From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 4 . . . No 2 . . . October, 1993

Contents Page

1. Barriers to New Technologies, Part Color Two: Skill Fixation
in Staff Development by Bard Williams
2. Barriers to New Technologies, Part Two: Skill Fixation
in Staff Development by Jamie McKenzie

----- Monthly Comments ----

Group think. Surely everyone has read a version at least once of the old warning . . . "Those who fail to read the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them." Even so, it seems we fall prey in the schools to bandwagon after bandwagon, sweeping along with the appearance of change while the core beliefs and structures remain virtually unshaken.

Today it is especially fashionable to hitch one's fortunes to "quality" and a host of consultative strategies which are expected to transform schools so that they meet the needs of a changing society, yet few of these initiatives focus attention on the carefully researched phenomenon of "group think," the tendency of majority sentiment to stifle original thinking.

I witnessed this phenomenon during a technology planning workshop recently during which the leader had skillfully coordinated a mammoth brainstorming process which engaged a hundred educators in moving from table to table listing innovative possibilities. It was mind-stretching and quite exciting.

But, then, prior to any discussion, he instructed each of us to use colored dots to indicate support for the ideas which showed the most promise. I watched the unique, the strange, the controversial, the complex and the poorly phrased contributions disappearing from view as consensus drew, like scraps of iron to a magnet, to a half dozen statements on each of the dozen lists. I was struck by the irony. Here was a well orchestrated strategy to challenge paradigms which inadvertently ended up reinforcing them. Those of us who engage in such consultative processes must remember, as one participant put it, who made the camel.

Barriers to New Technology-Part Two:
Skill Fixation in Staff Development
Bard Williams

Remember when you learned to drive? Lots of white knuckles and wondering what would happen next, right? I remember thinking- "I'll never master this!" while driving down a crowded expressway squeezed between eighteen-wheelers and longing for the days when I could lounge in the back seat criticizing everyone else's driving. After hours of parental nagging, cold sweats and dreaming of the day when I could drive on my own, I finally got my license. It felt wonderful. I had earned it. Not only did I learn about how to drive a car, I learned the confidence and courage to actually do it. I'm a pretty good driver now. Haven't hit anyone or anything and the law's still my friend.

Imagine if your parents or school driver's ed. instructor had decided that parallel parking was the one skill most important in your learning program. In fact, a prominent driver's ed. curriculum designer had just decided that drivers need only know how to parallel park- all those other skills are inconsequential. You worked day-in, day-out analyzing everything necessary to get that hunk of iron exactly into the almost-too-small space between those familiar orange cones. When the time came to demonstrate your prowess to the person with the badge, you executed the parallel parking maneuver flawlessly-shortly thereafter, however, you ran two stop signs and ended up in Mrs. Miller's flower garden. What happened? No one ever told you that driving forward and heeding road signs was an important skill. No one ever gave you the big picture.

Today, some people still feel that focusing on single computer-using skills when teaching with computers is the one-and-only method. It's no doubt an outgrowth of the "computer literacy" movement. Remember when we spent days explaining to students about RAM vs ROM and other TLA's? (Three Letter Acronyms) Remember writing objectives like "students will learn to center text"? I admit it, I've done it. But think about it-do we teach "calculator literacy"? Hopefully not. Instead we focus on the outcomes and allow the calculator to be one more tool that helps us reach our goal.

If we don't focus on parts or skills, what are our options? Thankfully, we've got lots of creative minds (Acheson & Gall, Joyce & Showers, et. al) out there that suggest that we focus on meaningful outcomes. While I'm certainly far from a staff-development guru, I'd like to propose three types of staff development that any school can use to help cure their skill-fixation:

Outcome-based staff development;

Innovation-based staff development and

A trainer-of-trainers model.

As with any methodology, you'll choose the one that's right for your school and your staff.

Outcome-based Staff Development

Outcome-based design is the now-familiar buzz word that most exactly describes one of the most effective methods of staff development using technology. Instead of creating lists of "learn this desktop publishing program", "learning that operating system"- the design process begins with a careful examination of how these applications might be used to reach a learning goal. Think about the difference in learner perception and expectations between a course entitled "Learning Desktop Publishing" and one focusing on the production of your school yearbook. The former promises to be a basic how-to. The latter shows where you're headed-a very clear goal. While the basics are certainly important, what's missing is context. Learning in the context of reaching a meaningful outcome means that not only are skills learned, but they are learned in a context and, therefore, are more likely to be transferred.

Think, also, about the method of assessment. In your "Learning DTP" class, you're likely to experience a balance between a contrived tutorial and creating simple documents based on activities designed by someone else. In your yearbook production class, the product (outcome) is something that will be judged by what may well be an every stricter standard- your peers and community. If the learner is unable to demonstrate proficiency, the result is an inferior product. Note that in this situation, the responsibility is on the learner to remediate before next year's product rolls off the presses. The learner, not the teacher, determines his or her own destiny.

Thinking about what you want to be able to know, do or be like is quite different than thinking about what tools and skills you'll need to accomplish the goal. Effective staff development models are a balance between the needs of the participants and the goals of the school or system. Get your development team together. Don't forget to include special education, counseling, the school secretary and, most especially, a student. Have the group brainstorm a list of outcomes related to your curriculum that are important to them. One outcome might read "develop effective decision-makers" or "become better problem-solvers." Then, take a good long look at the steps necessary to reach the outcome. Thing really hard about your tools- is the computer the best method of reaching the outcome? Would a workbook or one-on-one drill be more effective? Participants should leave the staff development course energized and buzzing with new ideas for achieving other outcomes-both with and without the computer.

Innovation-based Staff Development

Another strategy for preventing "disconnected learning" might be dubbed innovation-based staff development. Often educators feel out of the information loop when it comes to new and innovative technologies. Laserdisc technology, for example, has been used extensively in corporate training for years. Only now have educators begun to discover the power of this interactive high-interest medium. Creating a staff development environment based on strategies to search and explore new technologies will pay off both in increased awareness and a longer-range vision that might be helpful in technology planning for the school.

The focus of innovation-based staff development is looking at the big picture, finding high-interest technology and then designing down. Fostering curiosity and getting people enthused about knowledge navigation is a lot easier than suggesting participants memorize command key sequences. Like outcome-based staff development, the ultimate goal is the improvement of instruction as a whole with emphasis on an end-product and creating transferable learning experiences. Capturing participant curiosity through the use of innovative technologies like telecommunications and multimedia can be just what the doctor ordered to get the staff fired-up about incorporating technology throughout the curriculum.

Trainer of Trainers Staff Development

Would you rather sit in a class with 25 others and hear a lecture, or relax one-on-one with a teacher/administrator friend for some good old individualized instruction? No method of staff development is more powerful than learning from your peers. With budget cuts continuing to stifle opportunity, building a network of competent staff developers in technology is a cost-effective way of ensuring each teacher has access to the learning they need. Developing transportable instructional delivery systems (ref. outcome-based design) and sharing these systems with a cadre of educators not only empowers teachers, but brings the staff development from district to school level.

Begin by identifying who your school and district "gurus" are. Capitalize on their strengths. Offer higher-level training to help expand their understanding of curriculum issues, not just traditional trouble-shooting. Build a network of teachers who have the big picture and can share it effectively with others. If possible, offer release time or stipends as an outward sign of their value to your school and district.

Encouraging "specialists" within a school or district makes sense. These specialists can travel from school to school evangelizing technology and helping learners see the relationship between technology and learning. While this method of staff development requires more time, the learning seems to be deeper and the outcomes richer.

Creating your own Staff Development Toolbox

Think back again to your experience in learning to drive. Did you respond more to the pleading voice of your nail-biting mother or the driver's education films that scared you silly? We all have different styles of learning and a well-balanced, effective staff development program needs to provide tools that are useful to meet desired outcomes. It may be that no single method mentioned above is best for you. Instead, depending on the outcome you desire, a little of each is best.

As with any staff development, begin by find out as much as you can about your population. Whether you use a formal survey or informal hallway chats, find out what outcomes your staff desires and try to get a feel for the best way to achieve the outcome. If you use a survey, remember to stay away from statements like "rank the following: desktop publishing, word processing, etc..."-these are the buzzwords of skill-fixation. Instead, ask about their interest in communicating with parents, building problem-solving skills, and other true educational outcomes.

Once you've determined what method(s) are best for your school and you've delivered your first staff development courses, consider shaking things up. Change to another method of staff development, keep it fresh.

Finally, walk your talk. Let's face it, it's easier to offer a course in "Word Processing on the IBM" or "Multimedia on the Macintosh". If you must offer these courses, focus the actual instruction on one of the methods above and they'll never know what hit `em. Sure, they're learning how to align text or import Quicktime(TM)

movies-but they'll also learn that the goal is increasing communication with their varied audiences, not which F-key to press. Stay true to your outcomes and the participants will thank you later.

No matter which tool you choose or how you structure your staff development, don't forget how you learned to drive. Think about ultimate objectives (outcomes) and design down. Structure your courses so that many learning styles are addressed. Mix it up every once in a while to keep things fresh. Walk-your-talk. Model a staff development based on innovation, peer-development and outcomes and everyone takes the checkered flag.

(c) Bard Williams, 1993

Barriers to New Technology-Part Two:
Skill Fixation

Jamie McKenzie

After more than a decade of technology-related staff development efforts, we have still made all too little progress toward integration of new technologies across the disciplines. One might hypothesize that the skill fixation built into the design of staff development for technology is partially responsible.

The Challenge of Transfer

It may well be that we have devoted too much attention, as Bard Williams claims in the article above, to instructing social studies and science teachers in the fine points of building spreadsheets and databases without addressing the challenge of transfer.

Bruce Joyce identifies the challenge of transfer as the critical issue for all kinds of staff development. It will not suffice to show educators new ways of doing things. One must also offer continuing support over several years to see new ways of operating firmly rooted in daily practice, for the practitioners to achieve what Joyce calls executive control of the new strategies. Joyce suggests several kinds of support which might prove useful for those planning staff development for technology.

1. Support Groups

As adult learners begin to acquire a toolkit of new strategies, Joyce would suggest that the process be stretched out over time in sessions allowing participants to absorb chunks, venture back to classrooms to practice, and then return to share experiences with a support group of fellow learners, each of whom tells stories of what worked, what did not succeed and which strategies seemed to make a difference. Participants must be advised from the outset that any array of new strategies learned in workshop settings must be adapted to fit the realities of their own classroom setting. Moving from theory to practice may take several months or years. The support group keeps participants from backsliding - from reversion to old habits and strategies. The group provides emotional encouragement.

2. Peer Coaching

Joyce's research demonstrates that participants with peer coaching partners are more likely to persevere with the introduction of innovative strategies than isolated individuals. Past practice possesses momentum and inertia. Partnering has proven effective in pushing new practice through the often troubling and frustrating incubation stages which lead many to throw hands (and mice) up in the air.

3. Study Groups

In recent publications Joyce has also argued for establishment of ongoing study groups within school faculties, groups which conduct adult learning on a continuous basis in a less formally structured way than what we normally call staff development. Given the scarcity of staff development dollars and resources, such informal arrangements may be the most promising yet overlooked delivery systems. When I have asked audiences to select their preferred systems for learning new software, the great majority indicate that they prefer learning from tutor-colleague over formal training sessions.

4. Models of Effective Program Integration

Those who experience program integration are most likely to practice it. Workshops can be organized so that teachers learn in much the same way we hope to see their students learning.

In several week-long Power Learning sessions this past summer, participants were asked to work as 4 person consulting teams developing proposals for the Health Ministers of particular African nations. At the end of the week they were expected to present a report outlining recommendations to reduce the rate of infant mortality for their nation. Their report was produced with the presentation features of ClarisWorks 2.0. The recommendations were based upon CD-ROM research into UN and World Bank data on variables likely to relate to infant mortality. The data was "crunched" using graphing and statistical software (PEMD Discovery, DataDesk and the spreadsheet function of ClarisWorks). Just as we would ask students to develop insights by puzzling their way through complex databases using new technologies, staff needs to see the power of these tools as applied to real life issues and problems.

5. Development of Reflective and Inventive Practice

Too much staff development stops after showing participants scripts and menus. "Do it this way," seems to be the message. There is usually little time allocated to script writing, lesson development and the invention of technology-rich units. As a consequence, the individual develops dependency upon routines designed and presented by others. In contrast, Bard William's "innovation-based" model described above engages participants in discovering the potential of new technologies. "How can you use this videodisc and its 108,000 pictures to reach your social studies students? How might it change their learning? their attitudes toward history?"

Fixation on skill development usually leads to training agendas which are overloaded as the instructor tried to "cover" several dozen functions, tricks or features per half hour. Far better to cover fewer functions so as to leave at least half the time for extensive practice and the translation of new learning into classroom practice. Far better to provide time for participants to ask and consider the questions such as: "So what? What does this mean for my classroom? For my students? What's good? What needs to be altered? How would I make it work?"

6. Piggy-backing with Other Staff Development Initiatives

Is your district pushing forward with integrated curriculum or whole language? Is there a new focus upon project learning or problem-based inquiry? Are NCTM and science standards an emphasis?

How often do the creators of these other adult learning experiences ask their technology coordinator colleagues to co-author the new course? While every one of these initiatives holds great promise for those who might wish to demonstrate the potential of new technologies to empower student thinking, more often than not they are designed by those with little passion for such technologies. Why should any course be designed in a such a technological vacuum? It seems only sensible to blend new technologies throughout.


The design of staff development for new technologies requires a major shift in perspective and purpose from what has been offered in most places for the past decade. Emphasis should turn to student learning and how new technologies may support such learning. When we focus upon software skills instead of student learning, we miss vital opportunities and ignore the promise of new technologies. Instead of jump-starting school programs to meet the demands of a changing economy and society, new technologies end up serving smokestack purposes.


Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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