Teaching a teacher about technology: A narrative approach

Rick Ferdig
Michigan State University

As computers become prevalent in every part of our daily lives, so does the need for training on how to use those technologies. Because of this increase in need, demands have also been placed on schools to educate our children and make them "technology literate." However, prior to educating our youth, efforts must be dedicated to preparing teachers who can harness the educational possibilities of using computers in the classroom. One of the most difficult tasks any undergraduate teacher preparation program can face is trying to help educators become comfortable with computers while still preparing them for the ever changing and flexible technologies of the 21st century. Over the course of the past five years, I have either taught or been a part of numerous teacher technology-training programs in Elementary schools, Middle schools, High schools, and Universities across 2 different countries. Time and time again I am presented with training programs that show teachers how to memorize steps in order to become experts in particular software. The problem is that with the speed of changing technologies, expertise turns into frustration as memorized steps become chaff in the wind. This is readily apparent in undergraduate pre-service programs where students learn technology skills but find that they can't integrate the skills (or can't remember the steps) upon graduation and placement. There are cases where teaching specific skills inspires some teacher education students to adopt a technology mindset to approaching curriculum planning. However, for the most part, this transmission model of technology adoption fails.

A Narrative Solution

Stories have been used to educate since the beginning of time. And recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in a narrative approach to educating our youth by educational researchers (McEwan & Egan, 1995; Heath, 1994; Egan, 1986). McEwan and Egan (1995) introduce their edited book with, "We begin with Barbara Hardy's celebrated observation that we `dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and live by narrative", in order to argue for the importance of narrative in education. In regards to teachers, there has also been an effort to capture their thoughts, feelings, and philosophies through a narrative approach (Jalongo & Isenberg, 1995; Goodson, 1992; Lillard, 1980). Finally, the use of stories has even infiltrated the computer and technology realm (Murray, 1997; Minganti, 1997; Gesture and Narrative Language). What can be learned from the above research is just how important stories can be both as a teaching approach and research methodology in education and educational technology.

In trying to create a pre-service teacher and technology-training program, it is possible to combine the three approaches to narrative. John Shotter points out the following,

This, I think, is where Wittgenstein's (1953) work is of such importance: for he draws our attention simply to the role in our ordinary, everyday social practices, of us drawing each other's attention to aspects of our own ongoing practices, especially to its crucial role in us learning our social practices in the first place.

Therefore, if we adopted a dialogical or narrative approach as the actual autobiographical teaching method (combining all three of the above uses), we would help the pre-service educator become aware of their own feelings and thoughts about computers and education. This narrative methodology, rather than a completely skill-based program, affords students the ability to understand their own process of coming to know how to integrate changing technologies as a tool in education rather than a fixed landmark based on software instructions. These stories, told by the teacher through the process of learning about technology, would reveal a detailed picture to the researcher, teacher, and student herself of the development process a pre-service educator goes through on her way to learning how to use technology in the classroom.


In March of 1997, I was approached by a pre-service student who was interested in learning more about technology. She was going to look for a job over the summer and felt like the market demanded technology skills that she did not have. It was about this same time when I became very interested in the narrative approach and so, with her permission, set out on a quest to teach her about technology in a storied manner.

We decided that we would meet as many times as we could prior to her leaving to find a job. I agreed to tutor her but asked if she would be willing to help me learn more about how to teach technology to an audience such as the one she originated from. I informed her that the process would include audiotaped sessions, weekly journals from her, and a beginning and ending interview. However, I also let her know that failing to meet any of these needs would in no way jeopardize her tutoring sessions.

Finding out about technology

We met throughout April and May of that year for about 1 hour to 90 minutes a session. I spent most of the time teaching her how to accomplish certain tasks (e-mail, browsing the web, creating web pages), but left enough details out to reinforce my constant reminders that the process was more important than the details. During those sessions, in order to help both her and me understand the processes she was going through, I asked her to "think aloud" during the sessions. Meaning, I wanted her to talk through whatever she was doing—both the actual mechanics of what she was doing as well as her thoughts about how she would or wouldn't use the technology. I was trying to get her to determine where technology fit into her philosophy of teaching. Initially, she was nudged into doing so by my continually asking questions about what she thought she was learning and how she thought it might impact her teaching. However, as time passed, she became more and more comfortable with the think-alouds. As I reviewed the audiotapes, I was amazed at the shift from the initial tape to the final tape. My voice could be heard through much of the tape in the beginning. However, towards the end of our sessions, one wondered whether I was even in the room. I owe this to the fact that she was becoming more comfortable with technology and more importantly with her story about technology.

Another important component besides the think-alouds was the weekly journals. Three important notions became evident in the journals. First, technology was frustrating to her (as it is to most teachers learning about computers for the first time). Early entries were comprised of: "I still feel pretty overwhelmed about what the possibilities are in the this crazy computer world." and "I found our meeting frustrating..." However, later entries showed a developing sense of learning how to use technology: "I also found a sense of patience that is necessary as I begin learning my way around." and "I'm starting to understand at a more connected level."

Second, the agenda that I had started out with was by definition very loose. I wanted to be able to structure our sessions around initial basics (surfing the web, using e-mail, etc.) but I also wanted to have time to encourage her interests and her thoughts about computers. I found that she not only followed her own interests but started asking her own questions about teaching and teaching with technology. "Our sessions remind me of how haphazard learning can be. If we stuck to the outline we create at the beginning of the session, we'd be missing out on a lot of the discussions we've been having. It can be scary from a teacher perspective to stray from the plan, but do teachers always know the best way to proceed with a subject?" What initially began with, "I am interested in..." turned into "I really want to learn how to create a webpage. We should look at some classroom web pages to see the kinds of things they have on them."

Finally, it became evident through our sessions that she was learning more than just skills, but seemed to be rewriting her story of how she viewed herself in relation to technology. She reported that she moved from being afraid of computers to being willing to try different things out. It is through this process of learning and telling narratives about that learning that the student changed her own narrative on her view of technology and philosophy of teaching.

Implications for Pre-service Education

Although my case study was only an N of 1, I believe that it has some important implications for preparing teachers to be technology literate. First, as with any class, there must be an agenda with objectives of what should be learned. However, if we can move away from skill objectives to focus more on the teacher coming to her own understanding of technology in the form of how it changes her story, we may be teaching them how to use tools rather than just which way to turn a screwdriver. Therefore, successful programs will focus on teacher exploration of their own interests whether that is with a supercomputer or a calculator.

Second, my case study was unique in the sense that I was able to have constant dialogic interaction throughout the learning process. In a classroom of 20 students, that isn't always realistic. However, as we change our pedagogy to focus on the teacher as facilitator of knowledge rather than master of the class, we realize the importance of using classmates in learning objectives. This would include working on technology collaboratively and having one of the partners facilitate think-alouds while the other explores. Journals can then help communicate between the observed, the observer, and the educator. Journal topics would focus on what the students learned about the other person as well as their own views of technology. Using Shotter and Wittgenstein's ideas mentioned above, students become aware of their own social processes and in turn their own story about technology. As my subject replied, "I, too, would like to have some documentation about my learning process."

Finally, when asked about what makes a technology expert, many students reply that it is the ability to walk into most technology situations and not necessarily know everything that is happening, but not being afraid to try. It is very rare that anyone states a technology expert is someone who knows everything there is to know about "X" software. In the ending interview, the student in my case study reported that she still gets frustrated over not being able to do certain things with technology. However, through discoursing about technology and its relevant uses to her ideas of pedagogy, she has gained a persistent attitude, a willingness to try, and has started to overcome the fear of computers that dominated her earlier story. When teaching pre-service teachers about technology, many programs force students to adopt their story of what technology should be used and how it should be used. In the end, students drop those stories as easily as one forgets a joke. However, we may be able to facilitate the creation of the educator's story through discourse and dialogic interactions about the processes they are going through in learning about that technology. As they go into the workplace, technology is not an add-on but a central component of their philosophy of pedagogy.

Future Research

The findings in this paper are based on preliminary analysis of audiotapes, journals, and interviews with a preservice educator as she learned about computers and how they can be used in her classroom. Future research includes a more complete analysis of the transcripts to not only examine more closely the teacher's story, but also the dialogic interaction between the researcher and the educator. I hope that this analysis will provide more information about how teachers realize and conceptualize technology in their stories as well as how those dialogic interactions could be reproduced in the classroom. Finally, I also hope that this and future research will shed light on more effective ways to teach teachers about technology by using a narrative approach.


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Richard E. Ferdig is a Ph.D. student in the College of Education, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 48824. Voice, office: 517 432-3531 or 517 432-0132. Email: ferdigri@pilot.msu.edu. Homepage: http://www.msu.edu/~ferdigri