Teacher Education Can’t Ignore Technology

By Monica R. Martinez, Ph.D.
This article was originally published in Kappan Magazine , October 2010
©Phi Delta Kappa International, Inc.

Newly minted teachers have consistently complained that their teacher education programs don’t prepare them for the real world of teaching. Courses in the history, philosophy, and psychology of education plus a few methods courses culminating with a semester or maybe a year of teaching under a mentor teacher— this is essentially the standard teacher preparation program. Then, they enter a classroom, and people wonder why they’re not prepared for reality.

Teacher candidates must learn differently if they’re going to create classrooms that meet the needs of a new generation of learners.

Re-imagining how teacher education might look requires that we first imagine how learning might look different — and already does look different for some students in K-12. I’m not confident this is foremost in the minds of those thinking about how to provide a more experiential teacher preparation program.

Consider a few examples, some drawn from real schools and some from scenario planning. They depict the way that schools can adapt to the different ways that children learn and want to learn. Ask yourself if the teacher education programs you know are preparing teachers who can create and provide this kind of instruction for children.

Ninth graders at Green Tech, which is part of Eastside High School in Austin, Texas, a traditionally low-performing school, complete 30 minutes of silent reading twice a week and then log on to a web site to join a teacher-created group that’s essentially a Facebook for book lovers that includes a discussion board. The teacher posts a discussion topic, and students write about what they’ve just read. On Friday, the teacher leads a face-to-face discussion in class with students who are reading the same book.

After reading, these same students “work together in teams, writing and designing a children’s book.” To do this, “they have a choice of either illustrating by hand or using Comic Life, which is a program that they have just learned in another class on computer applica- tions” (Handel and Heaps 2010). When the children’s books are completed, the teacher shares them with students at a nearby elementary school. Green Tech is a school in the New Tech Network.

In a scenario depicting schools of the future, Christensen and Horn describe students learning Mandarin Chinese grammar by using lap- tops and wearing noise-canceling headphones (www.edutopia.org/student-centric-education- technology). One student directs the work of a brick mason on his computer screen by having him assemble a sentence in the same way that he would construct a wall — block by block. Stacks of blocks with words on them are in the background of the screen; each is colored for its potential role in the sentence. The student directs the mason to pick blocks out of the appropriate stacks and put them in the correct order of a Mandarin sentence. When all the required blocks have been assembled in the proper sequence, the Mandarin word replaces the English on each block, and the student joins the brick mason in reading the sentence (which is written phonetically in the Roman alphabet). Another student in the same classroom is learning the same material from the same software program by rote memorization — listening to a native Mandarin speaker and then repeating the sentences, in a mode of learning familiar to her parents’ generation. Providing customized and individualized learning is the outcome for this school.

Quest to Learn School, a public school in New York City, uses the video game as its model for how to teach. Students use and design video games as part of their classes. For instance, math students “travel around the world” as a citizen of Creepytown — an imaginary city where students learn math and English. Students play travel agent, convert currencies, keep blogs about their travel experiences, and budget trips. At one point in the school year, Creepytown went broke because an economic crisis is built into the game. Stu- dents had to figure out why Creepytown’s economy collapsed and how to bring in revenue to rebuild the economy. In response, students proposed designing a theme park as a way to generate revenue.

Through Creepytown and other games, Katie Salen, a game designer who is executive director of Quest to Learn, believes “students learn to adapt and improvise.” More important, Salen believes that computer games provide a complex dynamic system from which students will develop systems thinking. “Be- cause of the complexity of problems, if you’re not able to look at them as a system, you’re just going to look at a blur. You will just be over- whelmed by the complexity,” Salen said.

We have to recognize that learning is most often taking place anywhere but “in school.” Being in a traditional school has become the equivalent of a simulated experience from the 20th or 19th century. In our current form of school, students are reduced to executing discreet tasks in isolation from other classes and peers, and most often out of context of other courses as well as their lives and experiences. But in the schools identified in this column, teachers are mentors and individual learning coaches who enable students to become engaged and motivated, partaking in interactive learning with computers and other technology devices across content areas.

“In the digital age, the learning environment is turned on its head — it’s no longer just the dynamic of the student, the teacher and the curriculum. Today, kids learn and interact with others — even from around the world — every time they go online, or play a video game, or engage through a social networking site.”

— Connie Yowell, director of education, MacArthur Foundation (www.macfound.org)

Such schools and classrooms will not be- come widespread until incoming teachers and current teachers learn technology skills and applications along with new pedagogical methods of incorporating that technology into classrooms. They must have opportunities to have fieldwork in a teaching environment that’s con- sistent with what they have learned in their teacher preparation programs. For instance, the University of Texas at Austin started UTEACH in 1997 and certifies students to teach math, science, and computer science at the secondary level. UTEACH prepares teacher candidates to use student-centered, rigorous, applied, and engaging pedagogy, but it also immediately immerses students in the classroom through internships and fieldwork. UTEACH students don’t wait for a single culminating experience, such as a practicum or student teaching. The program works hard to place students in schools consistent with their preparation and teaching methods. In the Austin area, and formerly in the Denver metroplex, UTEACH students were automatically placed into a New Tech school for their long-term teaching experience specifically so that they could prac tice project-based teaching.

Being in a traditional school has become the equivalent of a simulated experience from the 20th or 19th century.

The most common immersion experience is a clinical program or a teacher residency program, such as the Urban Residency Program. But many of these programs don’t help candidates develop new pedagogical methods to in- corporate technology into the classroom. They may want to learn how to do this from the University of South Dakota, which trains all secondary majors in project-based learning methods. Funded by a Bush Grant, this work occurs through a partnership with the Project- Based Learning High School in Sioux Falls, supported by the New Tech Network.

Increasingly, the onus is on teacher prepa- ration to reimagine how to most effectively prepare future teachers to teach students to be successful in the kinds of classroom described here — and how to create more classrooms that comprehend how today’s young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life.

Harvard University education professor Chris Dede was talking about higher education faculty when he said this, but his comments are just as relevant to K-12 teachers: “If you were going to see a doctor and the doctor said, ‘I’ve been really busy since I got out of medical school, and so I’m going to treat you with the techniques I learned back then,’ you’d be rightly incensed. . . . Yet there are a lot of faculty who say with a straight face, ‘I don’t need to change my teaching,’ as if nothing has been learned about teaching since they had been prepared to do it — if they’ve ever been prepared to.”


Handel, Stephen J., and Alan Heaps. Teachers Are the Center of Education: Profiles of Eight Teachers. New York: College Board and Phi Delta Kappa International, 2010.