Answering the “Why” Before the “How”

Last semester I examined the ISTE Teacher Standards through the Digital Education Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University. This semester I will start my exploration of the ISTE Coaching Standards, paying particular attention to the third standard, Digital Age Learning Environments. As I analyze various resources in the coming weeks, I will be viewing them from the lens of how to formulate an action plan to implement Google Apps for Education (GAFE) in a school I’m consulting with. As it stands, the school I’m examining currently employs a rather disjointed collection of tools to complete any number of tasks; Blackboard for grading, Edmodo for posting assignments, Outlook email for submitting work, LibGuides for content curation, Padlet for collaborating, the list goes on.

Tech Balance

While all of these tools serve an excellent purpose, how are they working together to create a well-rounded, transformative experience for our students? Tech coach, Josiah Hodgett from the Shell Lake School District writes, “GAFE is a technology tool that can help you to both inform and instruct. Coming from a theory like TPACK [Technological, Pedagogical, Content Knowledge] – it’s time to look at the interplay of Tech – Pedagogy – Content and determine how they impact each other in the context of YOUR classroom” (2014). How are these elements; the technology, the content and the pedagogy, working together to provide students with meaningful, driven learning opportunities? Mishra and Koehler remind us of Vygotsky and Dewey and their focus on the critical importance of interplay within the classroom (2003). Shulman asks how content and pedagogy are related, we can then ask ourselves how they are not only related but so deeply and critically intertwined (1986). How does the content influence the pedagogy, how does the pedagogy influence the technology, how does the technology influence the content? How are all of those elements working together to create cohesion and understanding? Are the tools helping or hindering that cohesion?

Shifting Focus

As I write these words and reflect on the work of others, I can’t help but wonder if I’m too focused on the tool. Do I want GAFE to become a part of the school community so intensely that I am blindly walking the yellow brick road towards a gilded tool that does not, in and of itself, have anything to do with my students’ learning and understanding? Polin and Moe warn us that “tools alone are not a sufficient plan for implementation and results,” yet the “focus has remained on tools rather than pedagogies” (2015). How do I keep myself from falling into that trap? Or, rather, how do I dig myself out of that hole? How do I shift the focus from the tool (GAFE) to the philosophy behind how the tool could transform and leverage the learning happening inside the classroom? In an effort to shift my focus from the “how” to the “why,” I discovered educator, Marcie Lewis’ examination of how GAFE can support TPACK:

  • Lewis noted that GAFE provides teachers a common language that can help to support their technical knowledge. She goes on to say that “with greater technological knowledge, teachers are better able to see where technology can be selected to work together with their pedagogical knowledge and content knowledge” (2015).
  • Lewis states that GAFE helps to bring together both the product of learning, as well as the process of learning: “The [teacher’s] role can shift to being a facilitator and guider of the learning process, rather than the keeper of knowledge (pedagogical knowledge)” (2015).
  • Finally, Lewis has observed that the “sweet spot in TPACK is reached when the focus is not on the technology but on the harmonious blending of the technology, the content, and the pedagogy” (2015). This happens when students are fluent in the tools they are using, shifting the focus away from the technology and back to the actual learning.

These initial ideas are enough to help me start to see a bit of light in the hole, a glimmer into refocusing on the “why” instead of the “how.” If I can successfully answer the “why” and eventually reach the point of implementation, I know I’ll be doing it for the right reasons. Reasons that might have a chance of withstanding the tech tool graveyards of unanswered questions, quick decisions and “hows” instead of “whys.”


Hodgett, J. (2014, April 16). GAFE Training [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Lewis, M. (2015, April 12). Why can GAFE be so powerful? [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2003). Not “what” but “how”: Becoming design-wise about educational technology. What teachers should know about technology: Perspectives and practices, 122.

Polin, L., & Moe, R. (2015, in publication)  Situating TPACK in mediated practice.  In K. Graziano & S. Bryners-Bogey’s Handbook for Educational Technology Teaching.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational researcher, 4-14.

5 thoughts on “Answering the “Why” Before the “How”

  1. Hello Becky; thank you for writing a very thoughtful piece about your emergent thoughts regarding GAFE. When I first read and was working through, my thoughts were, “Hmmm…that’s a tool, and that’s okay, but why this tool over others? Is it about a tool or is it about a framework or is it about something else?” And then within the paragraph you noted the same questions and the rest looked like a very helpful dialogue to understand the space you inhabit right now. And that’s a great space to be in (it is what EdTech researchers Jen Ross and Amy Collier have taken to calling “Not Yet-ness”

    Finding the Lewis article that shows how GAFE is a representation of TPACK is a great start. The follow-up is to determine how your specific needs in your practice would benefit from GAFE. You get into the administrative blubber with multiple LMS/CMS systems, and that’s an important consideration (especially for an action plan), but at this earlier stage it might be worth musing longer on how GAFE technology can augment contents and pedagogy. Think about this — in special education, we start from a pedagogical perspective (helping students to a space of access and equity is a change in how we teach), and technology is sometimes too often relegated to a tool in this space because it is the dependent variable to the pedagogy. In a ‘traditional’ classroom we start from the contents (Krebs Cycle in Biology, gerunds in ELA) and technology again can be a tool dependent to the contents. That was a concern I saw in the Lewis article that furthers the idea of shared vocabulary — vocab here is conflated with increased understanding of tools…but TPACK is not about the tools. Where is the space for synthesis? What is the manifestation that first off understands what is independent and what is dependent, and then engages a strategy to play through that?

    There is evidence of your interest in GAFE, and you are exploring where that comes from. It might not be purely pedagogical or about teaching and learning, and that’s fine — because there is an argument for ease and economy as an element of successful education practice. At the same time, for any work to be able to fully reach its capabilities, it needs to be multi-faceted. So as you explore and determine how much of GAFE is about shoring up time and how much is about unwrapping a cumbersome system and how much is about the boots-to-the-ground teaching/learning experience, realize your answers might be different than you anticipate. The goal then becomes to create the arguments that show the evidence in all three. GAFE is great in that it can provide one-click options for what it seems like your profession is doing in a myriad of disparate places. That could provide time for teachers. Both of those are arguments of ease and economy, good arguments. But be weary of the slippery slope that says, “And with more time we can do pedagogy!” Rather, how does GAFE directly influence the learning — what are the affordances of GAFE as a practical manifestation of an ideal environment that make it beneficial? Why was it designed in this manner to idealize this belief? When should we use it at its full power?

    I greatly appreciate your musing on this subject.

  2. As a teacher who also dreams of using Google Apps for Education in my school, I have also wondered if I blindly see these tools as a magical answer to education. I do think you made a very astute comment that content, pedagogy and technology have a harmonious blending when “when students are fluent in the tools they are using, shifting the focus away from the technology and back to the actual learning.” This statement made me think about GAFE in that these tools are clearly designed with a user in mind, supporting your point. When students have used these tools in my classroom on a small scale, I have seen a far greater focus on the learning than the troubleshooting of the tool. That being said, I think it would be helpful to break down why that might be. What do these tools offer that you ultimately see as paramount to the TPACK model to meet student learning needs? Student ownership? Self-directed learning? Collaboration? Communication? What makes the less harmonious technologies problematic? So again, if the focus goes back to how this technology supports content and pedagogy, could you investigate GAFE through the lens of the specific content it supports and how it supports good pedagogical practices?

  3. Becky:
    Your thoughtful blog provided insight on one thing I have been wrestling with- the technology factor and learning. Your quote by Lewis, “that the sweet spot in TPACK is reached when the focus is not on the technology but on the harmonious blending of the technology, the content, and the pedagogy” (2015). This happens when students are fluent in the tools they are using, shifting the focus away from the technology and back to the actual learning.” led me to think about the students at my school. Students are still struggling with the technology tools and it’s difficult to assess the student’s knowledge of the subject matter. Alongside the students’ struggles of learning the technology, so are there struggles for teachers. Our school district has access to Google Apps for Education and I’ve noticed not all educators use the programs. Just a few of us are utilizing the apps or have attended district training. I am sure there are various reasons why educators have not accessed the programs. Maybe there needs to be more training on “how” to effectively use GAFE. But more importantly, as you mentioned, why should students use GAFE? You asked some thoughtful questions about implementing this in your school. Thank you for sharing, Becky.

  4. Becky, your post clearly showed your thought process and development around this topic. I really appreciated this part, “create a well-rounded, transformative experience for our students” as a way to focus your thoughts. While focusing on the tools isn’t the key point, we do end up having to understand the tool and integrate it well if we want to “create a well-rounded, transformative experience.” Your words here reveal that you are intentionally unpacking the problem at your school–laying the pieces out–and integrate the readings to find a better way forward. I look forward to the continued work and how future reading may further impact your direction. We need interplay between the different components, and you are bolstering the “why” component.

  5. Yes, I love this focus on WHY. It is so tempting to focus on technology or a particular tool to help solve an instructional problem, but we all know that teaching and learning is much more complex than this. Also pulling back to the WHY will help to ensure we are making smart, intentional decisions. I look forward to hearing how you, someone who is leading this work in your work, will help others to understand this shift in thinking. Supporting others to understand this frame will improve focus and outcomes drastically. I echo the question around “why GAFE?” and appreciate Annie’s more delineated questions.

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