Thursday, January 18, 2018

Raising the Bar

Raising the Bar

Why Digital Device Training Is Needed in Public Education

I started my teaching career as a 20 year old football coach 16 years ago for Alta Sierra Intermediate. I was hired to help out with the offense and defensive lines, setting up drills, and planning our defensive strategies. I loved the 5-4 defense since I played nose guard in high school and believed the pressure would work well at our level. Needless to say, over time, keeping the same defense scheme game-in and game-out just didn’t work. I discovered the importance of preparation, and realized using a defense I loved didn't always work. I discovered my defense needed to change for the offense that lay ahead, not the formation I knew best. I discovered my coaching skills needed to evolve and expand to ideas outside of my comfort zone so that my players had the best possible chance to be competitive.

Let me keep my sports theme going a bit before I get to my point. Hypothetically, let’s say there is a high school track and field coach and they have coached the high jump event for their entire career. They are in fact the best high jump coach in the state, and have produced many top athletes through their instruction. They are approached by a new head coach and asked to also train his/her high jump athletes in the pole vault. For the purpose of this hypothetical, we will say the pole vault is not an event which scores any points for the team. In an effort to get the coach willing to take on this new responsibility, the head coach shows him the side by side description of the “high jump” and the “pole vault” events as seen below:

High Jump: The high jump is a track and field event in which competitors must jump unaided over a horizontal bar placed at measured heights without dislodging it. In its modern most practiced format, a bar is placed between two standards with a crash mat for landing.

Pole Vault: The pole vault  is a track and field event in which competitors must use  a long, flexible pole (which today is usually made either of fiberglass or carbon fiber) as an aid to jump over a horizontal bar placed at measured heights without dislodging it. In its modern most practiced format, a bar is placed between two standards with a crash mat for landing.

The coach insists he/she loves the high jump for its practicality and unaided format. Only human will and skill are needed to do well in the event. The coach explains that with the pole vault, the athlete needs a device to do well, which can distract from the true skill of the athlete. If he/she takes on this other task, he will not have enough time to truly train his athletes in the event that matters and gives the team points in the actual competition. The coach also explains that he has coached the high jump for many years and all his athletes do really well at the end of the year championship meets, so why train them in this new skill? Why change a good thing?

This seems like a very reasonable argument. Why should a seasoned  high jump coach change and try something else? Why train athletes for an event which is not even counted at the schools competitions?  Well, let me put a new spin on this situation. What if the coach was informed that only 11% of his athletes would be competing in the high jump in college and 89% were being asked to compete in the pole vault. On top of this, none of the athletes would be given coaching instructions on how to compete or prepare in their new event. Now do you think the skills gained through high jump would prepare the athletes to compete in pole vault? Sure, some would instinctively adjust to some degree, but without coaching, many would struggle. Because of this, “College Studies” would show that incoming athletes perform better in high jump competitions than pole vaulting competitions. Is this a fair comparison? These are two different events, with very different skills needed to be successful. Yes the event descriptions seem to be similar, but the act itself is very different.

Of course this is an extreme hypothetical situation. No high school track and field program that I know of has a high jump event and not a pole vaulting event. But think about this for a second: if our goal as educators is to prepare our students for what is to come, shouldn’t we include the skills in our everyday instruction to prepare them for this change? If the hypothetical situation above was in fact real, shouldn't the coach be preparing his athletes for the event they will most likely compete in while in college?  Of course by now you are beginning to see where I am going with is post. In college today 89% of our students are using digital devices to complete work, create notes, and communicate with other students and faculty on a daily basis. Most of these students have learned how to use the devices, for better or worse, themselves with no coaching, support, or guidance on best practices. If we know the challenges that lie ahead for our students in college, why do we insist on not truly embracing the digital device in our public K-12 system?

Now I know this is a generalization. There are many schools and lone wolf teachers truly embracing the digital device. But the reality is the vast majority of public K-12 classroom instruction is still paper & pencil, fill in worksheets, and drill-kill-skills practicing. Many teachers feel the digital device becomes a distractor for their instruction and antagonist to their students’ learning. But the digital device IS NOT GOING AWAY. It will always reveal itself outside of your classroom and in the halls of instruction at college institutions.
I say to you now, WE NEED YOU to help our students understand how to take your mastery concepts of reading, writing, and arithmetic and port those over to tools we know our students will be utilizing in college. We need you to get out of your comfort zone and #DitchThatFEAR of change to better help our students succeed once they leave our instruction. If we continue to ignore the device they will be using to learn tomorrow, we are shackling the skills we hoped would empower them today. As with high jump and pole vault, we need to RAISE THE BAR and do what is right for our students.

Now let me address the elephant in the room. Without a doubt, studies have shown handwritten work to be more beneficial to student recall than typed work. I do not refute these studies, but I do wonder “Why?” Why are these the results we are getting? Is it the way the brain works? Is it the tactile feel of the pencil in one's hand? Or is it something else? Maybe it’s because the students have been solely trained to high jump, then asked to pole vault with no instruction. You see, these studies take students who have taken notes using paper-pencil for 10+ years and put them against students who are using a digital device with possibly no educational training. We are asking high jumpers to compete in a completely different event, with a device they must learn how to use on their own. Maybe the reason these studies are so consistent is that K-12 teachers see them and use it as a reason to not allow/use devices in their classroom. This completes a feedback loop, a self-fulfilling prophecy, limiting the use of devices in many K-12 classrooms. I would love to see a study from students who have been properly trained how to use a digital device for 10+ years… hmmm doctorate thesis anyone?

Now I could very well be wrong. After years of testing and studies we may find that indeed, handwritten work is be the best form of learning. Fantastic! But this fact will not detour our students from using their devices to learn. This fact will not reverse the tide. Our students now and forevermore will be using digital devices to communicate, collaborate, create and complete work. So even if the studies show paper and pencil to be best, we STILL need to train our kids on using digital devices in their everyday learning. If we don’t  they will be left to their own devices (pun intended). They will be left to fend for themselves. They will become an athlete without a coach. For this reason, we must train our students how to master their digital devices, even if you yourself do not see an immediate benefit for your class.For this reason, I applaud AVID.

AVID, as many of you know, has a mission to prepare all students for college readiness and success. When AVID noticed the growing number of students utilizing a digital device in college, they had to rethink some of their methods in implementing their strategies.  As a result, AVID has created a Digital Teaching and Learning (DTL) pathway to help students and teachers maximize their strategies through digital means and proper educational training before they set foot on a college campus. This forward thinking approach helps to bridge the learning gap created by the great leap from high school to college.

One final caveat; technology is NOT the savior of education. YOU are. What will have the most powerful impact on your students is your willingness to evolve year after year to be the best teacher you can possibly be; your willingness to see the world changing and your eagerness to change with it; your sensibility to see what our students will be up against and take the challenge head on. We need not to change the way we TEACH our kids, but rather, change the way we REACH our kids. We need to see past the noise, past the studies, and see clearly the path that lies ahead for our students. The digital device is not going away. Our students are not reverting back to paper and pencil. We need to do our best to prepare our students for THEIR future, not our past. We need to truly ask ourselves, “If we know our students will be competing in pole vault in college, would we continue to only train them in high jump?” I hope the answer is no. I hope the answer is clear. I hope you will raise the bar.


  1. Well stated Joe! It takes a true team of educators to #DitchThatFear and Raise the Bar! I'm with you coach!