Friday, January 23, 2015

Listen to the Guy on the Ground

I was recently given a book from my nephew, who is a current special forces leader, prompted by The Mission, the Men, and Me written by a former special ops soldier by the name of Pete Blaber.  I mention this book because it has so many parallels to the work we do in dealing with complex tasks and assignments.

The most significant parallel from the book related to our work in education and the effective integration of technology in particular.  The "aha" comes from the author's view of how military leadership viewed the work on the ground in light of armed services technology.  His point is made in his description of how leadership would make decisions in remote places even as far away as a 1000 miles from the point of operation with little consideration of input from the people closest to the area of focus.  His idea struck a nerve on two points:

1.  Leadership saw technology as almost the end all/be all.  In other words, they relied on the satellite imagery, the laser guided weapons, the communication technology, etc.  depending on the power of these tools to accomplish the mission.  This appeared to be almost to the exclusion of the people in the theatre.

2.  The admonition from the author to always "listen to the guy on the ground."  In order to attack a complex problem (in this case chasing down bad guys in Afghanistan), context has to be built and that requires time and a mindset to get as much relevant information as possible.  The author mentions having a common sense approach to "develop the situation," unlike traditional planning procedures.  (This reminds me to not to assume anything because something worked well for someone or else for another classroom, school or district).

The art and science of teaching has a complexity that seems to be unappreciated because of the subtleties of our work.  I have heard experts compare this complexity to that of a brain surgeon, and this is affirmed when we consider all of the elements of teaching and learning on a minute-by-minute basis.  One author went so far as to call teachers "brain changers" (Pillars 2011).  Now add the use of technology to this complexity, and we have a challenge that demands the investment in thought, resources and planning that are equal to the task.  Our tendency is to forego building context when it comes to inserting technology in the classroom.  A failure to develop a relevant understanding of what it takes to meet the needs of staff members to support the role of technology in the needed instructional shift makes it that much more difficult to change the teaching and learning dynamics required to create a 21st Century Learning Environment.

As leaders, we tend to oversimplify the mission of integrating technology in our classrooms with much the same approach as the military and intelligence leadership mentioned in this book.  Technology is powerful, and if we insert that technology in the classroom, everybody takes off to greater academic learning and success, right?  (Wrong!)  We make the assumption the technology will "do the trick."  The reality is without developing the situation and without "listening to the guy on the ground,” we just insert technology into a system and a situation that has not been prepared to adapt to the desired teaching and learning.  The optimal conditions required to launch these tools to be used effectively and powerfully does not occur naturally and seamlessly.  We take a formulaic approach to a complex and dynamic situation that has several moving parts.

A few lessons learned from this thinking can be applied to what we do on a daily basis:  
  • We can never stop working with everyone involved in teaching and learning.  Listening to the input from the people who witness teaching and learning challenges on a daily basis is essential.   
  • Develop the context of our challenges and the complexities that exist with teaching and learning with the use of technology for learning in mind.   
  • Keep technology in perspective:  It brings powerful learning opportunities and conditions that do great things for kids only if teachers act purposely to create those conditions and opportunities.  The more effective the teacher is in this area, the more effective the use of the technology.
  • Teachers can also "listen to the guy on the ground" (students) and go through the same process of developing the situation and determine context to be innovative and solve complex student learning problems in light of the innovative use of technology tools.

Pillars, W. (2011, December 20). Teachers as Brain-Changers: Neuroscience and Learning. Retrieved January 20, 2015.

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