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How teachers with ‘authentic’ expertise fully connect with their students in adapting technology for improved teaching and learning

Written by: Andy Goodwyn
8 min read

This article is fundamentally about teachers and their expertise.  The teachers in this research study stood out for the intelligent way in which they adapted technology to enhance teaching and learning, drawing on students’ natural interest in all things digital because it features in all our everyday lives.

Is there a causal relationship between improved teaching and learning and the use of technology in schools, or a simple relationship between the number of computers in a school and student attainment?  Research about IWBs (interactive whiteboards) showed no obvious learning gain: teachers spent significant time using them but with less classroom interaction; the research demonstrates that this is ‘inauthentic pedagogy’.  A piece of research undertaken many years ago (Goodwyn et al., 1997a, 1997b) found that a headteacher recommended his head of history as a model advocate for using technology effectively. He had taken all his old notes and turned them into Power Points, and then used them in every lesson: a precise example of ‘inauthentic expertise’.

This article explores significant research (Goodwyn et al., 2009) that examined the nature of teacher expertise in effective uses of technology a few years ago, and raises a major concern: whether, at least in secondary schools, we have lost some teacher effectiveness rather than developed it, given the pressure on teachers to avoid risk-taking and experimentation.  The research demonstrated that the teachers’ aptitude in using technology selectively but intensively could be recognised and might offer a much better model for developing the profession than traditional CPD models. The research is presented here to offer a model of ‘authentic’ expertise: expertise developed by individual teachers as a response to students’ life worlds in an increasingly digital society (Goodwyn, 2012, 2011, 2009).

The research study

The teachers were first identified as ‘outstanding’ teachers and very effective with technology by their headteachers, a selected sampling peer identification model. In total, 250 letters were sent to schools in a teacher training partnership with a university. Thirty-five schools replied, with a total of 93 nominations. From these 93 nominations, 54 teachers agreed to be included in the study and were drawn from a mixed range of primary and secondary schools, in terms of attainment and subject specialism. In terms of gender, 24 participants were males and 30 females.

Data was collected using a mixed methods design. Semi-structured telephone interviews were used to understand what good teaching meant to the participants, the usefulness of technology to them and how they constantly adapted their pedagogy to improve student attainment and engagement. Biographical information was collected via a survey questionnaire. Interviews were analysed using a simple content analysis, identifying major themes,  and this was explored in terms of teachers’ views on their pedagogic practice, their perceptions of the role and their uses of technology.

Motivations for using technology

The teachers did not consider themselves as technology specialists nor technical experts; they needed support. Age was not a factor, although newer generations have more such teachers. They expressed an interest in technology but it was not characterised by the attractions of gadgetry or the ‘whizz bang’ factor; technology was just one element in their domain of teaching practice. For 83 per cent, technology was primarily viewed as a significant tool for enabling student learning as well as a medium that affords greater organisational efficiency. Technology engages and motivates students and has huge benefits for classroom management, learning and student attainment; this factor primarily underpins teachers’ interest in incorporating technology.

More than half the teachers expressed a deep passion and commitment to their subject, but their central concern was the ‘real’ learning of their students and, strikingly, 76 per cent expressed a strong motivation to connect with their students’ lives using the media that students recognise and value. The term for this model is ‘authentic’ teacher expertise. They firmly expressed a recognition of the context dependency of learning and considered technology as an integral part of the real life context; 60 per cent said that they prioritised the fundamental change in the social and cultural world of young people and the need for a radical shift in the ways that young people want to learn and be taught.

They recognised the important link between engaging students in the classroom and the cultural and social world that young people inhabit. Technology is an integral part of their cultural landscape, with good aspects and challenges, particularly in the ways in which they interact with each other and spend their leisure time; ‘authentic teaching’ therefore frequently involves using technology but always with a critical perspective. The ability to engage students using media that they recognise and enjoy is an authentic teacher positioning (Goodwyn, 2016) and enables teachers to connect powerfully with all students, bringing them closer and providing common ground for communication and recognising local context (Sternberg and Horvath, 1995).

Developing teaching expertise and adapting technology

Just as Hattie (2003) in his influential meta-analysis noted, these expert teachers are passionate about teaching and learning, with more than three-quarters stating that it is their commitment to their students that motivates them most in their teaching practice, and so it demands finding innovative and engaging ways to reach their students. The great majority embraced taking some ‘risks’ and ‘experimenting’ but always communicating to students that that was the nature of the classroom activity; they considered themselves as learning alongside their students and with their support.

The majority (68 per cent) of teachers were self-taught, with self-motivation providing a powerful impetus (Becker, 1999). Many teachers used their ‘free time’ in ‘trying out’ ideas, in addition to regular teaching preparation. One older teacher, in particular, described buying herself a laptop on which she could experiment at home so that she could do so without fear of ‘destroying’ the school’s equipment. This investment in time and resources demonstrates the high level of personal commitment to becoming knowledgeable in the way that their own students were authentically knowledgeable.

These authentic teachers were all very open to learning from their colleagues, particularly with respect to how technology is used innovatively in subject-specific areas. They generally felt that many teachers remained ‘stuck’ at a low level of competence because they lacked inspiration to take risks, but also because they were nervous about their students being more expert than them. There is an implicit finding that schools need to identify their own authentic technology teachers and to enable them to coach and develop the authentic practice of less-confident colleagues; this would be far more effective than external one-day courses. Most of the teachers absolutely stressed that resources needed to be spent on ensuring that technology was reliable so that less-confident teachers were not demotivated by experiencing humiliating failures in front of students.

Discussion

What the findings demonstrated was how personal commitment to understanding students’ life worlds and motivation for teaching in ways that engaged their students led to these teachers adapting technology to suit their classrooms. Despite minimal support, they relentlessly sought opportunities to expand their knowledge and expertise, seeking out powerful media to reach their students and connect to their life world. Much previous research, including Hattie’s, corroborates these outstanding teachers all having a passion for their subject, a desire to teach well and a personal need to develop professionally; one element that distinguished them was that technology was a major creative tool, enabling them constantly to experiment and innovate. They were adamant that the rapid changes to the technology itself challenged them to stay abreast of their students’ own constant ‘updating’ and that they could enjoy the shared excitement of digital innovations, but critically and not merely passively. These (typically modest) teachers did not consider there to be anything exceptional or exemplary about what they did, but their teaching quality was acknowledged and emphasised by their nominators.

They all expressed a strong commitment to the continuous development of their own practice and, particularly, to responding to valuable feedback, not from senior management but from their very real students’ voices. They enjoyed modifying and adapting their content delivery and teaching approach in response, investing their time and energy in using technology to engage with students’ worlds, as opposed to attempting to impose academic constraints in the name of high-stakes testing; this was their authentic practice. They devoted significant amounts of free time, finding mental space (Hattie, 2003) to develop their technology use in ways that were satisfyingly innovative and engaging. The findings confirm the need for teachers’ space to learn (Goodwyn, 2016) and to take risks, with strong technical support. These findings become even more relevant when considering the developmental needs of less-confident and less-motivated teachers, for whom the extensive use of technology may be a tempting mode to cover up very uninspiring but ‘safe’ practice.

Conclusion

There has been a significant and welcome international trend towards the recognition that the individual teacher is the key variable in any educational system (McKinsey Consultancy, 2007; Goodwyn, 2010, 2016). Whilst much research recognises that the teacher is key, we also suggest that the voice of the student is highly significant in developing authentic teaching expertise, something vital in an area where merely extensive technology use can be mistaken for genuine quality of teaching. The research provided some evidence of the personal and professional motivations of those teachers, recognised as outstanding practitioners; it demonstrated how they adapted technology pedagogically in positive ways to enable students’ learning – test results were not the focus. It is also clear that causal relationships between student achievements and extensive technology use, or sheer numbers of computers per school, still need more systematic evidence to support claims for any meaningful relationship; the teacher’s brain is the key software: human intelligence and not artificial intelligence. Equally, simplistically measuring student test outcomes as the most important indicator of student ‘achievement’ and teacher quality continues to distort the true purpose of education.

These teachers powerfully harnessed technology, benefiting all of their students’ learning. It is absolutely time for national policy to shift towards developing and supporting the type of authentic teacher expertise required of the 21st century, rather than obsessing with technology. The findings are absolutely clear that developing teacher expertise comes through enabling risk-taking and experimentation, conducted in conversation with students. These teachers provide powerful local role models, and schools should identify and nurture such teachers, as they demonstrate deep motivation to engage with students’ real digital life worlds and not just simplistic testable outcomes.  It would be valuable to develop leading practitioners – not of ‘technology’ but of ‘technology-enhanced learning’. Equally, we need to validate ‘authentic’ models of expertise, recognising and celebrating teachers who learn collaboratively with their students – not fixated by, for example, 19th-century models of terminal examinations, but sharing together how to adapt to the digital society of the 21st century.

References

Goodwyn A (2010). The Expert Teacher of English. London: Routledge.

Goodwyn A (2016) Expert Teachers: An International Perspective. London: Routledge.

Goodwyn A (2018) The advanced skills teacher is dead. In: Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Northumbria, UK, September 2018.

Goodwyn A, Adams A and Clarke S (1997b) The great god of the future: Views of current and future English teachers on the place of IT in English. English in Education 31(2): 54–62.

Goodwyn A and Fuller C (2012) Outstanding teachers, practice and ICT use. Advancing Education Spring 2012.

Goodwyn A, Protopsaltis A and Fuller C (2009) Celebrating Outstanding Teachers. Coventry: Becta.

Hattie J (2003) Distinguishing expert teachers from novice and experienced teachers – teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? In:  ACER Research Conference, Melbourne Australia, October 2003.

ImpaCT2 (2004) The Impact of ICT on Pupil Attainment: Summary Report. Coventry: Becta.

McKinsey Consultancy (2007) How the World’s Best Performing Schools Come Out on Top. McKinsey: New York.

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