Crisis of Faith

Y’all lost Jeff.

I find myself entirely uninterested in matters ed-tech, ed-policy, or ed-anything related, aside from what’s going on in my own classroom. The Twitterverse (cringe) bores the hell out of me; I’ve nothing to blog about; and too much of my time has been taken up by meetings about technology products that are supposed to make my life easier from a paperwork point of view but don’t give me anything to work with in terms of things my actual students need to do.

Go tell him he doesn’t have the right to refuse tech.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. On the contrary. He has the right to refuse ill-supported tech; or obtuse tech; or irrelevant tech; or redundant tech; or tech whose outcomes have not been measured sufficiently enough to warrant its judicious use in a classroom by a thoughtful teacher.

    And let me tell you: blogger and Twitterer and 1:1 lab-er and Goggle Doc-er and Webinar-er and Voicethreader and Skyper and nascent info designer though I may be, I’m beginning to suspect that the ed tech world is rife with the stuff enumerated in the above paragraph. I’ve never in my life seen a phrase like “but it’s the 21st century” get more unexamined idolatry.

    And seriously, Dan, what do *you* know, anyway? You’re only 21.


  2. Lucid commentary, Dina. In spite of my comfortability around tech, I’ve never been able to shrug off its expenses simply for some perceived obligation to the 21st century.

    All things held equal in the classroom, I’m in favor of relevant, modern methods over the classics. But the time cost of tech often tilts the playing field against its favor. It disappoints me that in light of that fact, instead of promoting better and more efficient methods, the tech evangelists often default to the sort of hysterical won’t-someone-please-think-of-the-children propaganda you reference in your comment.

  3. Dan, I’m with Dina on this one, both in terms of her reframing of the right of refusal and in terms of her ‘hysterical won’t-someone-please-think-of-the-children propaganda.’

    Administrators, who are in charge of THE SYSTEM, have the obligation to create environments where technology/textbooks/whatever can be used effectively. That’s their job, and shame on them if they don’t do it. I’m not concerned about the teachers who see the potential relevance / utility of digital technologies but rationally reject them as unusable in an unsupportive school environment. It’s the ones who enjoy reasonable support who somehow still see no relevance for any of this stuff in an era where these tools are literally transforming global society. In other words, principled protest is both understandable and defendable; intractable, principle-less refusal is not.

    There is lots of evidence out there that digital divide issues are still very present. For many economically-disadvantaged children, schools may be the only place where they can get exposure to digital technologies. I think we have an obligation to them:

    and I think the aggregation of our individual teaching choices isn’t helping them much:

    This has nothing to do with hysteria and everything to do with caring that these kids have a place in the digital/global economy, both as workers and as citizens. So please don’t name call.

  4. And it seems to me, the more I read about them, that 21st century skills aren’t just about using the tech. They’re about learning how to learn in a more collaborative, more self-directed fashion. If the tech helps that, awesome. If it gets, as Clay Burell often warns about, too “schoolly,” well, then, we’ve got a whole lot of people providing us with really shiny digital workbooks.

  5. //rationally reject them as unusable in an unsupportive school environment//

    And I think I fall into that camp. I’m in a disgustingly affluent district. We have one computer per classroom (these computers were originally purchased so we could enter our attendance data electronically), draconian filtering, and an administration that believes that the best educational technology is the kind that lets us see our students’ entire standardized-test histories on one page. Try booking a computer lab and you’re told that the math department’s got it reserved for the rest of the quarter. The people that do have working tech gadgets (smartboards and the like) are, understandably, really protective of them. Our tech committee, of which I am a member, exists mainly to train our colleagues on how to use our fancy new portal system, which only allows the official Board of Ed RSS feed to come through.

    It’s a mess. That’s why I don’t care anymore. Large schools that generally “do well,” whatever that means, have no incentive to shake things up and try something new. Our 2,800 students, most of whom go on to really fancy colleges and comfortable futures, are going to be left behind, and all the blogging in the world won’t help.

    It’s NOT about the technology. It’s about the education these students are getting, and the status quo that our town fathers want to preserve. We’re churning out 85% rich kids who can’t think and 15% poor kids (percentages are rounded) who are completely ignored. It’s disgusting, and since nobody really wants to listen to me anyway, I’m at the point where I’m just going to close my classroom door, read some Twain and Kesey with my kids, and try to hold on to some semblance of sanity for the rest of the year.

  6. Jeff wrote:
    It’s a mess. That’s why I don’t care anymore. Large schools that generally “do well,” whatever that means, have no incentive to shake things up and try something new.

    This part of your comment really resonated with me, Jeff, because you’re right. “Doing well” in today’s schools is actually a whole lot simpler than we make it out to be. Our kids can be successful by the standardized measures that we use to assess our students without teacher’s ever having to change our instructional practices or uses of technology at all.

    And when that is the measure that we’re held accountable by, it’s easy to turn our backs on the incredible amount of time that finding ways to “do new things in new ways” with tech really takes. What’s the point of teaching kids to create, collaborate and communicate if none of those skills are measured?

    I’ve struggled with this for years—tech and techless. My classroom used to be a place where Socratic seminars were regular features….and the thinking generated in those seminars was remarkable. My kids wrestled with issues in ways that I’d never seen them wrestle before. They were motivated and engaged.

    But my test scores were always the lowest on the hall. My assumption that higher order activities would translate into higher scores for my kids on our end of grade exams was faulty. Instead, the “drill and killers” were producing better “results,” and I was called on the carpet.

    How have things changed?

    While I still feel passionate about any activity that engages my kids in higher order thinking—including commenting on and creating blog entries—I shy away from them now. Drill and kill has crept its way into my “bag of tricks” (trash?). We practice multiple choice reading questions EVERY SINGLE DAY.

    But my scores are up and everyone’s happy.

    Scary, huh?

  7. Scott, I’m not sure where I’m calling anyone names but my challenge remains directed at anyone who assumes that tech is a tenable solution for any given classroom until proven otherwise. These evangelists operate under the assumption not only that with the right effort placed in the right direction these tech problems will resolve themselves but that teachers must apply that effort. For the sake of their students’ 21st-century citizenship.

    And all I’m saying is, look, I’ve got some math to teach over here. And until I can count on two fingers the number of math teachers who are building a meaningful practice out of tech, until this stuff begins to approximate the importance of a cash register to a grocery store checker, the vast majority of the ‘net’s commentary on your post will strike me as naive propaganda, mostly divorced from the reality of my practice.

    And like that, I wish stories like Jeff’s were more resonant around the blogosphere. Same with Dina’s comment and same with my entire body of blogging. I hesitate to speak for them but I’m a teacher who is entirely comfortable around technology who can’t find its meaningful inroad into my classroom. I wish more people recognized the challenge this represents (if I can’t get this working, then … ) rather than another opportunity to browbeat hard-working teachers for not working hard enough.

  8. Amen, Dan.

    And Scott, do not mistake me. I’ve followed your work for awhile now and I find it thought-provoking and admirable. I can sum up my perspective this way (if you’ll allow a parallel between teaching and carpentry). I use hammers– but I don’t ask them to how to build the house.

  9. Dan, Dina, Jeff: I think we’re all on the same page here.

    Jeff, I feel for your situation. I’m sorry. It’s the fault of your leadership. As someone who taught in a school that had 90% instead of 15%, I know we owe those students better. As the Science Leadership Academy (Philadelphia) and other places show us, technology can be one way (but not necessarily THE way) to engage and empower those kids.

    Dan, I like how you’re bringing out the voices of classroom teachers. I think you know that I’m trying to give greater exposure to folks too – that’s pleasurable, fulfilling, meaningful (and fun) work.

    Dan, I admit that I’m a little bit challenged by this statement of yours: ‘I’m a teacher who is entirely comfortable around technology who can’t find its meaningful inroad into my classroom.’ I’m not a math teacher (although I am a quantitative-leaning prof). Is it because the tech tools that you’d find helpful don’t currently exist? Cognitive Tutor and the like don’t cut it? No meaningful role for social tools like blogs, wikis, and podcasts that would allow students to collaboratively create and display their knowledge? Could your students use tech to create simulations or models of mathematical principles in everyday life? Maybe I’m not asking the right questions. I just am a little baffled that there’s nothing out there at all that might be useful / relevant. If so, we should be doing better than that. That might be an interesting post or series of posts: a sharp math teacher’s look at what math-related software is out there and what it does or does not have to offer to high school instructors. Maybe a back-and-forth with another math teacher so we got multiple insights. This sort of thing would be helpful to a lot of folks across the country!

    Dina, thanks for the kind words. Good luck with those hammers!

  10. I used a Moodle installation with my students this year. I posted FlickrCC photos and asked them to identify in written, paragraph form, five mathematical concepts in each. I patted my back for pulling together math, tech, language arts, and visuals.

    Most of my digital natives were annoyed by another login. Most had trouble signing up. Many never did.

    These problems are all very resolvable and are likely non-issues at a school like SLA which runs CMS through its veins. But for my situation, I could see why I shouldn’t just pump the photos through my projector, have them write a paragraph on paper, and then talk about it afterwards?

    It isn’t that there is nothing available for math (though the options are limited and often, in the case of TI’s labware, very expensive). It’s that, so often, I can get the same instructional outcome in less time.

    I’m very curious about your survey. If School 2.0 math bloggers exist in abundance why can’t I find them, why aren’t they writing up some inspiring methods.

    Maybe if Darren wrote more than monthly.

  11. “but I’m a teacher who is entirely comfortable around technology who can’t find its meaningful inroad into my classroom.”

    I’m not quite there with you (the applications to social studies are at least more obvious) but I do use a lot of technology that I don’t see a purpose for in my classroom. Which feels weird in this online world of teachers who use tech to understand it enough to use it in class. Twitters cool, but I’m not going to use it with my students. Blogs are great and all, but for my purposes a real paper notebook is more practical. And so on.

    I also find myself being in the position of cleaning up the messes made by the assumption that students are “digital natives”. They get to me, in 10th grade, with a head full of faulty assumptions and misunderstandings about computers that no one has bothered to examine, and then I’m told that they’re digital natives and I should just use the tech because they probably understand it better than me. Hah. I feel like any time I bring the laptops into the room, I’m half teaching what they should learn in a basic computer course in middle school and half accomplishing my own goals.

  12. Dan, thanks for responding to my questions. Interesting (sad?) that there’s not much out there for you. I still think you could do an interesting post or series on this topic if you’re ever so inclined.

  13. Ok, just to throw one out: a website that lets students easily type in a LaTeX expression and see what math equation comes out of it. Students have been so far too scared to drop by my post here and try something out. Quite frankly from my own experience I don’t blame them, they’d probably have 4 or 5 error replies before they got one that worked.

    I might force ’em to anyway at some point and tell them not to worry about it. But I know with the capacity at our network we’re going to have a lot of issues when everyone in a class tries to experiment on the same post at once.

    There is a program, but the way our computer labs are setup there’s no way I’d be able to get it installed.

    There are sites that get *close* to what I want, so there might be something out there already.

    Ultra-ideally I’d get the students up to the point that they could write full TeX documents like real mathematics professionals and do some sort of paper.

  14. I’m going to wave my hand a bit for the “and/and” camp.

    For me, every class I teach centers on the following premise:

    Push shamelessly hard against my kids’ brains. Without apology. Without letting up. Period.

    As an English teacher, 90% of this is discussion, reading and writing based. Blogging is just now sneaking in the back door, but only as a side element with extremely well-laid out expecations to support the day-to-day in-class work we do.

    You know: Face-to-face talking. Books with real pages. Often paper and pens. Kids in front of a podium. Debates between prepared teams. Memorizing entire poems with “fail or A+” grading options. Occasionally, even some blogging to push on the 45-minute clock a bit. And even a random TED video thrown in because, gosh, don’t they magically make me smile. But ultimately, it comes down to talking and writing. And most of it as conveniently as possible given the time constraints we all face.

    Everything I ask the kids to do comes down to 2 things:

    1. Do you have a worthy opinion you can substantiate with evidence?
    2. Can you frame your opinions in such a way that your audience will care?

    In other words:

    Hey, Kid: Do those two things on a consistent basis both in conversation (real ones, not just the metaphor 2.0 type) and on paper (including digital), and your “voice” will actually matter. Or at least be taken seriously in the “market of ideas”. Love, Your Teacher

    With all this in mind, my kids — the poor and privileged alike — do NOT need me to be an soapbox advocate for any proposed “to tech” or “not to tech” boxing arena. They simply need me to come to class every day (and anywhere else we cross paths) with my A-game each and every day, without excuse or pity.

    Frankly, I’m growing weary of (my own voice or that of others) the conversation being dominated by the tech vs. no tech premise. Same with 21C vs. history. Both are a bit played. Only learning matters. And teaching is a privilege that must be earned.

    All that is left — call me a radical — is to focus where it matters most:

    1. We’re adults who chose to enter the school and/or system that employs us. Don’t confuse blogging to the network with working in your building. Get over it if the building doesn’t fit. Or go elsewhere. 100,000+ schools in the US alone. Certainly a few openings, too.

    2. The kids are both digitally native and also foolishly unaware. And so are many of us. Either way, our kids need our passion, vision, and relentless expectation that they can accomplish what lies before them.

    3. If you can’t be engaging and relevant, a computer…or mimeo…ain’t gonna change that game. Nor the lecture notes. Can you do so by campfire, in front of a podium, AND in blogspace…and be equally relevant and engaging? If not, the tools rarely matter. Only the intent.

    4. As for the tools/means? By any means necessary. And/and. Without apology.

    And with that, I’m heading out the door to coach my 8th grade boys soccer game on a cold, windy, and bright blue skied Texas afternoon. Where pedagogy and technology comes down to a very simple premise:

    Can you place the ball in the back of the net and prevent the other guy from doing the same to you?


  15. “Frankly, I’m growing weary of (my own voice or that of others) the conversation being dominated by the tech vs. no tech premise.”

    Convicting comment. I realize now that I’ve played a large role (though hopefully I overestimate it) in arguing something less consequential at the expense of something really consequential.

    To ape myself:

    Debating 21st-century methods vs. 20th-century methods is a cheap sub for debating student engagement vs. student disengagement.


  16. Dan —

    While I’ve never had the pleasure (yet?) of seeing you teach live — or maybe more importantly, just seeing you share space with your students — I have NO doubt as to the level of “engagement” that your kids demonstrate based on the teaching mix you offer. Nor the level of expectation you put in front of them. With unabashed confidence.

    As to the aforementioned quotation re: tech/no tech:

    This was definitely NOT meant as a conviction of you (at least from my P.O.V.). I offered it only as a thinking-out-loud moment about my current thoughts about the larger edu-blog conversation which many of us are merely spinning satellites within its reach. I’m guessing, however, that you sorted that out between the lines. Just making sure.

    While my paid-consultant voice still needs to — on occasion — provoke audiences/clients with a range of School 2.0 metaphors, the rubber-meets-the-road reality in my day-to- day classroom practice centers ONLY on a “by any means necessary” strike force when my kids’ welfare, engagement, and potential are at stake.

    Here’s what I know:

    No technology replaces putting an arm around one of my 8th graders after a hard loss on a brutally cold Texas soccer field. Likewise, no technology mirrors a sideways teacher’s glance (with raised eyebrows to boot) when a student threatens to cross a do-not-say-aloud Maginot Line in a classroom debate…or lives up to 30 minutes hunched over a student-written poem in its 5th draft as the kid wrestles with her insecurity and envious ability being at odds with each other.

    On the other hand, 2 blog entries tonight from a kid who has never spoken — by choice — in class for a half year straight, two blog entries that actually showcase legit creativity and passion, remind me yet again that I’ll do whatever it dang well takes to give my kids the right premise/platform to showcase their real-time value.

    By any means necessary. Without apology. Relentlessly.

    Between you and me, Dan, it’s merely ego-drenched silly business to argue the merits of a book vs. a flat screen (or pick your teeter-totter examples). Frankly, who cares when learning push comes to learning shove. I just want my kids to crush the opportunities that come their way. And I’ve always suspected that the same could be said for you. Heck, even more so.

    Marshall M. may have suggested that “the medium is the message”, but I’m pretty dog-gone comfy with the premise that “the message demands the medium”. Might even put that on a coffee mug.

    And now I’m off to bed.

    Still a paper-based vocab quiz (based on a Flickr image that will cause a bit of hushed awe in the room) to complete in the morning, plus a dozen student blog responses to filter/edit/publish, and a sandwich to sprint-make before rushing out the door with cold weather soccer gear and some Dunkin Donuts coffee come daybreak. Oh, and a prayer that my tie matches my shirt (or at least hides my kiddo’s yogurt-induced stains as I try to get him dressed simultaneously).

    Cheers, Christian

    P.S. And welcome back from the islands.

  17. Am I wrong that mathematicians use technology in many different ways?

    If we are teaching our students to think mathematically, we should be teaching them how to use the tools of the trade. In some areas of math that may still be paper and pencil, but it is a hard sell to convince me that those people who work in areas of statistics, spatial geometry, and other areas do not use technology daily to do their jobs or research their theories.

    I appreciate your frustrations with technology support, inadequate curricular support (publishers providing resources that work with technology), and financial constraints, but I don’t follow the logic that therefore we don’t need to be using these tools.

    I am with you 100% on the argument that technology should not just be some foregone conclusion for teachers to use for the sake of looking 21st century. But when the world is operating functionally differently than they way we operate in our schools, something is wrong. When I call my financial planner, I am not disconcerted by the fact that she uses a computer and a calculator. I am comforted. What a waste of time if she did not. Yet our students being taught to compete with calculators rather than human problem solvers.

    I would venture a guess that we would agree on a lot of points here. I am guessing that you want to be able to use your classroom to develop thinkers, problem solvers, collaborative workers, and good communicators. You should not feel like technology is the answer to all our prayers. Instead, it is a TOOL to help our students access real world data, solve complex problems, create visual representations of their learning, and communicate with the world. That sounds like math to me.

  18. “When I call my financial planner, I am not disconcerted by the fact that she uses a computer and a calculator.”

    Whereas your financial planner uses a computer and calculator because that is the best, easiest, and probably only way for her to do her job, technology has less definite value to my math classes.

    “Instead, it is a TOOL to help our students access real world data, solve complex problems, create visual representations of their learning, and communicate with the world. That sounds like math to me.”

    Maybe I believe that sentence in principle but in practice I have no idea what it looks like. On the evidence of the math-o-blogosphere, no one else does either, yet narrowminded recrimination remains the rule.

  19. Dan-

    I’m not trying to accuse you of anything. I don’t know you. I’m trying to have a discussion about why I believe technology is a tool that belongs in math classrooms. It doesn’t belong in the classroom in every moment or for every lesson, but I think it is clear that doing math is, at times, a technological endeavor.

    Often, when I speak with math teachers here at work, they tell me that the lessons we speak about don’t fit into the curriculum. I believe this is a significant problem for our staff. If we are requiring only the kind of math that allows our students to pass a test, we are not developing the kind of thinking students I believe we should be.

    Again, I am not accusing anyone of anything. I don’t claim to have the answers. That should not preclude us from having a discussion about the possibilities of what could take place if we all start using our collective imagination.

  20. Dave,

    Sorry to appear defensive. The recriminations I referenced are apart from this thread.

    “I’m trying to have a discussion about why I believe technology is a tool that belongs in math classrooms.”

    I’m trying, at the moment, to feel unobliged to a tool, rather, to seek first my students’ engagement, preparation, and whole knowledge. All of those are pretty abstract, I realize, and I’m sure you feel the same, but I believe that once I have those priorities in order, the appropriate tools will become rather obvious.

    Like, if I really really want to put up some siding on my shed, I’m not gonna elect a tool that’s new or that all the trade magazines say will be widely used in a few years. I’m gonna use a hammer because it gets the job done easily, cheaply, and efficiently.

  21. Dan-
    Having gone back and read more of your blog, I think I have a better understanding of what you do and where you are coming from. Like Scott, I think we are on the same page. I respect your approach, and, as a tech integration specialist, I have the same philosophy. Ask first, “What do you want your kids to learn?” Then ask, “What is the best tool for the job?” Sometimes it involves technology, sometimes it does not. I am not trying to propose technology for the sake of technology. That being said, the hammer isn’t always still the best tool. A nail gun might get the job done in less time. A drill and screws might make for a more lasting connection.

    In addition, we are not just teaching kids math. We are teaching kids how math is used in the world. Sometimes we add in our head because it is faster and easier, but sometimes we need technology to help us solve more complex problems, communicate our learning, or organize our data.

    I need to reiterate that this is not an attack on you or the way you are teaching. From what I have read, I think you really get it. My thoughts and discussion are more of a global discussion about teaching in general.

    Good luck with this struggle. I am glad you are keeping kids at the forefront of your thoughts.