Forget technology–Let’s Talk about Tools for Teaching (Karin Forssell)

Karin Forssell, directs the Learning, Design, & Technology master’s program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Her students design innovative solutions to learning problems. She studies the conditions under which teachers choose to use digital tools, and the features that make them useful.

For some teachers, the idea of incorporating technology into teaching is intimidating, to say the least. It’s complicated. It’s distracting. It breaks. It is not necessary for good teaching.

In common parlance, “technology” is a word we use to describe things that are new.  To quote Alan Kay, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”  Hence Marc Prensky’s distinction between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.”  If you were born before the advent of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, or SnapChat, you might well have a sense that they are different, uncharted, and not critical to good teaching.  By talking about technology, we invoke a sense of exciting novelty, but also untamed wilderness.  Untamed wilderness is not necessarily what a K-12 teacher or a university professor is looking for in a course.

And yet.

“Technology” is useful. The National Academy of Engineers defines it as “any modification of the natural world made to fulfill human needs and desires.”  By this definition, technology for teaching includes not only student response systems and MOOC platforms, but also lecture halls, blue books, and chalk.  All of these can help us address the challenges we face when teaching.  If the word “technology” distracts us from talking about improving instructional practices, would it perhaps be better to use a different word?

First, we can focus on the different “needs and desires” that instructors might want to address in teaching. For example, we might want to provide students with a sense of how ideas are connected through interactive representations.  Or allow them to quickly receive feedback on whether their understanding is correct.  They might need to engage with some ideas in ways that protect them emotionally, or interact with something that would be too dangerous in real life.  We might want to find out who among the students does not understand the concepts, and to explore why. Once we have identified the needs and desires, we may need new “tools.”

Unlike “technology,” the word “tool” evokes a sense of stability. Humans have used tools for thousands of years.  We use tools to provide us with leverage, or power, or the insight needed to act on a given situation.  They make us smart.  In courses, they help our students engage with the content we teach.

Tools are used by people to allow them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. They amplify human capabilities. So different tools are appropriate for different skill levels, or for individuals with different strengths.  An instructor in history would reasonably be interested in a different set than an instructor in physics, given the nature of the content being taught.

Tools are designed to solve problems. Tools make it possible for us to do things more easily, more quickly, or better.  They have handles.  Whereas “technology” often feels inscrutable, a “black box” that operates as if by magic, a tool was designed to be operated by someone.  On a well-designed tool, that handle is obvious.  Of course, not all tools are well designed.  But thinking of tools as designed allows us to get inside the head of the designer.  It suggests ways that we might create a theory of mind.  (If all else fails, it allows us to blame the designer with our own dignity intact.)  For our teaching purposes, a tool that does not do what we want and expect is perhaps not the right tool for the job.

An interesting effect of talking about tools instead of technology is that it frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that “technology” can bring. Instead, we focus on the problems we want to solve in our teaching, or the challenges we choose to take on for our own continuous improvement. The beauty of focusing on the challenges instead of the solutions is that we might uncover a variety of ways of approaching the problem.

In having conversations about the nature of teaching, learning, and our students, we grow far more than in debating the merits of “technology.”


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Looking Anew at How Teachers Teach

Today, reformers from both ends of the political spectrum push Common Core Standards into classrooms. They champion charters and more parental choice of schools. They want teachers to be evaluated  on the basis of student test scores. Policymakers, philanthropists, and vendors send tablets to classrooms. Look at these reforms as blood relatives fixed on changing how teachers teach so students can learn more, faster, and better. An old story to be sure.

Why old? Two traditions of teaching have competed with one another for millennia.  Each has had a grab-bag of names over the centuries: conservative vs. liberal, hard vs. soft pedagogy, subject-centered vs. child-centered, traditional vs. progressive, teacher-centered vs. student-centered, mimetic vs. transformational.

Each tradition has its own goals (transmit knowledge to next generation vs. helping children grow into full human beings);  practices (teacher-centered vs. student-centered); and desired outcomes (knowledgeable and skilled adults ready to enter the labor market and society versus an outcome of moral and civic engaged adults who use their knowledge and skills to help themselves and their communities). No evidence, then or now, has confirmed advocates’ claims for either tradition. These are choices anchored in beliefs. While posing these traditions as opposites, I, Philip Jackson,  and others have pointed out that most teachers, including the very best, combine both ways of teaching in their lessons.

Educational battles have been fought time and again over these traditions in how teachers should teach reading (phonics vs. whole language), math (“new” vs. traditional), science  (learning subject matter vs. doing science) and history (heritage vs. doing history). Yet even at the height of these public wars fought in words and competing policies, teachers  taught lessons that combined both traditions.

Since the early 1990s, however, states have embraced standards-based reforms, accountability measures, and mandated testing with No Child Left Behind (2002-2015), Common Core standards and tests (since 2010), and Every Student Succeeds in 2016. How, then, in the past quarter-century of standards and accountability-driven schooling have teachers organized instruction, grouped students, and taught lessons?

For those who listen to teachers, the answer is self-evident. Classroom stories and teacher surveys have reported again and again that more lesson time is spent preparing students for high-stakes tests.  And what is taught has narrowed to what appears on tests.

Such stories and research studies describe classroom instruction, particularly in largely poor and minority schools, as more teacher-centered, focused on meeting prescribed state standards and raising test scores. Teachers have felt pressured to drop student-centered activities such as small group work, discussions, learning centers, and writing portfolios because such activities take away precious classroom time from standards-based curriculum and test preparation.

To confirm or challenge these stories and surveys, I  and others have gone into scores of classrooms across the nation. I can sum up the evidence during these years of strong state and federal backing for standards-based reform and accountability into the following statements:

*Teacher-centered instruction has increased in those districts and schools that performed poorly on state tests.

Where state and federal authorities threatened districts and schools with restructuring or closure for low student performance, shame and fear drove many administrators and teachers to prepare students to pass these high-stakes tests. Teachers spent time in directing students to get ready for the skills and knowledge that would be on the state tests. Yes, a shift in classroom practices occurred with more whole group instruction, more seatwork, and more teacher-directed tasks such as lectures and worksheets in secondary school classrooms

All were aimed at improving student performance on state tests. The record of that improvement, however, is, at best, mixed.

*Even with that shift to more teacher-centered instruction, hybrids of the two teaching traditions still prevailed.

As an historian of teaching practices, I have written about how teachers decade after decade have combined both teacher- and student-centered instruction in both elementary and secondary school classrooms.

Even with the current concentration on standards and testing, blends of teacher-centered and student-centered practices still prevail. In short, teachers have had a degree of autonomy—some more, some less–to arrange their classrooms, group for instruction, and choose among different activities for the lessons they taught even in the midst of being labeled failures and school closure threats.

On the whole, then, since the early 1990s when standards, accountability, and testing came to dominate U.S. classrooms, there is a tad more teacher-centered instruction but mixes of the two traditions remained very much present.

Even so, research-backed efforts to add further fuel to the embers that  have burned over the centuries glow between Progressives and Traditionalists are found in the push for Direct Instruction. Often scripted materials for teachers to follow with their students, researchers have found time and again that such instruction shows gains in student test scores ( here, here and here). Yet from Distar to Open Court, elementary school teachers in particular, have been reluctant to embrace such materials.

The struggle over how teachers should teach continues. Policymakers, researchers, practitioners, parents, and, yes, students need to know that both constancy and change have occurred in teaching over many decades. Knowing that these competing traditions of teaching–whatever label is given to each one–turn up in classrooms in 2016 call up anew the persistent progressive and conservative beliefs that have divided policymakers, practitioners, and parents for decades.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Musings about Technology in Work and Life

The history of technology has shown again and again that its primary purpose has been (and is) increasing productivity, that is, doing more with less (see here, here, and here). In doing so, technology has also increased choice and creativity in both work and life.

Examples of applying technology to work to increase productivity range from the invention of the stocking frame in mid-18th century England (thus, prompting the outburst from weaver Ned Ludd and his supporters) to the agricultural harvester in the late-19th century U.S. to the latest MRI that diagnoses patient ills . In each instance, increases in textile productivity, farm output, and diagnostic accuracy meant more efficiency in labor and, ultimately, more profits for those who owned the technology and used it. Also choices increased (see here, here, and here). The Internet (and especially social media) has broadened access to information, altered how people shop, and broadened relationships and, in doing so, has expanded personal choice for anyone with a connection to the web.

Nonetheless, even expanded personal choice is secondary to the main thrust of embracing new technologies: do more and better work with fewer resources. As one CEO looking at the higher education market recently said:

The value of education technology should be measured by the extent to which it enhances the productivity of people and organizations in the field—students, professors, and administrators who can accomplish more (better, faster, and cheaper).

Ultimately, as we strive to replenish and improve the overall supply of human capital more effectively, we must ask: Are we increasing the number of people who are equipped to lead productive, rewarding lives?

True in business and, for sure, true for K-12 public schools.

Because public schools depend on voters agreeing to pay taxes to operate, efficiency has been one of its driving forces. Seeking organizational, curricular, and instructional efficiencies has been a compelling motive driving school boards and their superintendents since the mid-19th century. That is where districts now adopting new technologies and adapting business software and applications to classroom activities enter the picture.

Read what former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan said in 2010:

Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an
add-on or for a high-tech reproduction of current practice. Again, we need to change the
underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force
multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is
not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they
need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money.
Note the recognition by the former U.S. Secretary of Education that technology in schools is an “add-on.” But as Duncan points out increasing teacher and student productivity–doing more work in less time and for less money–is apparent. Just as apparent is the dream of increased productivity in the hullabaloo over “personalized” learning.

“Personalized learning”, of course, is another milestone in the long road U.S. practitioners have been on to individualize instruction since the mid-19th century. Progressives in the early 20th century and during the 1960s chased after programs promising new and better ways to individualize instruction and, at the same time, increase student productivity and creativity.

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of efficiency, research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging the cymbals for more customized learning. Research supporting “personalized” learning” is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives. As with the earliest software–old-timers will remember “programmed learning” in the 1950s–efficiency is one of the driving forces propelling “personalized learning.” The language touting such software is clothed in words about fostering student creativity and imagination, seldom garbed in the blunt language of increased productivity. But it is there now as it has always been in the introduction of low- and high-tech devices to classrooms.

Productivity in the workplace is clearly important be it in an office or classroom. For decades increased productivity was a factor in raising wages and rising standards of living. I have no animus toward increased efficiencies in teaching or learning. In each of our lives, we seek productive short-cuts to get through the day–think multi-tasking and FitBit.  The point is that technology has surely given us expanded choice, even creativity, in our daily lives but when it comes to a helping profession such as teaching where interactions between students and teachers are crucial to sustained learning, it is well to note that many of the software applications used in school then and now were add-ons that came from the business sector originally designed to get more work from less money spent.




Filed under technology

A British High School and Its Integration of Technology (Jose Picardo)

Jose’ Picardo, describes himself in his blogI am a Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School, where I teach Modern Foreign Languages and I am in charge of developing the school’s digital strategy, which can be summarised as follows: ensuring the integration of technologies that enable and facilitate teaching and learning into the life of the school and its wider community….”

Jose’  Picardo commented on a two-part post on my technology integration project. He gave me permission to use his comment. In Picardo’s comment he included a three-minute video about different classrooms in Surbiton High School, outside of London. The video shows the range of usage in both high- and low-tech tools across academic and non-academic subjects.


Hi Larry,

I’ve recently led the adoption of tablets across our school in a suburb of London, UK. Depending on who you ask, we’re either incredibly innovative or completely foolish.

Perhaps surprisingly then, I’ve always been very sceptical of claims of transformation when it comes to the adoption of technology in schools. Throughout the deployment of our 1:1 tablet programme one thing above all was always present on our minds: There is no app for great teaching.

From the start, some of the myths that we found ourselves dispelling most often were that technology would substitute teachers; that tablets would stop children from writing; and that we were somehow giving up on rigour and in to edutainment. As if mobile technology and high academic standards were somehow mutually exclusive.

Anticipating my seminar at BETT yesterday, I had asked a colleague, who is a dab hand at filming and editing, to go round the school and film instances of tablets being used in lessons (if they were being used), so we can paint an accurate picture of how they are used, as opposed to how some folk assume they are being used.(see video at: )

It is actual lesson footage. Nothing was ‘put on’ for the camera. If you have time to watch this 3 min video, you will notice how students weave seamlessly between tablet and paper. Tablets are not substituting paper or preventing children from learning how to handwrite.

The teacher is still the ‘sage on the stage’ most of the time. Students are still students. They are still mostly sitting in rows. Some would argue that if tablets have not transformed the classroom beyond this traditional paradigm, then what is the point? But when you tailor into the equation the multiple ways in which mobile devices support teaching and learning (in the classroom and beyond), then their value begins to become more apparent.

Our school is a great school by all measures. Our results and inspection reports confirm this. Tablets have not yet been shown to have had a great impact on exam results (to early to tell) but, to be honest with you, we will not be surprised if exam results are not dramatically improved by the adoption of these devices. Having said that, our current data leads us to expect a modest improvement.

At the end of the day, the decision to use tablet to support teaching and learning when appropriate was a value call. Good luck measuring that!


While I have no idea how representative Jose Picardo’s video and his comment are of other UK schools that have integrated new technologies into their daily classroom routines, both the comment and video  illustrate two points that I have observed in U.S. classrooms over the past few decades. First, no “transformation” in teaching has occurred (see third paragraph from end of Picardo’s comment). Second, the perpetual hope that use of new technologies will improve “exam” results  (see next-to-last paragraph of  comment).

Both of these points capture the current climate for adopting and integrating tablets and hand-held devices into U.S. classroom instruction. In the technology project I am just beginning, I stay away from linking usage of hardware/software to student achievement for the simple reason that if instruction stays pretty much the same after high-tech devices and applications are regularly used, then chances of gains (or losses) in how much students learn, as measured by existing tests, are slim to non-existent. If teaching is, indeed, linked to student learning then noticeable changes in teaching have to occur for that learning to improve. And that is why in my current project, I focus on how teachers teach in classrooms, schools, and districts  where technology integration has been identified by multiple individuals and agencies rather than how students perform on tests.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools


  1. (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
  2. (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
  3. (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.

Any definition of “kludge” that you pick among the three above–I lean toward the second one but I do like the third as well–fits what has occurred over the past three decades with the introduction of desktop computers into schools followed by laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with scads of accompanying software. Computing devices and accompanying software have been (and are) adds-on to education; all were initially introduced into U.S. manufacturing and commerce as productivity tools and then applied to schooling (e.g., spreadsheets, management information systems). Software slowly changed to adapt to school and classroom use but the impetus and early years applied business hardware and software to schooling. That birth three decades ago of being an add-on tinged with business application has made it a “kludge.”

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to speed along more efficiently the improvement of U.S. schools to strengthen the economy. The push for more business-flavored high-tech in schools has become the “kludge,” that is, “an improvised device, usually crudely constructed” and “typically inelegant” that has become “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.”

I say that because the evidence thus far that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, solved any of the problems is distressingly missing. Student academic achievement surely has not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream of high-tech advocates that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) has yet to materialize in the nation’s classrooms. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school do not necessarily step into better-paying jobs. Thus, high-tech infusion in schools designed to solve problems “temporarily” or “expediently” has become a “kludge.”

Nowadays, the rationale for using tablets and hand-held devices in classrooms has shifted to their potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to achievement), the necessity for all students to take tests online, and the mirage of exiting students marching into high-tech jobs. From flipped classrooms to blended learning, to personalized lessons, the hype continues even in the face of sparse evidence. This approach, then, remains a “kludge” that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and vendors continue to push for solving teaching and learning problems.

Fortunately, there are district officials, school principals, and classroom teachers who avoid the “kludge” effect by reframing the problems of teaching and learning as educational not technical (e.g., getting devices and software into the hands of students and teachers) or grounded in economic reasons. The problems are educational (e.g., how will these machines and software be used to help students understand essential concepts and apply necessary skills)—see here, here, and here. They know in their heart-of-hearts that learning is not about the presence of technology, it is about teachers and students interacting with subject-matter and skills and using paper, pencil, tablets, and Google docs to achieve learning goals. Learning is about teachers using these technological aids to get students to say “aha” about what they have learned, to acquire confidence through practice of skills.

But the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools–continues to dominate policy action. Escaping the origin of technologies imported into schools is very hard to avoid. Technologies in schools remain a band-aid promising solutions to ill-framed problems. Too often it functions as another Rube Goldberg invention to solve the wrong problem.




Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers (Robert Wachter)

Robert M. Wachter is a professor and the interim chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of “The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age.This post appeared in the New York Times on January 16, 2016


Two of our most vital industries, health care and education, have become increasingly subjected to metrics and measurements. Of course, we need to hold professionals accountable. But the focus on numbers has gone too far. We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.

Through the 20th century, we adopted a hands-off approach, assuming that the pros knew best. Most experts believed that the ideal “products” — healthy patients and well-educated kids — were too strongly influenced by uncontrollable variables (the sickness of the patient, the intellectual capacity of the student) and were too complex to be judged by the measures we use for other industries.

By the early 2000s, as evidence mounted that both fields were producing mediocre outcomes at unsustainable costs, the pressure for measurement became irresistible. In health care, we saw hundreds of thousands of deaths from medical errors, poor coordination of care and backbreaking costs. In education, it became clear that our schools were lagging behind those in other countries.

So in came the consultants and out came the yardsticks. In health care, we applied metrics to outcomes and processes. Did the doctor document that she gave the patient a flu shot? That she counseled the patient about smoking? In education, of course, the preoccupation became student test scores.

All of this began innocently enough. But the measurement fad has spun out of control. There are so many different hospital ratings that more than 1,600 medical centers can now lay claim to being included on a “top 100,” “honor roll,” grade “A” or “best” hospitals list. Burnout rates for doctors top 50 percent, far higher than other professions. A 2013 study found that the electronic health record was a dominant culprit. Another 2013 study found that emergency room doctors clicked a mouse 4,000 times during a 10-hour shift. The computer systems have become the dark force behind quality measures.

Education is experiencing its own version of measurement fatigue. Educators complain that the focus on student test performance comes at the expense of learning. Art, music and physical education have withered, because, really, why bother if they’re not on the test?

At first, the pushback from doctors and teachers was dismissed as whining from entitled and entrenched guilds spoiled by generations of unfettered autonomy. It was natural, went the thinking, that these professionals would resist the scrutiny and discipline of performance assessment. Of course, this interpretation was partly right.

But the objections became harder to dismiss as evidence mounted that even superb and motivated professionals had come to believe that the boatloads of measures, and the incentives to “look good,” had led them to turn away from the essence of their work. In medicine, doctors no longer made eye contact with patients as they clicked away. In education, even parents who favored more testing around Common Core standards worried about the damaging influence of all the exams.

Even some of the measurement behemoths are now voicing second thoughts. Last fall, the Joint Commission, the major accreditor of American hospitals, announced that it was suspending its annual rating of hospitals. At the same time, alarmed by the amount of time that testing robbed from instruction, the Obama administration called for new limits on student testing. Last week, Andy Slavitt, Medicare’s acting administrator, announced the end of a program that tied Medicare payments to a long list of measures related to the use of electronic health records. “We have to get the hearts and minds of physicians back,” said Mr. Slavitt. “I think we’ve lost them.”

Thoughtful and limited assessment can be effective in motivating improvements and innovations, and in weeding out the rare but disproportionately destructive bad apples.

But in creating a measurement and accountability system, we need to tone down the fervor and think harder about the unanticipated consequences.

Measurement cannot go away, but it needs to be scaled back and allowed to mature. We need more targeted measures, ones that have been vetted to ensure that they really matter. In medicine, for example, measuring the rates of certain hospital-acquired infections has led to a greater emphasis on prevention and has most likely saved lives. On the other hand, measuring whether doctors documented that they provided discharge instructions to heart failure or asthma patients at the end of their hospital stay sounds good, but turns out to be an exercise in futile box-checking, and should be jettisoned.

We also need more research on quality measurement and comparing different patient populations. The only way to understand whether a high mortality rate, or dropout rate, represents poor performance is to adequately appreciate all of the factors that contribute to these outcomes — physical and mental, social and environmental — and adjust for them. It’s like adjusting for the degree of difficulty when judging an Olympic diver. We’re getting better at this, but we’re not good enough.

Most important, we need to fully appreciate the burden that measurement places on professionals, and minimize it. In health care, some of this will come through advances in natural language processing, which may ultimately allow us to assess the quality of care by having computers “read” the doctor’s note, obviating the need for all the box-checking. In both fields, simulation, video review and peer coaching hold promise.

Whatever we do, we have to ask our clinicians and teachers whether measurement is working, and truly listen when they tell us that it isn’t. Today, that is precisely what they’re saying.

Avedis Donabedian, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, was a towering figure in the field of quality measurement. He developed what is known as Donabedian’s triad, which states that quality can be measured by looking at outcomes (how the subjects fared), processes (what was done) and structures (how the work was organized). In 2000, shortly before he died, he was asked about his view of quality. What this hard-nosed scientist answered is shocking at first, then somehow seems obvious.

“The secret of quality is love,” he said.

Our businesslike efforts to measure and improve quality are now blocking the altruism, indeed the love, that motivates people to enter the helping professions. While we’re figuring out how to get better, we need to tread more lightly in assessing the work of the professionals who practice in our most human and sacred fields.


Filed under compare education and medicine

Cartoons on Digital Life

For this month, I have selected an array of cartoons that slice-and-dice the influence of digital technologies on our daily lives. Enjoy!

























Filed under Uncategorized