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Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

Are We There Yet?

GPS Devices and Educational Change

Many drivers have now traded in their rather thick, dog-eared map books for the more compact, efficient and fun-to-use GPS receiver. Not only does the availability of voice command technology replace the need for reading complex maps while driving, many GPS devices can also direct you to local points of interest, drastically reduce time spent asking for directions, as well as the embarrassment of admitting that you’re lost (particularly useful for those of us who hate stopping to ask for directions)!

Like many new technologies, a GPS receiver is so simple to use that we are sometimes oblivious to how complex the inner workings of the system actually are, and what is required to make it work with such accuracy and efficiency. There are, however, a couple of important and somewhat fascinating things about this technology that—you guessed it—may be helpful in a metaphorical way as we continue down the road to educational transformation.

First, the GPS device in your car must receive signal information from at least 4 of the 24 working Global Positioning Satellites that circle the earth every day. The receiver collects and compares the data in order to determine where on the Earth’s surface you are standing. Without information from several different sources, an accurate reading would not be possible.

The second important thing has to do with the information that is held by the receiver itself. Although a GPS receiver does not actually send a signal, it does have a pre-loaded map of the area in which you’re traveling in its memory. As the signal is received the GPS receiver overlays your location data onto the map, allowing the device to provide turn-by-turn directions. This also makes more complex calculations of speed and time of arrival possible (and invaluable!) As I discovered in driving through a fairly new set of subdivisions, however, it is essential that an accurate and current map of the area is loaded into your GPS devices.

In addition to the everyday utility of GPS devices, especially for those who travel a great deal in unfamiliar territories, the way the technology works provides some powerful metaphorical tools for thinking about educational change.

First, I would argue that the education of a Canadian citizenry is a much more contentious enterprise than it was 50 years ago. Our society has matured to the point where the sheer complexity of life both inside and outside the schoolhouse has increased immensely. As educators, and as those who make policy for educators, we need a set of tools to help keep us on track and headed in the right direction.

Beyond that, however, thinking about change through the lens of the GPS metaphor suggests at least two other important questions. First, are we using more than one or two sources of data to make decisions about future paths, or are we limiting the source and type of information that we are collecting? If, for example, our policy decisions are being made by looking at just one type of annual test, no matter how well constructed it may be, we run the risk of being misguided, if not misinformed. For sure, we are living in data-drenched educational communities, but how diverse are the forms of data that are being collected and used for decision-making? Lots more to say here!

The second question that emerges from the GPS metaphor has to do with accuracy and relevance of the maps and models that are being used to guide our vision of this place called school. A great deal of new and exciting research on learning, brain function and effective teaching has been done in the past 15-20 years. Couple that with the way that technology has transformed ways and means of communication, interaction and collaboration and you suddenly have a multitude of new paths and avenues that needed to be added to our map! Yet again, there seems to be a great deal of reluctance to explore how these new ideas and technologies might take us in a whole new direction.

Like GPS technology, data in the absence of accurate and detailed visions of all of the routes open to us in terms of educating our young people is simply going to get us lost, frustrated and late for the 21st century. Perhaps, alongside the development of better positioning tools, we need to begin in earnest the work of remapping the educational landscape so that our data collection projects might lead us to new and valuable places.


Are we there yet?

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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