Carrie Watkins: With a desire to share his love of learning, Jason Curtis entered the education industry as a classroom teacher 21 years ago. Now, as the Director of Technology and Information Resources for the Hockaday School, Jason has more of a behind-the-scenes position for encouraging that love of learning in students. In our conversation with Jason, we talked about how technology can enhance the role of the teacher in personalizing education for individual students.
Welcome to the MBS Direct podcast, where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content and education. Today, we are talking to Director of Technology and Information Resources at the Hockaday School. Thanks for joining us, Jason.
Jason Curtis: Thanks for having me.
Carrie Watkins: So that is quite a title. What does the Director of Technology and Information Resources do?
Jason Curtis: I am in charge of all of the technology at the school, whether it's the infrastructure technology or the academic technology. Additionally, I oversee the libraries. We saw that as kind of a nice convergence of people who provide information to the students, so that's kind of what the idea behind the department is. If you need anything information-wise, you come to us.
Carrie Watkins: So you do not only the laptop program that you guys have, but also curriculum integration, as well?
Jason Curtis: That's correct.
Carrie Watkins: How long have you been at the Hockaday School?
Jason Curtis: I just finished my fifth year at Hockaday. I've been a technology director for about 13 years in the private school arena, moving from Houston, up to Cleveland, Ohio and then back down to Dallas to do this kind of work.
Carrie Watkins: So nothing like a complete shift in climate ...
Jason Curtis: That's right.
Carrie Watkins: ... and change in temperature.
Jason Curtis: It's a fantastic adventure.
Carrie Watkins: 13 years is a long time to see technology change.
Jason Curtis: Sure
Carrie Watkins: I mean, we're celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone, and that changed a lot of the way we think about consumption and creation of content. How have you seen the role of the technology director for independent schools change over the 13 years?
Jason Curtis: That's a good question. I've really seen a shift in understanding in regards to how that position is viewed. Moving from the idea that the tech director is the guy who keeps the email flowing and the printers printing and makes sure all that works to someone who's really seen more as an academic partner and a leader in instruction and, actually, what's going on as far as pedagogy. Not just saying, "Okay, well, you do the tech part and we'll do the instruction part," but rather, how can we use technology to complement pedagogy but not necessarily have the tail wag the dog?
Carrie Watkins: That's the million-dollar question a lot of people have with how technology and the curriculum actually work together, starting with the learning objectives of the course and then what technology can actually supplement that and make it work. How does that change the way that you approach these questions?
Jason Curtis: I think one of the most important things that I've done has been time with the faculty. Really, to be seen as an instructional leader, people have to know that you are an instructional leader. Being present and taking time to visit classrooms and find out what people are doing in their class and communicate about those things. Hey, I saw you doing X, Y, Z. I know of a great tool to really complement the thing that you're doing. That's what I feel like my role is, and I think that's what helps people to understand, oh, wait a minute, this isn't about email. This is about email, and it's about good pedagogy and how I can be a great teacher. This guy wants to help me be a great teacher.
Carrie Watkins: Do you have any examples of any projects that maybe you've been able to get involved with some of your faculty.
Jason Curtis: A lot of instructional work is done by our instructional technology team. We've got five instructional technologists who will meet with the faculty and have those really deep down in the weeds conversations about the curriculum, what are you doing in your class. I can be the friendly face and stop in and say, "Let me watch a lesson. Let me do this." Really, when it comes down to it, they're the ones who are getting down into the nitty-gritty. What we're seeing is faculty ... A lot of the interesting changes that are happening tend to revolve around how do we check for understanding with our students. How do we have them demonstrate that they know what we're talking about? How do they demonstrate that mastery?
We're moving to a place where a lot of teachers are foregoing those written essays or stand up and let's deliver a little speech about what you learned, and they're doing things like using a blue room to create a skit that shows here's this thing in Texas history we learned. Or they might create a stop-motion video demonstrating a certain skill that they've learned in science. We're seeing that transition, and what I really love about that kind of stuff is it doesn't change the curriculum in any way. It doesn't fundamentally say, "Okay, you used to learn this. Now, you're going to learn that, because you have a computer." What it does is it says, "You're already teaching these really great things, and we just want the kids to show you that understanding at a much deeper level." To script out a movie or to do a stop-motion animation, it's not filling in a blank. It's not multiple choice. You have to know what you're doing. We really are pulling a little bit more insight from the kids that way.
Carrie Watkins: What brought you to education?
Jason Curtis: I grew up kind of a nerd and really spent lots of time reading. I just always had this real desire to learn things. A lot of kids my age were reading the Encyclopedia Brown books or these fun fiction books, and I would read the encyclopedia. A total nerd, right? To me, it was just fascinating to turn a page and have something on that page that was completely new to me. I would, "Oh, wow, Papua, New Guinea. I didn't know that. Oh, wow, tarantulas. Neat." It was just everything I learned, I just hungered for that, and I wanted to be able to pass that desire on to kids. I thought that was a pretty fun thing.
Carrie Watkins: Absolutely. Now, students have Google in their pocket ...
Jason Curtis: I know.
Carrie Watkins: ... and have that feeling all the time, hopefully.
Jason Curtis: Right.
Carrie Watkins: What's kept you in education? Have you been able to reach that goal of helping students discover?
Jason Curtis: I started my career as a classroom teacher. I taught elementary school for several years, fourth grade, first grade, and fifth grade, not all at the same time. My time in the classroom, honestly, was a whole lot more of that. Seeing the fruits of that, I guess I'll say, because I had that direct contact with a certain number of kids every day and could really pass that along. Now, I have to kind of see it through the lens of my instructional folks and through the faculty. I miss a little bit of that one-on-one contact with the students and seeing that little spark of learning and the a-ha moments, but I feel like the work I do on the back end helps pave the way for the people to get down there and make that happen, and I feel pretty good about that.
Carrie Watkins: You're still helping them with a-ha moments, but you're doing it a little bit in a different round-about kind of way?
Jason Curtis: More behind the scenes.
Carrie Watkins: The last 13 years, we talked about a lot of stuff has changed in the world around us, but specifically with education and what students are able to do in the classroom, what faculty are able to do in the classroom. What do you think education needs the most right now?
Jason Curtis: I think that what we need to do in education is to leverage the knowledge that we have in the world. I'm not saying that well, but when we look at how data is used in retail markets, when we look at how data is used for advertising, when we look at how data is used for all these purposes that we may not feel great about, we could probably take a lot of that and transfer it to education. What I mean by that is we could look at our student data, and instead of saying, "Hey, I'm going to teach. I'm going to test. I'm going to grade. I'm going to pass it back, and the next six weeks or whatever, we're going to do it again." If we started to capture that data and say, "Wow, every time I give a test on Tuesday, Carrie makes a B, but if I give it on a Wednesday morning, she makes an A. That's a data point that is relevant. Why is it relevant? I don't know, and maybe I don't even care. Maybe what I need to do is start collecting and capturing that data so that I can apply it to make my teaching practice better.
I think just honing in on we have mountains of data that just goes un-looked at. I know it makes people feel uncomfortable to say, "Okay, we're going to start combing the data about students." Well, it's not that we're going to start advertising to students. It's not that we're going to start selling your data. It's that we're going to look at what we do as teachers, we're going to understand the results of that practice, and we're going to apply different measures so that we can sharpen that practice to make sure we get the best results for the students. To me, I think it's really what teachers have done for years. It's just taking the technological tools we have available and applying them to those practices.
Carrie Watkins: It's basically being able to personalize the instruction a little bit better to the class as a whole based on what you find out, and also, specifically to the students as you find things that work differently or better based on the information that you know. Like you said, a lot of teachers have been doing this for a very long time.
Jason Curtis: That's right.
Carrie Watkins: But the technology has gotten to a point where it can really help them scale that. In your opinion, what do you think is the most interesting thing happening in education? We talked a little bit about data, but is it that? Is it something completely different?
Jason Curtis: I think the personalization of learning, which ties definitely to the data, but leveraging technology in a way that allows us to personalize instruction, I think it's big, and I think it's kind of something that's flying under the radar right now. I can remember when I was in the classroom, there was an expectation that we had this personalized learning environment for all the kids where we were kind of gathering data. We were looking at kids and saying, "Okay, what does Carrie need? What does Jason need? How can I adjust this lesson for her or for him?" That was all done by hand. Now, I think using technology, we're going to able to really personalize instruction in a way that benefits kids in a fundamental and immediate way.
Carrie Watkins: Have you seen any tools or have you seen your faculty use any tools that you think really do this well?
Jason Curtis: I think there are emerging softwares that allow this to happen at different levels. The thing that comes to mind immediately is Khan Academy, because it really does personalize instruction. You're presented with the content. They check for understanding. If you score this way, you go this way on the path. If you score that way, you go that way on the path. A lot of software companies are saying, "Hey, this is the way to go." I think we definitely will see that. I think one of the things that makes teachers a little nervous is when they see that kind of thing they think, well, now I'll be replaced. In reality, the teacher's role will absolutely change as time goes on to be one more of a facilitator. We could never replace a teacher in the classroom. We can't replace good classroom instruction. We can't do that using technology. We do want to see teachers change their role to where they can actually utilize this good technology and put kids on these individualized learning path for success.
Carrie Watkins: The teacher still needs to be there to identify the need and really figure out the best way to reach that student using the data or the software or the platform as a tool, as a help to finding that. Yeah, that one-on-one instruction that the faculty member maybe now has a little bit more time to provide that student, you can't replace that.
Jason Curtis: Absolutely.
Carrie Watkins: From the Hockaday School in Dallas, an all-girl school, and you guys have a laptop program from middle school and upper school, as well. What are some things that make the Hockaday School stand out?
Jason Curtis: I think about our school, and the things that pop out in my head, after being there five years, is we have teachers who have a real passion for the work that they do. We have a very rigorous curriculum. As the girls go through, there may be times where it's hard to meet the needs of the curriculum or the expectations of the curriculum. What I see is we have a faculty that is very supportive of making sure the girls have what they need to get from point A to point B. I think that when you're in a learning community that has a real passion for teaching students, that translates to the kids, and the kids end up with this passion for learning themselves.
Carrie Watkins: That's so important as they continue on even past the Hockaday School, into their academic career in college and then having that love of learning even further, so that's very, very important. If somebody wanted to learn more about the Hockaday School and what you guys do there, what would be the best way for them to find out more information?
Jason Curtis: I would love for them to check out the website. They are welcome to email me or give me a call. I'm always available. I'd love for them to reach out via email or phone. That'd be great.
Carrie Watkins: Well, thank you very much for your time. It was great to learn a little bit more about the Hockaday School.
Jason Curtis: Great. Thank you, Carrie.
Carrie Watkins: Hey, guys. Thanks for listening. For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your account manager. Or you can reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, Senior Digital Consultant, on Twitter @CarrieJWatkins.
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For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your account manager or you can reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, senior digital consultant, on Twitter @CarrieJWatkins.