Technologies I Used in My Classroom in the 1950s: Recapturing How I Taught A Half-century Ago

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?

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Technologies I Used in My Classroom in the 1950s: Recapturing How I Taught A Half-century Ago

  1. Larry, you’ve brought back some fond memories of my own teaching, which began in 1979 in Queensland, Australia, yet still used a lot of the same technologies you described here.

    I also used coloured chalk to make more engaging diagrams, and loved to borrow a film projector if I had the chance and the right film. The big tech advance in our day was the overhead projector (OHP) which supposedly was going to really change how we taught and how well students would learn.

    But, like you, I learned what worked slowly over many years, and gradually grew into a better educator.

    I think those early experiences of greatly different technology have taught me that the most important element in the classroom is a caring teacher, who could use a piece of knotted string if necessary to make a point and teach an engaging lesson.

    Thank you for reminding us of how far we’ve come, and how so much of quality education hasn’t changed at all.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Peter, for your recollections of teaching over thirty years ago in Queensland. Here’s to colored chalk and string.

  2. The UK’s education minister, Michael Gove, gave an interesting speech yesterday on The Importance of Teaching. One thing no one who actually listened to him could deny, was how important a role he believes teachers play in creating a healthy society and culture. Like you Larry, as a teacher I made entirely pragmatic, sometimes experimental choices about the technology I used and if something clearly had no beneficial effect, I didn’t use it again.

    But there is one thing about the post-PC explosion of technology in schools that concerns me deeply: how often and widely ICT has been used as a means to undermine precisely the kind of teacher/scholar Michael Gove admires. It gave us that appalling marketing ploy: the “digital native” and the equally repugnant notion that a teacher should be a “guide on the side: not a sage on the stage.” Both these ideas I still regularly encounter in commercial educational technology contexts, yet they do nothing but damage to real schools and to children.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Joe, for taking the time to comment about Michael Gove’s recent talk and your own observations about teaching and technology. The deterministic belief that “new” classroom will “transform” teacher-centered instruction–seen as bad by champions of the “new”–into student-centered instruction–seen as “good” by those very same champions, has been a steady refrain sin the introduction of the film in the early 20th century. Perhaps even before.

  3. Thanks to you Larry and Joe and Peter for your thoughts. I think this is probably the best reflection on teaching I’ve read since I started blogging (and I’ve read a few). You are all absolutely right. Proffessionals of all kinds, and people in general for that matter, get better at the things they do with experience. Despite the fascination society has presently with new technologys in education, it really is only ever a tool for instruction – never the instructor. Keep up the good work gentlemen!

  4. “This 20-something teacher in the late-1950s would go home bone-tired.” Well, as an almost 50-something new teacher, in my 3rd year teaching, I go home bone tired every day…Looks like some things never change, in spite of technological advances…

    Dave

  5. Daniel T. Pollitt

    Hello Professor Cuban,

    I am currently a doctoral candidate and middle school teacher who is using the iPad as an intervention for my dissertation. Your post speaks volumes about the nature of this current technology initiative wave of reform; let’s buy billions of dollars of iPads, with no empirical research, and just see what happens! I agree, it is scary and contradictory to what we know as teachers works in the classroom. I am curious, do you know of any recent empirical studies using the iPad? I have found plenty of blog posts from teachers and districts anxious to spend monies on them, but few actual studies. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Dan

    • larrycuban

      Dan,
      I do not know of any recent studies of the effectiveness (however defined) of iPads in primary grades, upper elementary school grades or secondary schools. If you (or any readers) know of such empirical studies please let me know.

      Moreover, if you do find such studies, look carefully at the research design, methodology,and findings to see if the study answers the researcher’s questions.

      My own two-year study of a 1:1 laptop high school is the first chapter of Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice (2013).

      • Daniel T. Pollitt

        Thanks, professor. I also have been unable to find quality empirical studies using the iPad. The few that I have found are either (1) lacking a strong design, (2) funded by book publishers, or (3) at the post-secondary level.

        For my study, I created an iPad iBook using the iBooks Author software and compared the digital text to that of a traditional textbook. 22 middle school students with learning disabilities served as my sample. I’m submitting it soon, but thus far I have not found significant differences in measures of reading comprehension or electrodermal activity for either treatments.

        I love technology, but it is scary to think of LA Unified, Chicago, and the other dozens large districts around the country investing so much money into unproven technology. Face validity does not equate to effectiveness.

      • larrycuban

        It is scary, Dan. Your study of iPads may well be one of the first such empirical studies that has paid attention to design and methodology for K-12 kids. I wish you well in your Orals.

  6. Kelly

    Teachers always like to share and ask others what worked with their students and how they accomplished it. It is the same with technology; certain teachers will try out the new technology in their district and relay the outcome to their colleagues. Teachers are always hesitant to introduce new technologies into their classroom because they don’t want to lose their personal connection to their students. They will use trial and error with the new technologies and will continue to use what works with their students to enhance classroom instruction. They won’t implement new technologies if it will hinder their classroom instruction and not benefit their students. From past experiences, we know teachers will take their time and develop their own views on technology and determine whether or not it will work for them in the classroom. Teachers learn from their own experiences and the experiences of others in their field to become better educators with the use of technology.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Kelly, for pointing out how changes often occur among teachers who learn in their own classrooms and from other colleagues who they respect.

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