If you think that younger teachers have “cornered the market” on experimenting with technology to find better ways for student learning, think again. Older, more experienced vets have advantages that can be critical in using technology well within a classroom.

A recent newspaper article (excerpted here) reported on research by Canada’s Media Awareness Network.1 that “It’s older, more experienced teachers – not younger, so-called digital natives – who are experimenting more with new technology in the classroom.” I’d venture to say the same is true in the United States. And while the newspaper chose this “surprising” finding as the lead paragraph in its story, I don’t find it startling at all.

Without the advantage of lots of experience, newer teachers struggle with curriculum pacing, instructional and behavior management, and knowing how to keep a large number of students learning in a typical classroom space. Experienced teachers have these basics mastered and are ready to tackle the challenges of experimenting with all kinds of new instructional tools…including new technology.

Younger teachers may be “digital natives” in the strictest sense. Unlike their older colleagues, they’ve grown up surrounded by computers, mobile technologies and the Internet. But many of us who entered our first classrooms in the 70s, 80s and 90s have learned how to go with the flow of school, and make adjustments as the circumstances demand. We’ve perfected our classroom management skills. We’ve survived the eruptions of “reform.” We don’t get flustered easily. We may be digital immigrants but we’ve brought valuable knowledge and know-how with us into the New World.

The advantage of experience

Each time I teach a curriculum, I learn more about how, when and where students will react. Each time I work through a lesson or project, I get better at anticipating what will stump students and what they’ll find easy. Like all effective, veteran teachers, my sense of pacing improves. And please don’t underestimate how valuable it is to know where to pace the material “fast” and where you need to slow down. Pacing is huge in making the lessons engaging, and engagement is the key to student learning.

As teachers learn more about how students will react to the sequence of lessons — as we gain experience — it becomes s a natural extension to try out new ideas (including technology integration), both to make the tough things easier and to enrich learning in the places where students easily understand the basic lesson.

Younger teachers haven’t had the chance to store up this student-reaction knowledge yet. The best new-teacher induction programs have made significant inroads in helping novice teachers accelerate their ability to perform at these higher levels of practice. Even so, the beginning years are hard, and the time and attention required to experiment with instruction — to learn and test new tools and strategies — may simply not be available as newbies concentrate on building their teaching-practice basics.

For many beginning teachers, the other obstacle to experimentation is student & classroom management. Instead of planning experiments with new instructional tools, or venturing into a project-based learning activity, they invest their extra energy in planning structures and lessons that will help assure that student behavior doesn’t get out of hand. Managing the use of digital tools in a classroom full of students is quite complex. Not only does behavior have to be stable and flow smoothly, many multiple-step tasks must be accomplished.

If you’ve ever had (or even observed) students working with laptop computers from a mobile cart, you’ll know that it’s no small management task to get 30 kids to get the laptop out, take it back to their seat without dropping it, log in, and then have the right digital tool open & ready to go. Not to mention the time and planning it takes to get everything back into its place in the mobile cart. Even in one-to-one computer classrooms, teachers will tell you, blending technology into lessons can be daunting. Many novices lack the confidence and management skills that come with experience and simply aren’t willing to risk chaos and failure, with the clock always ticking.

Veteran teachers face hurdles, too

The biggest hurdle for more experienced teachers is to realize that technology is just another instructional tool. Fundamentally, it’s no different than paper or pencils. Even so, many veteran teachers find the seemingly infinite variations that technology presents baffling.

That is only problematic if the teacher thinks of each kind of technology as distinct and separate. Less digitally savvy teachers need professional learning opportunities that help them categorize digital tools (many of which now reside on the Web). For example, most slideshow software has similarities. So if someone can use the PowerPoint on their computer hard drive, they can probably figure how to use SlideShare, PhotoPeach or VoiceThread, which are found “in the cloud” as websites. If the lesson calls for a student presentation, the core lesson stays the same. The tool is a little different, and a little extra effort is needed to discover where its creators have put each slideshow function, but that’s about it.

One professional learning approach that can help both veteran and novice teachers make the shift from “using” to integrating technology is a close study of the TPACK model. Here teachers blend the content and pedagogy with the technological know-how. Here is where the younger teacher who’s more comfortable with digital tools and variations, and the older more experienced teacher with lots of pedagogical savvy, overlap. The best intersection of learning for students is when the best digital tool is picked based on the pedagogical and content requirements of a particular lesson.

Regardless of age or experience, technology tools need to be taught and considered from their function. Teachers should pick tools based on their ability to aim for and find that sweet spot in the middle of the TPACK venn diagram. So if the lesson strives to have students “communicate,” teachers will build upon lessons that they know do this, choosing the best match in software, Web 2.0 sites and hardware. The experienced teacher-eye will know which lessons need the boost of a digital tool and will know how to manage the class in learning this new tool. And in a collaborative school, a younger teacher — a digital native — might play the role of matchmaker. The TPACK model really invites (in fact, it begs for) collaboration.

A final thought

We’re a dozen years into the 21st century. Students need all their teachers, younger and older, to exploit the potential of digital technologies to increase engagement and deepen learning. While it’s certainly true that effective, experienced teachers have the professional skills and knowledge to lead the way, many are still reluctant. Every teacher needs to become “connected” and tap into the vast professional resources available via social media and the internet. That’s what I did, and it has made a huge difference for me, and most of all, for my students.

  1. The research is part of a longitudinal study Young Canadians in a Wired World, which began in 2001. []
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Marsha Ratzel

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