I overheard the following exchange between two junior-high students yesterday. (I wasn’t actively eavesdropping; simply trying to navigate the hallway between classes..sort of like a salmon swimming upstream.)
Student #1: Dude, I heard we have a sub for English.
Student #2: Awesome. That means we’ll have no work to do.
At that point, I was able to jump my salmon run for the upper river, but the students’ terse yet thought-provoking conversation got me thinking: what is it about a sub situation that prods kiddos to equate a substitute teacher with a free-for-all? There’s still a task to be addressed, work to be completed, and an outcome to be achieved. It’s not like it’s a study hall or a three-ring circus or an ecstasy-infused rave, right? (Okay, I know the kids think it will be, but the amount of work on a teacher’s part that goes into prepping for a substitute is almost more work than taking the personal or professional day. Simply recalling that time I had jury duty causes me to break out into a cold sweat as I write this.)
As I tend to do, I started to overthink it. Was the comment by Student #2 a passing, not-so-serious one? Or did it speak to something greater and more problematic with the whole notion of substitution?
In algebraic terms, substitution refers to simply putting numbers where the letters are. For example, What is x + x/5 when x = 15? If we substitute x for 15 in the equation, we arrive at the following: 15 + 15/3 = 15 + 5 = 20.
The final equation looks different, but it’s essentially the same thing--just dressed in a different costume. (Like a substitute teacher.)
If you’re lactose intolerant, you can opt for rice milk or soy milk as a substitute for dairy. The act of substitution here takes the place of another. In this instance, however--as those of us lucky to not be lactose intolerant know--no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise, there’s really no substitute for from-the-cow milk, no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise. I’m not denigrating the lactose-intolerant; I myself am peanut intolerant, and no amount of chocolate-covered, roasted edamame is going to be as salty and satisfying as a Snickers bar--or so I discovered the one time I ingested one. (And by the way, it was so worth it.)
As I also tend to do, I’ve now wandered off my intended path and into the woods (or out of my stream and into a tributary, if I’m still going with the salmon metaphor). Anyway, my point here is that no matter how PC or self-delusional we choose to be, let’s face it: a substitute (whether it’s a teacher, algebra, soy, or roasted edamame) is never really quite as good as the real thing.
Which brings me to the S in SAMR...
If you’re unfamiliar with the acronym, I’m guessing you’ve probably spent the last five years or so trapped under a house (and in that case, you’ve got more pressing concerns than an acronym), or that it’s been on your radar and you haven’t gotten around to exploring it just yet. If that’s the case then, and before you read any further, I strongly encourage you to watch this quick and painless overview of SAMR.
Here’s the thing, though. I see a lot of us stepping onto that first rung of the ladder--the S (or substitution) level--patting ourselves on the back, and setting up camp there. In other words, we take what was once a paper worksheet and transfer it into a Google Doc. Or we exchange Google Forms for our paper quizzes. Or (and I swear I’ve seen this) we use Google Classroom to post our recycled Word Docs from last-year-at-the-same-time’s weekly homework.
There’s nothing wrong with taking that first step on the ladder. But when we stay there, either afraid to or unable to or unwilling to climb higher, then we’ve created an old classroom in a new way.
The psychiatric definition of substitution is the "turning from an obstructed form of behavior to a different and often more primitive expression of the same tendency" [emphasis mine]. Here, the "obstructed form of behavior" is the paper version; the "same tendency" is the idea that making something digital makes it new.
While we may create digital tasks to replace the paper ones, we’re still doing old things. We’re doing them differently, sure, but we’re not doing them in a challenging or engaging manner. A digital worksheet is still just a worksheet.
We need to modify and redefine our tasks instead of substituting them, and we can do that by heeding the call of 21st-century learning: strive for creativity and collaboration. Let’s take a book report, for example. Instead of typing it into a Google Doc (substitution) and having students use Easy Bib or a thesaurus add-on in conjunction with it (augmentation), encourage them to work collaboratively in Google Slides to create a literary walk (modification). Even better: allow them to use a video tool of their choice to create a book trailer (redefinition).
Substitution is a poor imitation of the original. (And just to be clear: I’m not book-ending this post by saying substitute teachers are a poor imitation. I’ve known some pretty amazing substitute teachers, as I’m sure you have.) When it comes to digital task design, however, we need to dump the substitute, because--and I quote--there’s really “no work to do.”
Most substitute teachers, though, aspire to something more--to have their own classrooms. And that’s how we should view the S in SAMR: it’s a good place to start; but let’s not get stuck there.
Let’s aspire to something greater.