Understanding the middle school learner as the basis for implementing a district-wide digital transformation
In December 2015, the Tuscaloosa City Schools Board of Education approved the superintendent’s strategic plan, a broadly ambitious plan that prioritized capital improvements, human resources, and curriculum and instruction. Two key areas in the last category were a focus on middle level education and the execution of a digital transformation. As part of the plan, the district committed funds for hiring the personnel needed to bolster the middle school team structure, hiring instructional technology coaches embedded in schools, and obtaining the equipment needed for a multi-year one-to-one initiative. The task we faced was to apply these resources to make middle school and digital transformation blossom. Thus, the planning for and execution of these two projects has been tightly intertwined by design, yielding outstanding initial results in both areas.
Why Middle School? Why Digital Transformation?
Like much of public education across the nation, schools in our region pay close attention to the early years of education and to high school. That focus has allowed us to forget things we once knew about educating young adolescents. State funding formulas for schools place middle grades at the bottom of the list; in an effort to “prepare students for high school,” we engage in practices not appropriate to this developmental level and we perpetuate stereotypes and generalizations about middle school. And students’ academic performance trends sharply downward. So, we decided to do one thing: commit to understanding adolescence well as an entire school district and base all our decisions on that understanding.
At the same time that we committed to making middle school a priority, we began a digital transformation. Many educational technology initiatives have achieved only modest success or failed miserably because they focused on the equipment rather than the people and the practices. Districts pursuing successful technology integration must consider the conditions in which the devices are used, not the devices themselves (Walker, 2015). Research has identified specific keys to successful technology integration including ongoing teacher learning, teacher collaboration, student collaboration, teacher access to support, and positive teacher attitudes to student technology use (Penuel, 2014; Goodwin, 2011). Aware of these challenges, the district initiated its digital transformation by placing a priority on meeting the needs of teachers with technology coaches. Guided by the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) standards for students and teachers, this team leads a digital transformation with a vision of
- Increased confidence among all constituents that students are prepared for the future;
- More efficient and effective feedback and communication with students and families;
- More effective technology use by teachers and students;
- Consistent use of best practices when using digital tools for learning;
- Greater teacher collaboration;
- Increased implementation of learning experiences that are complex, purposeful, innovative, student-centered, engaging, and relevant;
- Evidence of student mastery of standards, experiences, skills, and goals;
- Growth in digital citizenship awareness and practices among students, employees, and parents; and
- More effective relationships between students and teachers.
The decision to implement these twin change initiatives together in middle school was deliberate. The existing structures of the schools across the system, staff and leadership capacity, and readiness for change were among the factors that contributed to the decision. And, our middle schools wanted to “go first.” Both initiatives would clearly require a great deal of work, but our faculties were hungry for specialized support—they welcomed the spotlight that came with blazing these trails. Given that willingness, our shared philosophy that instructional technology should serve as an integral component of effective teaching and learning practices (and not as a stand-alone) suggested implementing this digital transformation in the context of a commitment to effective middle level practice. In other words, effective instructional technology practices are part of effective middle level practice. Why should we tackle growth separately? From the beginning, the system- and school-level leadership teams committed to cross-integrate the key concepts and practices in both directions. Professional learning sessions focused on middle school highlighted relevant technology practices; sessions specializing in instructional technology explicitly demonstrated the relevant middle school concepts.
For example, after the start of the school year, the school-based technology coaches and literacy coaches recognized a need for teacher growth in the area of active, purposeful learning. We leveraged a half-day of professional development to plan teacher professional learning in which they experienced active, purposeful learning to better understand and plan for such experiences for their students. The learning culminated in teachers working in cross-district groups to create standards-based learning experiences that incorporated active student engagement. As they worked, the teachers collaboratively compiled their plans in shared online folders they could access anytime, anywhere.
Examples of Success
After one year, there were clear signs of transformation taking root. The six middle school principals attended the AMLE conference together and committed to collaborative growth. They capped their learning by producing a district-wide commitment to excellence in middle school practice titled Middle School Matters! Guided by this document in the coming years, all district middle schools committed to excellent practices including valuing the uniqueness of early adolescence, providing an adult advocate that knows and supports every student, and creating forums in which students share their learning with their families and teachers. Direct links between Middle School Matters! and digital transformation include guiding student growth as digital citizens and empowered learners and a commitment to building critical thinking, communication, and collaborative and problem-solving skills by engaging in active, purposeful learning experiences.
As administrators grew towards these commitments, their faculties pursued a wide variety of connected and intertwined professional growth processes. Excellent showcases of this growth have occurred during recent teacher-led professional development:
- Science teachers and their students led a session on creating digital portfolios.
- Project Lead the Way teachers and an English teacher led colleagues into the STREAM (Science Technology Reading Engineering and Mathematics).
- A history teacher introduced zombies as a context for instruction in history classes.
- A math teacher engaged colleagues in leveraging the learning management system for accessing online resources, assigning and assessing original projects, and providing up-to-date information about student learning.
These practices are both transformative middle school practices and technology integration.
Keys to Success
- Intertwining these broad initiatives requires sustained, purposeful collaboration in order to have meaningful impact. That collaboration occurs at multiple levels from a common vision to purposeful planning to overlapping communities of learners to daily collaboration in classrooms.
- Extensive and purposeful planning is not negotiable. Change is hard work. Positive and sustainable change is even harder work! For educators who have a vested interest in systemic, long-range, and sustainable change, taking the time to plan carefully is well worth it in the long run.
- While the visible evidence of this change spread rapidly across our system, this progress was years in the making. We made the decision to invest deeply in the time necessary to build a common vision of what a digital transformation is, the nature of adolescence, and the implications for our practice as educators. This long view of change allowed us to achieve broad buy-in from the individuals involved.
- In the process, we focused intentionally on becoming a community of learners, top down and bottom up. Part of the learning was a formal PLC that included building- and system-level leaders; faculties, groups, and pairs of teachers also engaged in deep learning over time. Not one of us believes we have arrived in our knowledge about educating young adolescents or effective instructional technology practices; though, we all know much more than we did at the beginning of this process.
- Teaching is immensely complex work. Understanding young adolescents and engaging in transformative digital practice are not easily integrated into that work. Our study suggested that one practice common to successful schools (particularly regarding creating and sustaining a culture of powerful student learning) is peer coaching. Our district invested heavily in these positions and is already reaping the benefits through the transformation of learning experiences and outcomes for students.
Lessons Learned and Next Steps
As this initiative unfolded, we had to make corrections as we hit bumps along the road. Scaling from a team of teachers to a grade level to a school to a district requires more complex advanced planning and continual recalibration of the vision. Initially, the technology coaches worked with a school faculty in relative isolation from the coaching occurring at other schools. When it became apparent that there was drift away from the common vision, the technology coaches occasionally swapped schools or co-coached and began holding weekly video conferences to share successes and work through challenges. The coaches were also challenged in their efforts to translate broad buy-in from administrators and teachers into action in practice by teachers who did not readily engage in the coaching process. Thus, the coaches shifted from offering assistance to initiating one-on-one collaborations built around teachers’ big ideas.
While we worked to attend to the well-known keys for success, such as communicating clearly with our community, building consensus and buy-in, and planning carefully, we found two other critical keys. The first is to work out of your lane. We placed a high priority on building trust within our organization and using that trust as the grounds for breaking out of the silos that tend to exist in school systems. Because we trust the intentions of our colleagues, we developed a culture that values collaboration and feedback instead of rigid role execution.
The second is to purposefully make technology secondary to teaching and learning. From the beginning we said out loud, clearly, and repeatedly that our mission is rich learning for students; technology is simply a (often very powerful) tool to make that learning possible. In that context, we learned to reframe our questions from “What cool ways could we use tech product X in class?” to “How can I make learning objective Y come alive for students more effectively … possibly through the agency of the tech tools available.” For us, there is not a line between effective middle school practice and effective instructional technology practice. It’s all the same because Middle School Matters!
Goodwin, B. (2011). Research says… / one-to-one laptop programs are no silver bullet. Educational Leadership, 68(5), 78-79. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/feb11/vol68/num05/One-to-One_Laptop_Programs_Are_No_Silver_Bullet.aspx
Penuel, W. R. (2014). Implementation and effects of one-to-one computing initiatives. Journal of Research
on Technology in Education, 38(3), 329-348. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15391523.2006.10782463
Walker, T. (2015, December 1). Are school districts getting smarter about education technology? Retrieved from http://neatoday.org/2015/12/01/school-districts-getting-smarter-education-technology/
Zielezinski, M.B. (2017, Summer). Promising practices for education technology. American Educator, 41(2). https://www.aft.org/ae/summer2017/zielezinski