When I began teaching U.S. and world history in 1956 at Glenville High School (Cleveland, Ohio), there were many technological aids that I had available and used often in my five classes each day. Seven years later, when I left Glenville to train returned Peace Corp Volunteers to teach at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C., I had added a few more items to my technological repertoire. At no time in those years did I ask myself whether they were productive, (i.e., did they get students to learn more, faster, and better?) or efficient (i.e., did I teach more, faster, and better?). They were available, I tried them out in lessons, and I used them to help me teach the content and skills that I wanted students to learn. Period.
Between 1956-1963, every day I used the blackboard, the textbook, and the ditto machine to make student hand-outs (ah, just typing in the phrase brings back memories of smelling alcohol and purple stained fingers from handling those “spirit masters”). For the blackboard, I even used different colored chalk to make diagrams and draw pictures to make a central point of the lesson.
Every few weeks, I would use a film-strip projector and film strips that were available in the social studies department or the district’s audio-visual department located downtown. Once a month or so, I would borrow a film from the Cleveland library or the district’s collection and use the 16mm projector available to the Glenville social studies department. Using a film projector was a hassle and time-eater. I had to sign up for the projector because there was only one for the entire social studies department, get it from the department storeroom, and then wheel the cart and projector into my classroom. Then I had to thread the film onto the projector reels, preview it so I could prepare a study-guide for students, and then show it to the students–without the machine breaking down.
No instructional television. No computers. No tape recorders. No VCR or DVD players. No TV monitors hanging from the wall or ceiling. And no attendance or grade-book software for efficient recording of absences and points students have earned.
For the most part, my history lessons were initially wholly teacher-directed (e.g., lectures, reliance upon the textbook, dittoed “study guides,” occasional film or film strip) but slowly I began to include a mix of student-centered activities (e.g., small-group work, projects, debates on controversial issues, students doing independent research).
Did I change my teaching because of research studies? Did new technologies change my teaching? Hardly. I changed my teaching as I learned from trial and error what seemed to “work” with my students (e.g., were they engaged? Did they ask questions about the content I taught? Did they use evidence to support their opinions?). I changed my teaching because I trusted what I learned from my colleagues at Glenville and elsewhere who told me what worked for them and how they did it.
Why did change occur slowly? Teaching five history classes a day with a total load of 150 students kept me busy from the moment I got to school at 7:30 AM to the end of the seventh period at 3 PM, when students came to my room to ask about assignments or just talk with me. This 20-something teacher in the late-1950s would go home bone-tired. It is that organizational context of the age-graded school in which I lived then that shaped to a large degree what I did daily in room 235 at Glenville High School.
But not only did the organizational context influence what I did every day in my classroom. My beliefs about how history should be taught, what my Glenville students should learn, how students learn best in groups of 30 or more, and truth be told, which historical topics I enjoyed teaching also shaped what I did in daily lessons.
The organizational context remained the same for the years I worked at Glenville but my beliefs slowly changed as I experimented with new content, different classroom tasks, and yes, the varied technologies of the day. And those technologies became integral to my daily lessons. They helped me do what I felt was necessary to communicate important knowledge and help students acquire essential skills.
Looking back to the late-1950s and early 1960s classroom technologies from the vantage point of 2013 surely makes teaching seem, well, paleolithic. (For a romp through history of classroom devices see Jeff Dunn’s photos and descriptions).
With increased accessibility to desktop computers, laptops, tablets, mobile devices and apps galore in and out of schools, both teachers and students have a potpourri of electronic devices that an earlier generation of teachers raised on scarcity of “new” technologies lacked (e.g., one film projector for an entire high school social studies department, limited availability of films). Still, then as now, regardless of scarcity or abundance of technological devices, one common issue faced teachers every decade: Given how schools are organized for instruction and given the beliefs that teachers bring to the lessons they teach, how does any new or old technology help or hinder both classroom instruction and what has to be taught?