A Researcher’s Dilemma: Changes in Teaching Practice–Whose Judgment Matters?

The issue of change as perceived by individual teachers and by a researcher poses a dilemma for the researcher. I was a researcher at Las Montanas high school for two years to study their 1:1 laptop program. I had also been at the school in 1998-1999 when the school had a computer lab program.

At Las Montanas between 2008-2011, for example, It was clear to me—and data I collected from student surveys, the media center sign out sheets for mobile carts, and extensive classroom observations confirm this point—that frequency and pervasiveness of technology use (e.g., PowerPoint lectures, Interactive White Boards, clickers, students taking notes, doing digital worksheets, and viewing video segments) had increased substantially since 1998-1999 albeit unevenly across academic subjects.

Moreover, most of the academic subject teachers I surveyed and interviewed told me that they had, indeed, made changes in how they prepared lessons and used electronic devices for administrative and instructional tasks.  They told me that they have become more efficient in record-keeping, assigning grades and homework, and teaching lessons. Additionally, they saw that their students responded well to these changes in their teaching. Now here is where the dilemma pinches me.

In my observations of lessons, I saw that teachers had, indeed, made changes in practices. They prepared lessons differently (e.g., some teachers found video snippets that students watched). During many lessons, students used computers for assignments, projects, notetaking, Internet searches, etc. These were activities that I had seen in scattered classrooms at Las Montanas a decade earlier. Yet, to me sitting in the back of the room, all of those changes added up to an enhancement of teacher-centered lessons, not a move toward student-centered instruction–what policymakers wanted, vendors promised, and techno-enthusiasts sought. [See, for example, Seymour Papert, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1993); Michael Hannafin and Susan Land, “The Foundations and Assumptions of Technology-Enhanced Student-centered Learning Environments,” Instructional Science, 1997, 25, pp.. 167-202].

One way out of this dilemma is to explore what each party means by “change” and then determine who judges the worth of the change. “Change” clearly meant one thing to teachers. Teachers had, indeed, made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons. Researchers such as me, however, trying to keep in mind what policymakers wanted to happen after purchasing and deploying computers, looked for fundamental changes in teaching. In my case, determining whether teachers had shifted or were in the process of shifting from traditional to non-traditional instruction in seating arrangements, lesson activities, teacher-talk, use of projects, etc.

Las Montanas teachers saw substantial incremental “changes,” while I saw little fundamental “change.” So whose judgment about change matters most? Should researchers consider changes in teachers’ work from the perspective of what policymakers intended to happen?  “Or should they be considered from the teachers’ vantage point?” David K. Cohen, “A Revolution in One Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990,  12(1),  p.312)

Researchers can publish their studies but teachers seldom tell their side of the story–although teacher-bloggers are now airing their views far more than a decade ago. Surely, teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they have indeed altered their practices incrementally and as any practitioner (lawyers, doctors, accountants) will tell you, that is very hard to do.

The truth of the matter is that the Las Montanas teachers who declared that they had changed, had clearly expanded their repertoire of practices. They blended the old with the new. They had created hybrids of innovative and traditional practices in lessons they taught. In all fairness, I must honor teachers’ incremental changes in their creating hybrids of old and new practices while, at the same time, acknowledge few shifts in fundamental patterns of teaching that designers of innovations had intended. That would be a way of reconciling this dilemma in writing about Las Montanas.

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Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

20 responses to “A Researcher’s Dilemma: Changes in Teaching Practice–Whose Judgment Matters?

  1. I am a classroom teacher and I think fairly adept with technology. I agree with your view that little has changed in the classroom beyond the perception that there has been change. We use technology in ways that simply replace an outdated technology. LCD projectors made overhead projectors obsolete, but have shifted the file cabinet many teachers, including me, from the old grey thing in the corner where I stored my overheads, to a digital file cabinet. This has been my argument for several years. I get excited when my students lead me in my learning. They are so far ahead of me in terms of use of technology. That is a small shift towards a fundamental change, but only a small one.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your examples of stability in teaching are vivid. All of us learn from our students. What we sometimes forget–at least I do–is that even with their impressive technological know-how there are huge gaps in their knowledge and experience that no new technology can fill. That is where, I believe, skilled and thoughtful teachers enter the picture.

  2. Bob Calder

    A conversation from today suggested a metric. The poster had access to the copy machine budget from each course. This provided a good idea of how much each instructor had used online tools.

    I suggested that in some cases students demand paper. I’m going through that very situation right now. I suppose it’s a matter of acculturation. So in the case of Larry’s research, it would be a good idea to determine the baseline changes in home computer access and usage over the same period as the research. It may be that home use is driving the changes in teacher practice more strongly.

    • larrycuban

      I wish I had thought about using such data, Bob, when I had started the study at Las Montanas in 2008. Nice idea.

  3. Anita Hamilton

    From what I am reading here and elsewhere, the teacher’s perspective of their role in the learning environment is the pivotal difference. Teachers who believe that they are the font of all knowledge will use digital technology to perpetuate this view and will instruct students which tools to use, for which purpose and what they “need to know” to be successful in their class.
    If however, you are an educator who believes that learning is a shared experience among learners (including the education facilitator) then digital technology is merely one of the many tools available to facilitate a shared learning experience.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, I agree, Anita, that a teacher’s beliefs have a great deal to do with choices of classroom practices. So does the context–students, subject taught, school setting, etc. If the teacher, however, believes that she has changed her approach because of a new technology, a new reading program or similar innovation and you, as an outsider steeped in that innovation, see superficial changes–whose judgment should matter the most. That is the dilemma.

  4. cheryl blum

    As a teacher they want me to use more technology in the classroom. There is a mindset that I can immediately change without the necessary training to help me integrate the technology into the classroom. Would we expect our students to know algebra just because they are sitting in an algebra class? Why is there an expectation that teachers should automatically be able to use technology becuase they put 4 computers in my classroom?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment, Cheryl. I am assuming that the questions you ask are rhetorical. Were teachers at your school consulted at all about putting computers in classrooms? That is not a rhetorical question.

      • cheryl blum

        No we weren’t consulted about computers in the classroom. One day they appearred because of the cry, “we need technology in the classroom”, “We need to keep or students current”. Many of those computers never get used because there has been no professional development.

        The problem as I see it is that teachers are not considered experts in our fields by administration and ever more so by the general public. They look to the outside for the solutions and then there is a mandate and teachers scramble to implement without professional development.

        My district has had the same professional development offerings for the past 12 years….mostly geared to the new teacher.

      • larrycuban

        I am sorry to hear about you and colleagues not being consulted about buying and deploying computers. A sad story too often heard.

  5. Ann Ware

    The educational research community seems to know the evidence-based strategies that result, in most case cases, positive student outcomes, e.g., Visible Learning, John Hattie (2009). The ability to determine which of the strategies are best for the specific school educational community and then how/if technology tools/resources can further enable those strategies supporting both an engaging and results-oriented learning environment seems to provide for the development of a common language for related professional learning. The research-based approach with potential tools (maybe technology) that foster the fundamental and cultural change necessary, again, for both engaging and results-oriented learning environments for today’s learner.

  6. Cal

    “Yet, to me sitting in the back of the room, all of those changes added up to enhancement of teacher-centered lessons, not a move toward student-centered instruction–what policymakers wanted, vendors promised, and techno-enthusiasts sought. ”

    But aren’t those two different questions? If you asked the same question, wouldn’t you get the same answer?

    Teachers, has introduction of technology created a student-centered classroom, in which students drive their own learning and teachers merely guide them?

    Teachers: hahahahahahaha! Er, no. It hasn’t.

    If the policymakers believed that introduction of technology would change teachers practice towards a more student-centered classroom, then they were wrong. That seems pretty unambiguous, and it doesn’t mean you have to deny the teachers’ reality. Yes, technology has changed their practice, particularly in preparation and delivery of curriculum. But no, it did not change their practice from teacher-centered to student-centered.

  7. I am a classroom teacher as well, and my question is from a little different perspective. Are there others out there who are required to “follow the curriculum,” which means teaching the textbook content the way the textbook presents the concepts, across the content areas, leaving no opportunity in the day for project-based learning? I am wondering how many teachers need more support from their administration/district in striking out from the ties that bind us to the teacher edition, in order to utilize premium planning time to switch our thinking and our lessons to the project-based orientation.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the questions, Peggie. The bind you find yourself in is very familiar for those teachers who view teaching and learning more broadly beyond using a text aligned with state tests. Others will have to respond to your questions.

  8. Iaviator

    Most of our research tends to be relatively short term and focused on common outcomes whereas the long-term outcomes tend to be very diffuse and hard to collate even when there are quite powerful individual stories. Specifically, I have been most impressed with how technology exposure in school and the opportunities to use technology expressively and creatively has impacted a couple of my own offspring and some of their classmates. I don’t know of a way to measure the extent to which others in their classes were similarly impacted– but suspect those outcomes were closer to the “magic” that policy makers seem to expect but in a much shorter time frame. (I have in mind a 10 to 20 year window.) Those musings also remind me that irrespective of school experiences, some have greater opportunities than others to take what is learned in school to life experiences. My kids were also fortunate enough to be in a university laboratory school where I think there were greater degrees of freedom for teachers and students alike.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment. I do wonder, however, about your statement: “I have been most impressed with how technology exposure in school and the opportunities to use technology expressively and creatively has impacted a couple of my own offspring and some of their classmates.” How can you sort out the effects of home, peers, and school that you see in your children? In my mind, they are thoroughly entangled and attributing what you see to only one of those factors is a big leap.

  9. I think Cheryl has identified a critical point in noting the lack of trust exhibited by policy makers and the general public in the teacher as expert. The pressure to invest so hugely on technology in schools never came from ordinary teachers. It came from a combination of the industry, policy makers and others, most worryingly with an increasingly anti-schools agenda. The best articulation of this I’ve read is by Neil Selwyn, of London Knowledge Lab, whose chapter in the OECD report (‘Inspired by Technology, Driven by Pedagogy’) is an outstanding analysis that certainly matches my teaching, research and industry experience.

    The teacher as expert has been steadily undermined since the sixties and people seem to forget that there are teachers (one could argue that is how one would define a teacher) who through study, effort and crucially over time, actually know a great deal more than those they teach. Which is of course, why intelligent students are drawn to them. We used to call them scholars.

    • larrycuban


      Thanks for the comment on Cheryl’s response about teachers as mechanics rather than experts. Also thanks for the reference to Neil Selwyn’s chapter in the OECD report.

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