Meet the members: Catherine Newington from Empower Learning

Meet the members: Catherine Newington from Empower Learning

Catherine Newington – Primary School Teacher and founder of Empower Learning

Empower Learning supports educators to make sense of the overwhelm associated with digital technology. It helps educators recognise their role in utlising technology to harness and transform today’s learning environment.

Technology is redefining, changing and shaping education at such a rapid pace that educators cannot keep up. Too much emphasis has been placed on digital products. Teachers are left to navigate them and expected to implement innovative practices.

There isn’t a ‘magic bullet’ that guarantees successful learning with technology. It starts by supporting educators in understanding how technology has changed the role of the teacher and learner, and what practices need to be put in place to maximize learning spaces.

Without the tailored support to help make sense of education in this rapidly evolving digital world, educators will be overwhelmed and technology won’t be utilized and customized to complement learning in today’s climate. Empower Learning provides the foundation for teachers to understand how the learning platform, teaching style and environment will influence the implementation of digital technology for learning – because behind every device is a teacher, empowering their learners.

What was the catalyst for starting Empower Learning?

I am extremely passionate about digital technology and how it can most effectively be used within the classroom. Sharing innovative practices that are in line with current research and curriculum standards is fundamental for teacher growth and change.

Teachers are the most value resource within education and unfortunately are overlooked – we cannot expect digital products to be successfully integrated without the right support given to educators. The success of the implementation of digital technology depends on providing support for teachers. I see teachers unaware of the fact that their role and teaching pedagogies in the 21st century classroom are the keys to digital technology success. Building teacher capacity to understand technology’s role is fundamental. There is a vast array of digital products available but the digital product or platform doesn’t matter – it is in depth knowledge and skills that are required by a teacher.

Technology in society is moving at such a rapid rate, yet the education industry is not keeping up. The gap between society and education is getting bigger. The core belief at Empower Learning is to bridge that gap. This will allow teachers to feel empowered to use technology effectively in their education setting.

You recently went to Timor L’Este to work at a school. What were the most important things you learnt there?

My trip to Timor Leste found me up in the mountains of a remote village, Remexio. The experience allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone and try something completely different – to teach children even though we did not speak the same language! I noticed 3 issues that influenced my experience and attitude towards education.

Context is fundamental yet too often overlooked

Every lesson, guaranteed I broke the chalk when writing on the blackboard. Teachers would write on the board and students sitting in rows would copy, in silence, accepting the content as gospel. We accepted the style of teaching and we quickly adapted to it. The context is which the students were learning was very different to my experience as a teacher but it works for them.

Too often digital education organisations overlook the context and provide a one size fits all product. One size does not fit all and it never will. One of the biggest limitations of current research into the use of digital technology is context. Current models exist to help teachers grasp an understanding of best practice with digital technology. Yet they fail to address that context will influence best practice. Best practice differs for every teacher and the biggest influence will be the context in which they see themselves and their students.

My naivety found it interesting that there was little or no use of technology. After conversations with locals, it came to my attention that technology was not a successful fit for this context. The village had been generously been given laptops 12 months ago – unfortunately due to humidity and the weather and the overall conditions in Remexio, the technology was failing the students. The keyboards were no longer working and needed to be replaced. Although the intention was pure, the result was not ideal. In this particular case the context was not given consideration and too many assumptions were made. Which made me contemplate this critical question – had ‘our western ways’ and education system interrupted and failed them already?

West is not best

My naivety found it interesting that there was little or no use of technology. After conversations with locals, it came to my attention that technology was not a successful fit for this context. The village had been generously been given laptops 12 months ago – unfortunately due to humidity and the weather and the overall conditions in Remexio, the technology was failing the students. The keyboards were no longer working and needed to be replaced. Although the intention was pure, the result was not ideal. In this particular case the context was not given consideration and too many assumptions were made. Which made me contemplate this critical question – had ‘our western ways’ and education system interrupted and failed them already?

When introducing digital technology to remote areas are we also giving them the support and understanding that goes with it? If we expect them to use western products are we also providing them with the knowledge of how to use those products? What is the norm in one society totally foreign and new and different in another culture if one thing is implemented there needs to be further knowledge and skills brought along too. Are we making sure the products fit their lifestyle or are we making assumptions that because it works well in our lifestyle it will be a seamless transition to another culture?

Generosity is about what you have to give

Every morning I was greeted by a small group of high school students with a homemade present. In one present was a handwritten note, broken English making not a lot of sense. The message was crystal clear – she did not have a lot to offer me, but the gifts were given with love and generosity. It was not a gift associated with a physical value, it was a gift that was given that reflected her appreciation of me coming to her village.

How does this experience inform what you will do at Empower Learning?  

The underlying message of Empower Learning is to provide support and knowledge to teachers and digital technology.

Best practice comes from the teacher. The old saying you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink is imperative more than ever. I have first hand seen educators who are very resistance to use technology because they are missing the knowledge and skills to understand it’s place. We cannot force digital technology on teachers and just hope for the best. The support needs to be on going and they need to feel supported until they are ready to go on solo.

When providing the support to educators the number factor is understanding the context in which is the technology will be implemented. Understanding the teachers experience, the institution and the leadership are important factors. And each factor will be vastly different from one institution to the next. Empower Learning is about connecting with educators and tailoring the professional development to their needs.

What’s next for Empower Learning?  

The most important step for Empower Learning is building a solid foundation for myself and the business. Empower Learning was created in early 2017.  It’s still very fresh and I have many more man-hours of blood sweat and tears to look forward to! My focus for the remainder of 2017 is to build a reputation and authority within the digital education space. I have achieved this through connecting with digital education organisations and people.

Within the near future I hope to take a leap of faith and take Empower Learning to the next level. Providing support and consultancy to education institutions is my primary goal.