Reflections from Philadelphia: My Technology "Take-Away" From An Inspiring Conference

Beth Anne Brennan
Lower School Head

"But it's not about the tools. It's not about layering expensive technology on top of the traditional curriculum. Instead, it's about addressing the new needs of modern learners in entirely new ways. And once we understand that it's about learning, our questions reframe themselves in terms of the ecological shifts we need to make: What do we mean by learning? What does it mean to be literate in a networked, connected world? What does it mean to be educated? What do students need to know and be able to do to be successful in their futures? Educators must lead inclusive conversations in their communities around such questions to better inform decisions about technology and change."

Recently, I traveled to Philadelphia to attend the annual conference for independent schools (NAIS).  The theme of this year’s conference was Think Big Think Great and for those of you who know me, as a leader and a learner, know that I love thinking BIG.  I found many of the presentations intriguing in the program and I was very excited to attend.  I wasn’t  disappointed.

If we are to consider and possibly embrace change, I decided to approach this conference along the lines that Will Richardson suggests above; my experience at this conference would be as a “modern learner” in hopes that  I might better share and inform our community when I returned to school the following week.  Going in, I felt inspired, empowered, knowledgeable and ready; I have been engaged in many discussions over the past several years, about preparing schools within the information age and now, the time had come for me to dive in.  I needed to start thinking, learning and living as a student in the 21st century.  

As I attended presentations, armed with my iPad, I sat up close to the speakers and took notes using the Note app. Later in the day, when I had a moment or two between workshops, I used the internet to look up the speakers’ bios, TED talks (if they had any), research, and opinions.  If I felt it was useful I forwarded the resources by email, along with my notes, images and thoughts regarding what I was taking in, to my colleagues back at EMS.  I also found that I could follow the Twitter posts of the other conference-goers (using #NAIS2013), which allowed me to know their thoughts about a given speaker or presentation, without having to have a personal conversation with the more than 5,000  participants (I found this aspect, the Twitter feed, to be the most interesting of all).  

When I returned home, I added some of the speakers’ blog sites to my favorites bar with the intention of checking in frequently to see what they are thinking and saying relative to education. I also decided that I would participate more frequently in social media and online learning networks that focus on teaching in the 21st Century.  

I have attended many conferences but I would have to say that this experience was among the most remarkable.  It is hard for me to fully describe how my learning was enhanced by the technology so readily and simply held in my hand.  If I needed a reference during a presentation, I quickly looked it up online; anything important I wanted to note or share, I could jot it down or capture it with the camera and forward to my colleagues.  The value of the iPad was clear to me, and as a professional educator of 25 years, I can not help but wonder about the possibilities for us in the classroom.  Should we push harder for technology in our classrooms at EMS?

One of the reasons I love EMS is that we provide a careful, whole-child education.  Where some schools or school districts place weight on grade-based assessments or test scores, I know that our teachers play a much broader role in our student’s development.  After all, things like focus, attending, social and emotional development, critical/abstract thinking skills still require great teachers who, perhaps, have learned from great teachers before them.  

Here’s the thing, though.  To my own children, to our EMS children, none of what I have just related about my conference experience is remarkable to them.  At all.  Where I am amazed, my children, along with the millions of other young people of their generation, are already living (fully) in an age where information is accessible and commonplace.  Experienced educators are in the middle of a paradigm shift but our children are living well within the paradigm.  There has always been differences between generations, but this time, it’s a bit different.  As Will Richardson noted at his NAIS presentation (similar TEDtalk here), unlike any time before, teachers are no longer the sole providers of our student’s core learning.  Children now have access to many teachers, for just about anything that interests them.  I realize that this may be a bit too simplified, but for us teachers the nature of the shift we have to understand is one that moves the focus away from knowledge and more toward guidance.

Taking this leap and making this commitment to “modern learning” has not been easy for me.  In fact, I have often found technology to be distracting, frustrating and time-consuming, but I am starting to get it.  I am starting to get the hang of it and understand it’s value.  Me and the 5000+ professional educators who attended NAIS, along with many more who took it all in through web feeds, simulcasts, and social media are starting to get a better idea of the potential it can offer for teaching in our time.  Of course, we still have an obligation to shape the development of our students (talents, knowledge and character) through the methodologies we feel are most effective:  Best of the Old and Best of the New as our informal motto goes. I still believe in this balance.  It’s just that now, considering how things have changed, we should reevaluate how we are going to proceed and then—borrowing from conference speaker Cathy Davidson, and Nike shoes—”just do it.”  Our goal is to prepare our children for the world in which they will grow.

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