Teacher Education in the Digital Age

Germany prides itself to be a land of poets and thinkers as well as a high-tech nation, but it’s not a country which boasts having high-tech classrooms. A 2010 report by InitiativeD21 shows that within the OECD it’s the country where computers are used least in the classroom. What does it take to turn this situation around? We think it’s not a question of buying more equipment, but rather one of teacher skills and mentality.

06. October 2011 by Basti Hirsch

Are German schools willfully ignoring technology’s potential for teaching and learning? Are teachers stuck in a paper-based system that doesn’t allow them to develop their own digital literacy? To find out we’re turning to Lisa Rosa, a teacher educator and education blogger from Hamburg:

What is the reason that German schools don’t go digital?
Maybe it’s because Germany was ahead in the time of Gutenberg and the Humboldt brothers, when the question was how to create an education system fit for the printing press and industrial age. It’s tough for a nation to realize she is not longer the avantgarde. But if we keep waiting too long to finally accept this, we may miss the boat entirely.
You’re quite right: For the education system to arrive in the digital world it’s not enough to introduce digital tools and then use them the same way you’ve been using books and paper, i.e. using them to teach. That’s what teachers have learned to do since we’ve had compulsory education: to teach.

But teaching is not that same thing as learning. To teach in a classroom is just a historical form of designing learning experiences, one well-fit for the printing press & industrial age. Today we need new ways of learning design and facilitation, because learning itself is changing fundamentally in the digital world, especially with web2.0. Teachers themselves need to learn a new way of learning, and in addition to new ways of helping others learn. This also means a massive shift in the role of the teacher and in all structual aspects of the school system.

The growing pressure to transform an entire system creates a huge challenge for us and naturally also a lot of angst with its participants. It’s not just for individuals within the system to learn new, we need the whole system to shift & learn. Nobody really knows how to do that. In a way all of us need to go on an expedition. And that makes a lot of people feel helpless, clueless, even ängstlich. Teachers and other educators particularly don’t like being clueless, as their traditional role is to be in the know and to impart knowledge. Thus we have such a hard time introducing these devices into the classroom. One either suspects that they will have unforeseen consequences that you won’t be able to control. Or it doesn’t make any sense to introduce them into a system that is thought to be rigid and thus far has been working without them.

With this mind it’s no wonder that it’s the hefty Interactive White Board (IWB) of all devices that has been allowed to conquer the classroom, even before students have been allowed to bring their own devices. The reason for this is simple: A classroom with an interactive whiteboard doesn’t differ much from one with a blackboard. The teacher stays upfront and in the focus, with all students looking forward, instead of communicating with each other or learning individually. You can’t create digital-age learning settings by simply putting an interactive whiteboard into the same-old classroom.


What are your highlights when you work with teachers?
It’s a highlight for me when teachers suddenly realize they learned something by and for themselves, not just for next class tomorrow. When they’re jubiliantly learning with joy, by making discoveries that have personal meaning to themselves. One group of teachers just didn’t want to call it a day, even after we’ve had already prolonged our PD by over an hour. Teachers aren’t used to learn for themselves anymore. It goes to show how crazy our traditional system is, where it is said: “I’m done learning, now it is for others to learn.”
Another personal highlight for me is to encounter often young teachers who enter my seminars with low expectations: “What’s that old lady going to teach me anyway?”

Teachers are hardly ever asked what they already know and can do, what experiences they bring, which problems they woud like to tackle. Such low expecitions were set in their teacher education courses in university and more traditional professsional development settings. In my seminars they’re suddenly wide-awake when I ask for their learning desires by having them fill in an Etherpad for instance. Neither do they know this digital tool nor have they been expecting to all say what they want, at the same time. And that the seminar is then actually tailored to their learning desires. It’s always funny for me to see their positively-disappointed faces.


What has been a lowpoint?
Low points occur when I’m not able to muster enough empathy and patience with teachers. In this case it’s often with older ones, who are frightened of all the sudden new demands and react by turning passive-aggressive. I had one arts teachers who just like his colleagues was expected to learn how to blog, but he just sat in front of his PC with folded arms and kept repeating: “I’m not doing a thing.”
I asked if he’s into photography and perhaps would like to create a photo album on flickr, so that his students… At this point he got mad. All for me to do was leave him alone. Mayhaps this at least gave him a taste of what it feels like for students when they’re being forced to learn something.

Can you give us an example of best practice in teacher use of digital technology?
I think the best paedagogic use of digital tools in school is the same way they’re being used in society: As an interactive information and communication medium. For the first time in paedagogic history we have such simple ways of organizing the most important aspects of learning, namely internalization, externalization, individualization and collaboration. Good practice for me is to use blogging for the collaborative collection of material, to discuss problems and to show results. They pretty works in all subjects, I’ve even seen a successful implementation in sports.
It requires being ready to open the learning process design in a way that students can work on a complex topic in a self-directed and open-ended manner. I’m currently working on the complex issue of migration and integration with a teacher named Max and his 12th grade. Max and I have been planning the project setting, he’s now entered it with his class, and I am coaching him. After intitial hesitation his students quickly caught fire and are now working this way with great enthusiasm. It’s a quite simple recipe really: They work on what they deem important and what’s meaningful for them. Very indvidualized, but also collaborative. None of us knows what’s going to be the exact outcome, but it’s already clear that we will see interesting results and that students are learning a lot.

If you were to change how German teachers are educated: What’s one single thing you would introduce? What one thing we would stop doing?
I’m sceptical if changing a single thing can help change a system. It’s the nature of system change, that nearly everything belonging to the system is changing at the same time. But one ought not to criticize the make-a-wish fairy:
If I were to change one thing in teacher education, I’d shift the main learning style to self-directed, project-based learning with experiments and expeditions.
What I’d stop is that teachers have to study two subjects. Pursuing one passion and finding their element, as Sir Ken Robinson calls it, is enough. To be thrilled about their subject and to become experts in it they have to be practicing for thousands of hours. The time you free by not having to study a second subject could be used for them to begin to learn what learning means in the 21st century and how to become a moderator and coach of learning processes for students today.

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