33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms
by Timothy D. Walker
Foreword by Pasi Sahlbergspan

Leverage the tech

When I first visited my Helsinki school, my Finnish principal gave me a tour. She showed me my classroom, the teachers’ lounge, and our library. She also wanted to show me the school’s two computer labs, which were shared by my colleagues and about 450 students. At this urban public school in the middle of Helsinki, I think I had modest expectations about the technology I would discover.

Years ago, before I became a classroom teacher, I worked at a complex of four primary schools in a poor urban neighborhood in Massachusetts as a substitute computer teacher, and although the district seemed underfunded—one school even fired its only secretary while I was there—they possessed stunning Mac labs with about twenty-five new-looking desktop computers in each one. Every few years, these devices would be replaced. Annually, the complex would employ two full-time computer teachers and an information technology specialist, who would oversee all of the tech equipment and software. As I walked with my Finnish principal through my Helsinki school, which was located in a much wealthier neighborhood than those Massachusetts public schools, I expected to find something similar to what I had seen in America.

The first lab I visited at my Helsinki school held about twenty laptops, which looked as if they had been purchased about ten years earlier. Later, I noticed a section on the blackboard where teachers could write down which laptops—each one had a number—was out of service; several of them were completely broken. Although this lab didn’t meet my expectations, I bit my tongue as we walked through that room and climbed two flights of stairs to another set of computers. That second lab, I thought, wasn’t much different from the previous one. There were about twenty-five desktop computers, and to my eyes, all of them looked like they were soon due for replacement.

Typically every classroom in my school had one desktop computer, an adjacent “doc camera” and a projector that could display images on a pull-down screen. A few classrooms had SMART Boards, but there wasn’t a discernible push from the administration for teachers to use them. Unlike my experience at those urban public schools in America, my school didn’t employ a full-time computer teacher. Educators were expected to use the technology as they saw fit, and when problems would
(inevitably) arise, we were directed to contact a couple of tech-savvy teachers who were modestly compensated for their help.

Technology integration, at my Helsinki school, wasn’t a major emphasis, and this was something I observed at other Finnish schools. Before moving to Finland, I expected that all high-quality schools would have the best and the latest tech equipment. But I’ve changed my mind since spending time in
Finnish schools, where the investment in technology seems to lag behind what I’ve seen in American schools.

In Helsinki, I found that it was easier to put learning first in the classroom setting when my access (and my students’ access) to technology was limited. I didn’t have the same pressure—internal or external—to integrate technology, which meant that I was more likely to use tech when it enhanced the teaching.

I don’t believe classroom technologies are unimportant. Truly, there is a digital divide in our schools that must be addressed, but in many schools the investment of money and time seems too great. Those flashy technologies can easily distract us teachers from working on the most essential things with our students. I know this from personal experience, and research seems to suggest this, too.

In 2015, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the same organization that designed the PISA tests, published the results of a PISA assessment of digital skills.

It found that, “overall, students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely.” But here was the kicker: “Students who use computers very frequently at school do much worse, even after accounting for social background and student demographics” (OECD, 2015).

But the OECD didn’t suggest that technology be ditched from schools in light of this finding.

“Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge,” said Andreas Schleicher,
OECD director for education and skills. “To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change” (OECD, 2015).

The key to tapping into the potential learning benefits of technology, it seems, rests in our hands as teachers. In Finland I saw my colleagues using technology on a regular basis, but in modest ways.

One of the most common methods was the use of a “doc cam”—a simple piece of technology I’ve found in every Finnish school I’ve visited. Picture something that looks like an old-fashioned overhead projector, except that it’s equipped with a miniature video camera.

On a nearly daily basis, I would observe teachers at my school using doc cams to provide visual aids while they were teaching. Not only that, but it was also a great way for students to communicate their learning to the class. For example, I’d often ask my students to demonstrate their solutions to math problems by using the doc cam at the front of our classroom. I’m not suggesting that every teacher go out and purchase one, just that the classroom technology that we use doesn’t have to be sophisticated to be effective.

“I think the talk about technology in education has gotten way out of hand,” Jere Linnanen, a middle school history teacher at Helsinki’s Maunula Comprehensive School, told me. “[Education technology] can help you . . . but it’s not about the tool. Or it shouldn’t be about the tool.”
Linnanen often uses the Google Classroom suite with his eighth and ninth graders to support the learning in his classroom, in which his students use the free software to create slide shows and documents together. He calls these tools “basic,” but he finds that they’re working well for his students. As a former executive at a Finnish educational technology start-up with an international reach, Linnanen has closely followed the technology scene over the last few years:

[Politicians] want education to be a problem that can be solved top down. They want to be able to say that, “If we put this much money into education technology, then we get these results. And we want to move up [in] the rankings so we press this button.” But I think it should be more like bottom up, like grass roots, like teachers connecting [with] teachers, sharing stuff, and connecting to their students. That’s where the focus should be.

Technology integration, when it supports learning, can bring joy to teachers and students, especially when it allows us to do what educator Will Richardson (2016) calls “the extraordinary”:

To connect live or asynchronously with people from all over the world. To publish stuff to a global audience. To make things, programs, artifacts, inventions that can’t be made in the analog world.

While it’s relatively rare, in my experience, to find Finnish schools where technology is used to do “the extraordinary,” I think the common practice of using technology to support learning, rather than distract from it, is wise. For years, Finland’s schools have proved that their students can master important content and skills without investing heavily in the latest tech gadgets. I think it’s an important lesson for all educators. If we want to teach for mastery, let’s put tech in its rightful place, as a tool for learning.