EPals, SearchTeam, etc.) meets a clear and present need in their educational development. It also gives them a chance to make mistakes of etiquette and learn from them, while the consequences are less severe than they will be in their professional lives.
What skill(s) do you feel are most important for today’s students to explore in academic settings (tech or non-tech related)?
More important than learning any particular technology is learning how to learn. Ongoing retraining will be a given in the lives of our students, and those who do it well will excel. One of the ways I make this happen in my own work, as well as in my teaching, is through the use of metaphor. When I approach a new technology, I always look for a concrete metaphor that will orient my or my students’ understanding to the basic concepts of the technological tool. For example, web design is like baking a batch of cookies, or a video editing interface is like a soap opera, or database layouts are like drilling for oil. If you find a good metaphor, each of the basic concepts will fall into place as an expression of this already-known phenomenon. As students gain a deeper understanding of the technology, the metaphor naturally loses its usefulness, and you know that the student has moved on to a more direct and sophisticated understanding of the underlying concepts.
Often in my work with teachers striving to learn new technologies, they look for a procedural understanding. “Tell me what to do first, second, third to get my job done.” This is a vestige of the auditory-sequential modes of thought that predominated in the literate, paper-and-pencil era. In the digital era, concepts live a much more contextually dependent life. As such, a procedure may fail to work if the context of the technology has changed. The demand, then, is to move our thinking into a conceptual understanding. I think of it as that amusement park game where there were cups floating around a little pool, and you had to throw ping-pong balls into them to win a prize. To complete a task today, you need to identify which concepts (floating cups) are important to your task and toss your information (ping-pong balls) into the right ones to get your result. The appropriate concepts float away from you or back towards you, depending on the context in which you are working. The ability to recognize an old concept reapplied to a new context will be key to our students’ adult lives.