What is a fossil? In my elementary science classes, I learned that a long time of sitting still, combined with heat and pressure, made regular bones, trees, and insects into fossils. I also learned that these once mundane objects and creatures, once set free, held millions of years of valuable information for us.
In somewhat a different context, I was recently asked what I could do to aid “fossils” in the teaching profession. Although the response I gave at the time was mostly about providing support and encouragement, after some reflection, I think that a better approach would be just like that of the scientist who comes across a petrified gem: set it free and see what it can tell us about life.
Let’s forget for a moment that actual fossils decompose when exposed to the atmosphere after millions of years in isolation. I have an opinion about that too, but it’s beyond the scope of this entry. Let’s assume for now that when the “fossil” is set free, the environment supports him or her so that “decomposition” doesn’t take place.
A seasoned professional can do a lot with new tools. They may, once conversant with those tools, be able to show us all a few things. The reason this is possible is because they know how to keep their eyes on the prize. They know their content and they know the nature of learning. They don’t take new technologies for granted and so they are also sensitive to the needs of students who don’t have up-to-the-minute gear. In a word, unlike many new professionals, they know that all technologies from chalk to projectors to Google all have their place in the grand scheme of experience. At the end of the day, that’s what we all want for our students: the experience of success. One of the best teachers I ever had was a man who, at fifty years of age, was building web sites from scratch. He certainly didn’t grow up with code. Instead, he saw a new tool that would serve his purposes of teaching computer science to his students and ran with it.
In the process of thawing from a glacial neglect of technological change, some very cool things can be unearthed. People can choose to make an enormous change in their practice with very little time spent learning about some new tools. Three years ago, I didn’t know how to open Photoshop. At thirty years of age, I was already “fossilized.” However, with a little time playing and a whole lot of mistakes, I got to where I could actually use the application as a tool for enriching my practice. Today, I am happy to say that my time spent poking around on the web and the few dollars I have spent on tutorial books have gotten me to a place where I can confidently help others out of their own petrification.
Did learning Photoshop unlock the mysteries of all technology for me? Not at all. What it did do for me, however, is show me that I can still learn and that, if I so desire, I can learn new tricks. Better yet, I learned that I could apply my new tricks to old problems. No one could hope to keep pace with the rate of technological change…so why try? Instead, the cagey professionals will survey the field and pick what works best for their purposes.