The Most Important Instructional Conversation of Our Time

An Interview with the Authors of Successful Middle School Instructional Technology

In their newly released book, Successful Middle School Instructional Technology, authors Ryan Ruggles and Tim Schigur advocate for schools to develop a common language and approach to instructional technology within the middle grades setting. I sat down with the authors to talk about why this topic was so important to them as school and district administrators, and why they call it the most important instructional conversation of our time.

Stephanie Simpson (SS): As seasoned administrators who have thought about instructional technology from the school and district lenses, why did you feel this book was important to write?

Ryan Ruggles (RR): I have always loved technology. As I moved into school leadership positions, I was taken aback at how prominent technology is in our lives, but how little we plan for it in the school setting. We might have one professional development day a year dedicated technology, that usually isn’t differentiated for staff, and we can do better. Our hope was to shine a light on instructional technology and how it can be transformational. What schools need to do that, from my experience, is a framework.

Tim Schigur (TS): You’ve probably heard the expression, “data rich, information poor,” meaning we collect a lot of data but not necessarily the insights we need to make good decisions. Similarly, with technology, there are many technology components within schools. Devices, apps, etc. How are we really using them? To be truly effective, you need a vision and a plan. That’s how you’ll get the ROI you’re looking for in terms of student achievement. Schools need to purposeful and intentionally commitment to a strategy that includes supports to help the adults in the building implement the strategy. If you were rolling out a new math curriculum, you’d offer professional development for staff. The same should be true of instructional technology. This book is designed to help schools maximize the investment they’re making in technology.

SS: You use ChatGPT a couple times in the book. In particular, I love the poem it wrote about middle school that you include near the end of the book. Was that intentional, and what were you trying to communicate by using that tool?

RR: Absolutely, that was intentional. A lot of educators have a fear of AI. We wanted to show that it’s not scary. I think the poem is a powerful example of how ChatGPT can be used to spur creativity. What we’ve seen with AI is just the tip of the iceberg. Things are constantly changing and evolving, we need to lean into that. By having a steady vision of what we want to accomplish with technology, when new technology comes along you can fit it into an existing philosophy.

TS:  As education leaders, we believe that we should model innovation and risk taking. Be willing to try new technology. Sometimes that gets delegated to other staff, but we want to see leaders using programs like ChatGPT not only to familiarize themselves but also so they can experience the power of technology to improve systems. If they themselves see the impact, they’re more likely to advocate for innovation for staff and students.

SS: As a companion text to The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, you’re not advocating for any particular technology or solution. Instead, you offer a framework for educators to think about how they want to integrate technology into their classrooms and schools. What are one or two key insights you’d want readers to take away from reading the book?

RR: You don’t need to know every corner of every device to be a good technology leader. I think that is a big hurdle for a lot of people. People say, “I don’t have these skills, how can I lead a conversation about the importance of technology?” But you can! If you’re committed to good instruction for students and what’s best for young adolescents, then absolutely you can lead a conversation about how to best use technology in the classroom.

TS: The Successful Middle School series offers great resources for creating system-level success so you can then enjoy initiative-level success. We wanted to provide resources to help educators evolve and adapt as technology changes. We believe this is the most important instructional discussion of our time because of how embedded technology is in our lives. The better we do it in school, the better prepared students will be for whatever future they encounter. We balanced that with some topical things to think about, like digital wellness, and offered a pathway to better approaches. We wanted to look at both the systems as well as certain pieces of the system that are top of mind right now.

SS: It’s Successful Middle School IT. Why is important to have this conversation in the middle school setting, specifically?

RR: Middle school is such a critical time to have this conversation. By high school, it’s too late to start developing technology habits. We know students have multiple devices. I have a picture of my 13-year-old son in which he’s gaming online with friends in two different cities, and he’s also on his cell phone having separate conversations with other friends. That’s reality for our middle schoolers right now. It’s fundamental that we’re having conversations with them. There’s real urgency here. Students have devices, but do we have a plan?

TS: When you get to the middle grades, young adolescents start to better understand technology and how to interact with it on a deeper level. As Ryan mentioned, they’re thinking about how to use it to their benefit socially and academically. We know they’re also very impressionable at this age. When they come to school, we should be able to help guide and prepare them by providing a system for them to grow and learn into that not only benefits them but also society. At this point, 1:1 is outdated. Now it’s 2 or 3 devices for every student. Middle school is the sweet spot of getting their attention and helping them develop good and kind technology habits, to help them understand the impact of their behavior online. They can truly analyze and synthesize the conversation at this age.

RR: The last thing I’d add is highlighting how we’re talking to our middle schoolers about technology. The words we use matter. We need to be using common language as educators when talking about instructional technology.

TS: I agree. Technology is a good thing, and we want kids to see it as such. There are going to be challenging behaviors in schools, but those underlying behaviors have always been there. It’s not the fault of technology. We need to be mindful that our behaviors and words with technology have major impact on students.

Ryan Ruggles is currently the Superintendent of Tomorrow River Schools in Wisconsin and has been an administrator for more than 17 years. Tim Schigur is currently the Business Development Executive at Diamond Assets, LLC. IN addition to being a former middle school social studies teacher, Tim also served as a school administrator, including as a principal and superintendent. Successful Middle School Instructional Technology is now available in the AMLE Store.