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IT #1: Greatest lesson: Teacher buy-in is overrated

While consensus and collaborative decision-making is important, waiting for full teacher buy-in can also be paralyzing to innovation.

[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on April 12th of this year, was our #1 most popular IT story of the year for 2017. Happy Holidays!]

One of the greatest lessons my 30 years of experience in education has taught me is that teacher buy-in is, sometimes, overrated.

There, I said it.

Now, before you stop reading, note my use of the word “sometimes.”  As a former school administrator, I realize there is a time and place for buy-in.  However, as one of my mentors, a seasoned middle school principal once explained to me, while consensus and collaborative decision-making is important, it can also be paralyzing to innovation.  Understanding the balance between growing buy-in and launching innovation has never been more important than in today’s era.

As new ideas about teaching and learning go in and out of style, teachers have a right to feel some initiative fatigue. From organizational concepts like Open Classrooms to pedagogical trends like Madeline Hunter’s Essential Elements of Instruction [I have to admit that I still love this one], great new ideas that will transform education seem to come and go with stunning regularity.

In my role working with school districts across the country as Vice President of Learning and Development at Discovery Education, I sometimes meet teachers who are not ready to make the transition from using textbooks as a core instructional resource to using digital content to create dynamic learning environments.  They feel the digital transition is a fad, or that they, their students, or their school district is not ready for such a change.  Here is a sample of the pushback I hear:

“My colleagues and I aren’t ready for a digital textbook.”

“Our students don’t have access at home, so we can’t go all digital.”

“We don’t have the budget to go 1:1, therefore, we can’t go with digital textbooks.”

“Our students are losing their ability to communicate effectively because they have too much technology already in their lives.”

3 Reasons Why Teacher Buy-In is (Sometimes) Overrated

1. The Real World Isn’t Dependent on Teacher Buy-In

I recognize these are all legitimate challenges that need to be addressed.  However, the fact remains that today’s world is a digital world, and in order for our students to be successful beyond graduation, they need an education that prepares them to operate productively in our society as it is.

This reality makes the digital transition not a fad or something we might be able to get to, but rather, an immediate necessity that cannot always wait for optimum levels of teacher buy-in.

(Next page: 2 more reasons why teacher buy-in is sometimes overrated)

2. Students Are Ready, Whether or Not Teachers Are Ready

Yes, it may be true that teachers are used to teaching with paper textbooks and may not be ready for digital textbooks. Or, it may be that budgets are tight and we may have concerns about student access outside the classroom. No matter our concerns, we need to recognize that our students are ready—they want to engage with textbooks that are replete with immersive and interactive experiences. They want access to up-to-date information, and they want opportunities not only to consume content, but to create content as well.

3. Digital will be Used By Students Daily and the Classroom Won’t Change That

While a lack of teacher readiness for a digital transition can be one perceived barrier to making the digital transition, another objection I sometimes hear from teachers is that they are concerned at the impact technology is having on the way students write and communicate.  Therefore, they don’t want to add any more technology to their classrooms.

There may be a belief texting is eroding students’ writing skills. Or that students are always on Snapchat, and their personal communication skills are being weakened. Or that the use of digital assistants like Siri and Alexa are hampering our students’ language abilities.

However, the reality is that technology is already deeply integrated into our lives outside the classroom and it’s here to stay. Our students need rich educational experiences with multiple resources—both print and digital, dynamic and static text, on multiple platforms including devices, smartphones, even virtual assistants like Siri or Alexa.

We don’t necessarily need 1:1 educational experiences; we need 1:digital.

How to Approach the Digital Transition

This imperative means that it is up to us as teachers to today take on the challenge of teaching students to use digital resources in an impactful, appropriate way, and approach the digital transition with an and, not or attitude.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Enhance the instructional experience by integrating digital strategies and content with “traditional” teaching strategies. This approach can be a catalyst for increasing student engagement. For example, ask students to write a five-paragraph essay, and then have them summarize their work Twitter-style in 140 characters or less. Or, have students create hypotheses about what type of sunlight, soil, and nutrition grow the best tomatoes through a virtual lab, then test those hypotheses with real tomato plants. Look for opportunities to provide both hands-on and digital learning experiences to your students.
  • Let the content support differentiation. In a classroom powered by digital resources, a teacher can more easily assign students texts at different lexiles, or provide information through multimodal texts, empower students to access information through multiple languages, and much, much more. Digital resources can help teachers not only expand their impact, but it can be a tool that can help scale what we know is good instructional practice.
  • Use technology to teach students how to learn. New apps.  Technologies like Siri. New types of digital content like Virtual Reality. Every day, it seems, there is something new.  Engage your students in exploring these new tools. How will a new app help their learning? When and why should it be used? We know the how is just as important as the what. Think about the Standard for Mathematical Practice that requires students to use appropriate tools strategically. Technology makes this a practicality.

And, practicality, in many cases, leads to buy-in, which brings us full circle.

The key is for all teachers who have not yet begun making the digital transition to get started on making that shift today. Our students cannot wait for teachers to feel 100 percent comfortable with the funding, training, or buy-in that supports a digital transition, because their preparation for life beyond graduation is happening right now.

Even if you don’t fully buy-in, as one of my colleagues says, at least “be” in.  Engage your students with robust digital content. Try a new app. Put Alexa in your classroom and explore how to integrate it into your instruction.

Don’t worry. Your students will help because when it comes to buy-in with digital, they are leading the charge.

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