Monday, January 4, 2016

The Big Blank Wall - My 2015 IDEA Talk

A while back I had the privilege of sharing a short "IDEA Talk" at the 2015 WVIZ/PBS Ideastream Education Conference.

My talk was tilted "The Big Blank Wall" which refers to a particularly challenging feature from my first classroom. I spoke on how easy it is for us as educators to confuse process with purpose, and our need to embrace edtech change.

You can watch the short (7 minute) video below, read the full post, and then ask yourself what is your "Big Blank Wall"?

In addition to the recorded video, below is a copy of the original post I wrote on this topic several years ago on one of my other sites:

The Big Blank Wall: Embracing EdTech Change

Recently I had a chance to visit the classroom where I first began teaching some 20 odd years ago. The building has not been a school for many years, but instead has been used for storage and offices. Now even that is coming to an end as the building will soon be gutted and demolished.

I wanted to get one more chance to see where it all began for my career in education. I stood in the empty, dusty room and could picture the rows of students, the overhead projector (no such thing as data projectors then), and me 20 years younger (and at least 20 pounds lighter). And I could picture the decorations that used to be on the back wall. The big blank wall above the lockers.

And with that memory came a reminder I think we all need to hear from time to time. A story about educational ruts, narrow thinking, and forgetting the purpose. This is something we see often with EdTech, since technology has a way of changing much quicker than people may be willing to keep up with.

Here’s the story...

I first began teaching in 1992 in Room 301 on the third floor of North Canton Middle School. It was an old building that had no air conditioning, few electrical outlets, but very tall ceilings. In the back of my room was a row of lockers, and above the lockers was a good seven or eight feet of nothingness. Just a giant, blank wall.

As a new teacher just out of college, I did not have much money to spend on room decorations. I needed something very big, and very cheap, to cover the large space. So I got creative. I spoke to the local movie theater and several local video rental stores (yes, we used to have lots of those as well). I asked if they could give me their old movie posters when they were done with them so I could use them in my classroom. They were happy to help out (perhaps through pity) and soon I had a constant supply of posters.

The movie posters were a great way to cover up the wall, brighten up the room, and engage the interest of the students. Better yet, since I got new posters each month, I would give away the old posters as prizes that the students could earn. It was a great solution all around.

Then several years later something changed. To accommodate the growth in enrollment, our school district built a new high school. This meant our middle school would now be moving to the old high school, which for us was newer and bigger, and I would be moving to a new classroom.

My new classroom was very nice. It had air conditioning, and brighter lights, and more outlets, and new whiteboards … and lower ceilings. As I unpacked and set up my room I quickly noticed the “problem”. There was no big blank wall available in my new room. How was I going to hang up my movie posters. I thought through all the options. Maybe I could cover up one of the whiteboards, or perhaps I could hang them sideways, or could I possibly stick them to the ceiling?

And then it hit me. What on earth was I thinking? The only reason I had put up movie posters in my old class was to cover a giant empty wall, which I no longer had. Sure they had served me well, had brighten the room, and provided the students with some rewards to earn. But they weren’t the purpose (to create an engaging classroom). They were merely the process to reach that purpose at the time.

Thankfully I realized this with my movie posters. But I’ll admit, it was difficult to let them go. I had come to rely on them as a way to decorate my room and motivate my students. They were safe and comfortable and part of my routine. But my world had changed, and it was time for me to change, and grow, and try new things.

It is a dangerous thing when we become so attached to a process, that we lose sight of the purpose. This can put us into educational ruts, make us narrow minded, and cause us to be resistant to change.

The same thing can be especially true with technology in education. For example, consider printing.

Printing is a technology process that has gone through many changes over my career. When I first began teaching we still had (I am not making this up) mimeograph machines. You know, the ones you hand-cranked, made everything blue, and had a headache-inducing smell. Since then I have seen printing evolve from personal deskjet printers to high-capacity, high-speed network copiers that do double-sided, cover sheets, stapling, and hole punching.

And now that is all being threatened by change. Over the last couple of years we have been getting an influx of devices that don’t communicate easily (or at all) with these printing machines. We have Chromebooks, Nexus tablets, iPads, smartphones, and thousands of other BYOD items brought in by our students and staff.

And despite the benefits of these devices, some people are always quick to ask the famous question... “How are they going to print?”

But how about the question, “Do they need to print at all?”

If we go back to the ideas of process and purpose, we realize that printing is merely a process. The purpose it serves is to display and share student work, instructional content, and other information. And there are many, many processes that can do that now.

With Google Docs a student can write the rough draft of their term paper, digitally share it with their teacher, the teacher can add marginal comments for feedback, the student can edit the document, the teacher can see changes in the revision history, and the final product can be completed and graded without ever seeing a single piece of paper.

And information can be shared many other ways than printing such as through presentations with Google Slides, videos on YouTube, posts on Blogger, web pages with Sites, 3D models in Sketchup, live broadcasts with a Hangout, and much more.

Besides printing, we can also get “big blank wall” thinking with many other processes...

Consider the purpose of providing instruction to students. The traditional process is to teach from the front of the class while students take notes. A new process may be flipping your class by recording your instruction on video through a Google Hangout so that students can watch that at home. Then you can help the students work through the application of the material and dive deeper when in class.

Or consider the purpose of providing technology access for all students. For years the traditional process has been a few computers in the back of each class and/or a couple computer labs that teachers can sign up for. A new process is to break away from uniform, but limited, school-owned computers, and to embrace BYOD, allowing students to bring in their own web-enabled devices and access cloud services such as Google Apps.

Or consider the purpose of assessing student progress. Traditionally our process has been paper and pencil tests, which take time to grade, and put unfortunate space between the form and feedback. However a new process can be to use Google Forms to provide students with online assessments which can be graded automatically with a script such as Flubaroo. By making quizzes digital, teachers can increase the frequency of formative assessments and students can get immediate, valuable feedback on their progress.

In all of these situations though, the purpose must remain the focus. No process in and of itself is either good or bad. They are just tools. Just because a process is old does not mean it is no longer valuable. Nor is every new technology appropriate for our needs.

The key though is to focus on the “why” so we will be open to trying new “hows”. No matter how good our intentions, we are creatures of habit, and can easily blind ourselves. When the big blank wall changes, we can’t be so in love with our movie posters that we can’t change as well. Because whether we like it or not (or realize it or not) our educational world is changing. Changes in economic situations, changes in homelife, changes in future job opportunities, changes in current educational options.

Although I missed my movie posters and big blank wall, the change pushed me to grow, and stretch, and discover new, exciting, and wonderful things. And of course by being a learner, I became a better teacher. As we always will.

So how about you? What big blank walls are changing in your schools, and what movie posters are you, or others, hanging onto? What new processes are available to meet your purposes? Leave a comment below to share your story.

Post by Eric Curts. Bring me to your school, organization, or conference with over 50 PD sessions to choose from. Connect with me on Twitter at and on Google+ at


  1. My district is still in the middle of embracing BYOD. It seemed like people were really starting to let their walls down against it when there was this resurgence of distrust and negativity toward students using their own devices in the classrooms. A middle school is a difficult place to let go of the fear of losing control. How do we find a middle ground with BYOD and student trust? There are so many teachers on the cusp of trying new things that require greater tech in their classrooms, but are still afraid to open students up to using their own devices for access.

  2. Nice talk Eric. Your Big Blank Wall scenario was a great introduction to discussing process vs purpose in education. Thanks!

  3. Very nice! I'm going to share this with our staff during our next monthly Tech Update.