The NETS and Teaching

As a part of my COETAIL course at ZIS, I am required to answer the question “Whose job is it to teach the NETS (and other) standards to students?” NETS stands for the National Educational Technology Standards and is a set of standards for various groups in schools, like students, teachers, administrators, coaches, and so on. Like most standards, these statements aren’t analytic, but big, broad statements such as “Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.” Then, each statement is parsed into 4-5 areas of application, also broad. So, who teaches creativity, collaboration, communication, information literacy, technological fluency, critical thinking, citizenship, innovation, research skills, and media literacy? You. Wait – didn’t you get the memo?

The problem with such standards – probably all standards – is that they at once seek to define all that must be known and done by everyone, everywhere. Standards have value and I find the NETS sensible and useful, but of course I understand the NETS through the lens of my subject area and age group. Most other teachers will do the same. As such, the NETS become a sort of planning and reflection checklist for the teacher – how am I hitting or ignoring certain parts of these, and how can I do better? That’s useful.

But, as long as we teach from pages 134 to 141 tomorrow, and as long as we shoot for standards like the Common Core, for example, there is little hope of generating the sort of student-centered, exploratory environment that would furnish the most powerful, transformational answer to this question: Together we learn the NETS through exploration in a supportive environment. I recently read something marginally snarky on Twitter that the tech-savvy person hits a problem and asks “How can I solve this problem?” and the tech-o-phobe asks “Who can solve this problem for me?” If that’s true, then the failure for the tech-o-phobe is in the environment in which they are working; perhaps a better question in a more supportive environment would be “Who can help me learn to solve this problem?” That is the sort of question I want students and teachers asking together.

If a school environment supported messy, time-intensive “project based-learning” or exploratory approaches, they need to cultivate the risk-taking (maybe low-risk taking is a good term), “play” mindset. Teaching media literacy, for example, gets sticky fast. As soon as we start drilling down past the surface, individual interests lead kids off in fascinating directions. Once they start producing media that “talks back” to mainstream media messages and values, it’s hard to have everything due on Tuesday. Instead, some time frames expand while others contract. Some students make a chunky poster, others geek out in Photoshop, and others still build elaborate sandbox sets for the destruction of a Matchbox car in explosion and flames. Each student may not even hit the same standards at the same time, but allowing open-ended exploration and choice helps students learn the NETS themselves in cooperation with each other and with the teacher or teachers. And that is the right answer.

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