Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Technology Professional Development and Chocolate Cake

[NOTE: Though I had hair his hair color when I was a kid, I am not Wes Fryer.  I’m just a guy who Wes bribed into guest blogging.  Actually, I’m Jon Becker and I usually blog over at Educational Insanity. If you subscribe to Wes’ blog and/or you like Wes’ writing, you’ll like mine better;-)]

0951 layer cakeThere’s an activity that I often do with students that I borrowed from Deborah Stone’s book Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. To demonstrate the concept of distributive justice, I bring a chocolate cake to class. I tell the students that I’ve decided to cut the cake equally into the number of slices equivalent to the exact number of students in the class (plus me, of course) so that everyone can have an equal-sized piece of the cake. From there, I ask the students if they have any challenges to my distribution plan.

[Truth be told, I plant responses throughout the students in the class ahead of time. I usually do that for the sake of time, but the forced drama of it all usually leads to real, active engagement (or, they are just engaged because they know cake will be served soon).]

We discuss alternative distribution plans including distributing pieces of different sizes based on taste preferences. We also discuss the possibility that my plan doesn’t consider important issues such as allergies (i.e. maybe someone is allergic to chocolate and so they shouldn’t be included). The point of the exercise/activity is to explore decision-making where the resource(s) being distributed is limited. Distributive justice or distributive conflict is at the heart of many educational policy decisions and we are able to use the cake metaphor to frame subsequent discussions about policy decisions ranging from personnel to finance.

I was reminded of my teaching and thinking around distributive justice when I read the following Twitter update from John Maklary (a technology coordinator at a K-8 parochial school in Texas):

maklary3_071609In my ongoing exploration of how schools support teachers (and leaders) around their use of technology, I have come to a point of thinking of instructional technology support as a limited resource. Especially where instructional technology support personnel are scarce, their time and attention are limited. From there, then, we must question how we distribute that resource (see how the chocolate cake metaphor works here?).

In the aggregate, most of the variance in the level of technology integration in education is within schools, not between schools. In other words, the degree to which technology integration occurs varies more between individual teachers than it does between schools. [NOTE: my data to support that knowledge claim are here.] Furthermore, though I have less evidence to support this assertion, the distribution in levels of technology integration across teachers is positively skewed (see the right side of the graphic below). If you imagine “level of technology integration” as the variable on the x-axis (the horizontal axis), the “enlightened” few (using John’s language), the high-flying tech. educators, exist on the distribution to the right under the tail. The vast majority, though remain under the curve closer to zero.

446px-Skewness_Statistics.svgRelated to John’s Twitter update, I’ve been wondering how the shape of the distribution is changing, if at all. On one hand, as technological innovation proceeds at breakneck pace, the “enlightened” (again using John’s language) are doing their best to keep up and to imagine the implications for learning. They are pushing or spreading the tail further out to the right of the distribution. At the same time, the modal (or typical) teacher is doing her or his best to catch up, pushing the mode closer to the mean. The closer the mode is to the mean, the more normally distributed the distribution is.

I don’t know if it is good or bad to have a situation where the distribution of teacher levels of technology integration is “normal.” Technology in education advocates/enthusiasts would argue that we need to head towards a negatively skewed distribution; i.e. where the mode is higher than the mean. Whether the distribution becomes more normal or even negatively skewed, there are still those teachers who exist under the tail; those teachers who, for better or worse, barely move past “zero” on some measure of level of technology integration.

Coming back to John’s Twitter update and my exercise/activity about distributive justice, if instructional technology support is a limited resource (like a chocolate cake), how should we distribute that resource? If we could categorize teachers along the “level of technology integration” spectrum as high, medium and low, where are our limited instructional technology support resources best distributed? What value is there in using that limited resource on the “unenlightened” (i.e. those in the “low” group)?

  • Have you considered that some teachers might be “allergic” to technology integration (i.e. it is actually harmful for them as learning facilitators)?
  • Have you considered that there are some teachers who will not get the most value from the limited time and attention of instructional technology support?
  • Unlike the dictate from federal law for students, are there instances when we need to leave some teachers behind (i.e. No cake for them!)?

Just askin’…



9 responses to “Technology Professional Development and Chocolate Cake”

  1. Jeremy Davis Avatar


    Thanks for being willing to mention that maybe we should be reconsidering continuing to put limited ed tech resources to the bottom of the curve. There are those who are in the middle, who are ready to shoot past the mean with a little help. There are those who will never, ever learn anything they don’t have to, or don’t feel they need to. Yet many in the top ranks of leadership have an idea that everyone should move together. Sort of a No Luddite Left Behind kind of model. This can be seen in districts where leadership frowns on Web 2.0 P.D. in favor of Word and Excel basics P.D.

    However, when I offer both Powerpoint basics one week and Advanced Google Earth the next, I get 10 at Powerpoint and 2 at Google Earth. Until districts mandate some kind of tech proficiency, many will stay behind on their own. Here in Southern California, a district cut all tech funding to schools who didn’t reach 100% tech certified (state CTAP cert). The first year half of the schools actually did it, and received 100% of the tech funding, so the next year everyone complied, and their district is now better for it. It’s amazing how someone who hates chocolate cake will greedily take it if they think it’s the last bite of food they will ever see. Another district withheld principal pay raises, and offered the raises to the principals only if they completed a tech certification course. All but one did, and their use of tech transferred down to the staff. So leadership and modeling also can be a key factor.

    Thanks for the post, great thought provoker.

    Twitter (teachtech)

  2. R. Turner Avatar

    Thanks for the post. I related to the “chocolate cake” distribution method in relation to instructional technology support. I don’t nor will ever understand the backwards step that is taken when this important piece of the “education cake” is taken away. I also liked Jeremy Davis’ comment of No Luddite Left Behind model of PD. I will have to use that one this year!
    Thank so for having guest bloggers while Wes is out. They have certainly mixed it up and I like it.

  3. John Maklary Avatar

    Wow! I’m honored that an off-the-cuff twitter remark led to this post.

    Jon, I like your cake analogy when describing distributive justice. However, I think the way you described it is more in line with equity rather than fairness. Equity is defined as everyone getting exactly the same thing. Fairness is everyone getting exactly what they NEED and that might be different for each individual.

    In my school, like most out there I suspect, there are huge swings in the levels of technology proficiency, literacy, fluency, integration, or whatever you want to call it.

    In my situation, I would be dead in the water if I applied a boilerplate solution for professional development. It would be mediocre at best because I would be shooting for the middle in order to alienate as few people as possible. While that may be very convenient for me, it would leave the “luddites” behind and bore the more advanced folks.

    This is no different than teaching a classroom of middle school students. There are wild variations in base knowledge and attitudes regarding effective technology use. Would I be doing my job if I just ignored the “unenlightened” or the apathetic? No way! That is why I was hired…to reach as many people as I can using differentiated methods and tools to “bring them in.” Sometimes that means sitting down one-on-one with certain teachers, finding out what the obstacles are and formulating an agreed upon plan to move forward. It’s difficult at times but when I bring a teacher up to speed (especially a “special” teacher), there is no greater feeling (student success stories aside).

    Another analogy that could be used is the difference between how the US military supports troops in the battlefield versus the way the old Soviet military does. In a battle, the US reinforces weaknesses in the line to maintain battle integrity. The USSR, on the other hand, supports surges in a line and leaves the weak areas to wither and (literally) die. Personally, I like the US philosophy. It keeps everyone more or less together moving toward a common goal. The Soviet philosophy dictates less tolerance for under performing and won’t provide support where it may be truly needed.

    We, as professional developers and educators, need to meet our students and teachers where they are and cooperatively find ways to overcome those inevitable obstacles and barriers.

  4. Jon Becker Avatar

    Ah, John, now you’re in my wheelhouse. Defining equity; I’ve read, studied, written about this extensively.

    You, sir, equate equity with equality. Those are not necessarily the same thing. Equity is always the goal in a distributive conflict; the problem is that there isn’t always an agreed upon definition of equity. Some would say that equity is the result of a fair process. For example, if all technology funding (a limited resource) were distributed via a competitive grant competition, some would say that is an equitable way to distribute a limited resource. Others would say that equity depends on the end result. Equal distribution is one possible scenario. But, if one party has no interest or gets no value from the resource, leaving that party out might still result in an equitable distribution. It’s complicated, but equality is not necessarily the same thing as equity.

    Also, I think professional development is HUGELY different than “teaching a classroom of middle school students.” EVERY child, by virtue of the constitution of the state she/he lives in is afforded a right to an adequate education (or some similar language). NO teacher has a right to technology-related professional development. Educational technology decision makers, then, can (and I argue should) consider how they distribute instructional technology support. Giving a little bit to every teacher may simply be counterproductive.

    Consider the teacher who is doing a wonderful job engaging kids in literature, for example. They are reading, writing, conversing, debating, deliberating, etc. around the text and their test scores are through the roof. Kids love learning with this “analog” teacher and they ARE learning, lots. Are you obligated to provide technology-related professional development to that teacher? Is that the best use of your time?

  5. Art Gelwicks Avatar

    We are confusing fairness with need. Define for me in each case the educational technology needs a staff member has and I can define a specific program and path for them. Define the need for a group and you get the lowest common denominator. You might as well design a test for all of them and teach to the test…oh, wait… 🙂

    Sincerely though, putting the effort into developing a homogeneous technology professional development program is no different than treating every student as identical and teaching them the same way. We would never do that in the classroom, so why do it to staff?

  6. John Maklary Avatar

    I think Art parallels my thinking about fairness and need. In my professional environment, it is not an option to leave the Luddites behind (and let me tell you there are moments I wish I could!). I gauge the success of my professional development activities not just on the superstar doing amazing and meaningful things with technology. That is indeed worthy of commendation and continued support. However, when a technology-challenged teacher slowly gets brought along with much one on one support and hand holding (provided they have a decent attitude about it), the end result is gratifying to me but more importantly, the teacher has a sense of accomplishment and a better understanding of how and when to integrate technology.

    This brings up another question… Does technology make a teacher better? In my opinion, no, not necessarily. Again, it is my job to help teachers make constructive decisions and to determine if there is a relative advantage of using technology as it relates to their classroom.

    Obviously, different teachers need different levels of help. In my experience, attitudes toward new things come into play in a significant way. For me, getting teacher buy-in is critical. Nothing is worse than having to force-feed teachers who are ambivalent. Sometimes I feel like Vince the Sham-Wow guy or Billy Mays (RIP) when I have to “sell” tech integration to those who have issues with it. But I plow on and consider baby steps as successful measures.

    We will be doing some NETS-based technology assessment for teachers this year and from that, we will cooperatively develop an “IEP” of sorts with attainable and measurable goals that will be assessed at the end of the year.

    Question: Should we focus our efforts on supporting current successes or should we focus on where the fundamental “need” is? I say we should do both — The genius of the AND vs. the tyranny of the OR.

  7. Tracy Rosen Avatar

    Let’s work on reconnecting teachers with why they teach. Let’s create a desire to improve learning. Let’s create a yearning for the vast and endless sea and technology will fall into place.
    Trust the process, and respect it.

    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry