Leading Innovative Change Series – Learning First, Technology Second

I wanted to try my hand at writing a series of blog posts on “Leading Innovative Change”. As I am looking at writing a book on the same topic, I thought I would put some ideas out there and hopefully learn from others on these topics. I also want to give these ideas away for free. These posts are for anyone in education, but are mostly focused on school administrators. In all of these, the idea that administrators openly model their learning will only accelerate a culture of innovation and risk taking.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Brenda

Learning First, Technology Second

“Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash.” Harriet Rubin

A few years ago, our school district was strictly a “BlackBerry” environment for mobile devices. This was what was used for our school district for years prior and since it “worked”, there was no need to change. The thing with BlackBerry as that it is known as an amazing “business” phone, as it was “safe and secure” and easy to manage. The BlackBerry was not the phone for us anymore as it was limited in the way that it could connect and share, so we started to move towards iPhone and Android devices. People chose what worked for them in their learning, and people had different needs and comfort levels with the devices, but they were now able to see the power these mobile devices on their own learning, which started to open up opportunities for teachers and students.

The thing was that this was not easy for our Information Technology Department to manage as moving away from a “standard” and moving to a much more open environment it is tough to control. It was the right thing to do though. “Managing” is for “things,” not people. Once we started looking at what was better for learning, a lot of doors started to open, and lightbulbs went off. It was no longer, “here is your device, make it work for learning.” The shift was to put the learning first, and the technology second.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

You will see a lot of schools buy devices for every student, and essentially, if the pedagogy doesn’t change, they only look like a “21st Century School”. It is like the famous scene from Blazing Saddles (I am totally dating myself now), where the bad guys come in and the citizens have just set up a fake town as a diversion, yet with one gust of wind, the whole thing falls down. That change is simply cosmetic with no depth. Throwing a bunch of devices with no shift in mindset on teaching and learning, it no different than the scene from this movie.

What we have tried to do in our work, is put the plan for learning in place first, and the professional development behind it. In our Digital Portfolio Project, we outlined the objectives for learning and what the technology would do to transform it. The problem was, that we did not have the technology when this project started, but it is now creating a need for the technology that is coming from the educators and students. “If you want us to make this happen, we are going to need more technology in the hands of students.” This is a good problem to have as it is signifying a growth in mindset towards transformational teaching and learning. We need the technology to do something with the learning that we were not able to do before.

Four Questions

So now that there is this problem, how do we bring our IT departments along? I recently read this article on the “Obsolete Tech Director” and it talked about the need for a different viewpoint in our organizations:

The role of the typical school district technology director has become obsolete. Speak with your average teacher in many school districts in America, and you’ll find the technology department is better known for getting in the way than for serving the educational needs of both staff and students. Many technology departments, led by obsolete tech directors, are inadvertently inhibiting learning. The mantra of ‘lock it and block it’ no longer works in a 21st century digital learning environment.

So how do we get this culture to change? What we have looked at is by asking different questions of not only our IT Departments, but in any area of innovative learning. They are:

1. What is best for kids?
2. How does this improve learning?
3. If we were to do _________, what is the balance of risk vs. reward?
4. Is this serving the few or the majority? 

Even if you just asked the first question, and started from there, how much would that change your environment? We often have looked at what is easiest for us (the adults), as opposed to what is better for them (the kids). The conversation has to shift.


As technology is becoming more a part of our learning environment, you are seeing an influx of “Educational Technology” consultants, coordinators, etc. Again, this is signifying that the technology is the most important thing, where the teaching and learning is secondary. As we created my current position in Parkland School Division, the title of “Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning” was created (I know…pretty long). With the notion of innovation being about “new and better”, we wanted to make “teaching and learning” better in the classroom.

Now although my position does largely involve using technology, it is not the focus of what we are trying to improve. I have been in many classes watching a teacher discuss with their students proper ways to hold a pencil so that they can improve their writing, yet we have no “pencil integration coordinators”. Technology is part of what we do in the classroom and it should just be assumed.

As we continue to develop positions to support the learning that happens in classrooms, is it not important that we include learning in the title?


In many schools/organizations, we have the tail wagging the dog and our technology departments are often dictating the type of learning that can happen in the classrooms. I am not saying that this is an issue with the departments, but often with leadership that has seen technology as an “extra”, as opposed to an essential. Focusing on learning and relationships first, often helps us to make much better decisions about what we are doing with technology. It shouldn’t be the other way around.

Innovation will come from our ideas for teaching and learning, not from a technology.



  1. I love the dated reference to Blazing Saddles. I walk through our building, with the newly adopted 1:1 Chromebook iniitiative, and I see that town. But I see it from a different viewpoint. I see it as though I am Black Bart, I have befriended the town folks (teachers), have gotten them to work on tech implementation (building the fake town), and the students are the ones walking into the trap (old classrooms). The students slowly realize what the old classes were like start revolting. We all end up in a dance scene with Dom Deluise as the director splashing around, throwing pies in eachothers faces and laughing throughout the school year.

    Or maybe that is a complete strech.

    What I do know is that we are looking for and finding those innovative and meaningful ways to use technology and staying out of the students way when they find what works for them. We are allowing them to use the Chromebooks as they see fit.

    I often wonder if we really know what is best for kids. Maybe we should just walk a few steps behind them, let them fall down a few times then be the ones there to pick them up and dust them off?

    October 1, 2013
  2. Roxanne said:

    While I agree with the spirit of this article and its noble aim of prioritize learning and teaching over technology, I also think that part of the problem is the very limited way in which people conceive of “technology” in education–primarily as devices, software etc. Technology is a word that has been somewhat bastardized by the EdTech world, a world I am a citizen of.
    If you investigate, even briefly, into the world of technology studies (as any good ed tech consultant should) you find that “technology” resembles much more closely the word “innovation”. By this, I mean that “technology”, as it is conceived by the folks in tech studies, is as much an iPad as it is the decision to use an iPad for educational purposes. Jacques Ellul’s book, The Technological Society published in 1964 is a good place to start for developing a more sophisticated notion of what technology really is for people, communities and education. I think that the ed tech community would do well to adopt such a of view and not only for thinking about ed tech in general but also for thinking about digital citizenship, the subject my dissertation (that is still in progress).
    I’d be interested to hear more about this book you’re working on George. You’ve selected a very interesting and timely topic. I’m glad someone with real experience is working on this. Great post, as usual.

    October 1, 2013
  3. […] The mantra of 'lock it and block it' no longer works in a 21st century digital learning environment. So how do we get this culture to change? What we have looked at is by asking different questions of not only our IT Departments …  […]

    October 4, 2013
  4. Justin deVries said:

    I could not agree with this post more! It comes to me at an interesting time; this is a new shift and it seems not many others in my district think this way. “You can do some pretty dumb things with a SMART board.” It seems like tech is sometimes a fancier way of throwing money at a problem.

    October 5, 2013

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