Can High Tech Hype Trump School Uniforms?

Anyone over the age of 40 has the right to snicker when listening to high tech champions say that the transformation of schooling is just around the corner. In the 1980s and 1990s, we heard from Seymour Papert, Lewis Perelman and dozens of others who predicted a glittering future of home-based individualized learning, teams of students working online, distance learning, and other shining futuristic jewels.

None of these glowing forecasts are novel. In 1922, after inventing the film and starting a private company to market the innovation to schools, Thomas Edison said: “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Current books on Disruptive Innovations and Liberating Learning bang a similar drum. Yet amid predictions of technological devices revolutionizing classroom lessons and learning, public schools soldier on.

Undeniably, in the past decade cyber charter schools, distance learning, and virtual schools have grown. Yet they cling to the periphery of tax-supported schooling. Some argue that such inventions are the vanguard of a technological future that will dismantle public schools and create new forms of education that would turn Ivan Ilich into a prophet. I doubt it.

The fundamental error that high tech advocates have made since Thomas Edison’s venture into fortune telling is that, like near-sighted people, they focus narrowly on only one purpose of pubic schools: transferring knowledge and skills from adults to children. In their myopia, they lose sight of the crucial task of socializing children and youth into the community. In other words, taxpayers, voters, and parents expect far more from their schools than student’s heads bulging with knowledge ready to enter college—even in the current heated rhetoric of testing.

Surely, families are the first socializers. Schools, however, come next. Inculcating habits, beliefs, and values so that children can behave as responsible adults in a community requires more than answering multiple choice questions or doing Internet searches. Look into a kindergarten classroom for the most obvious evidence of the school’s function to get young children to act consistent with the norms of a community: taking turns, no hitting or biting, washing hands, working independently, cooperating with others who look and act different—you remember the drill. Yes, learning numbers and decoding words are important but only the shortsighted could miss the critical social lessons taught to five year-olds.

Similarly, throughout elementary and secondary schools, as knowledge demands escalate for students, socializing children and youth persist quietly and forcefully in posted classroom rules, report cards that list proper behaviors, and what gets rewarded or punished in school. Near-sighted champions of high tech, however, in their eagerness to get powerful information and communication devices into the hands of students and teachers miss the fact that daily life in schools continues to socialize children and youth.

When these advocates rail at school administrators for filtering student access to the Internet or laugh at clumsy efforts to manage laptop and cell phone use in and out of class, they fail to see that these devices play a small part in the larger role that schools as social institutions have to perform in getting students ready for college and work.

The case of school uniforms and dress codes underscores the irrelevance of high tech devices when it comes to schools teaching beliefs, values, and proper actions. Any list of reasons that parents and educators have in endorsing uniforms include reducing violence and theft of trendy clothes, helping students resist peer pressure to buy hip clothes, lessening socioeconomic differences between students, and increasing sense of belonging to school.

President Bill Clinton who pushed for uniforms in schools said in 1996, “[Uniforms] slowly teach our young people one of life’s most important lessons: that what really counts is what you are and what you become on the inside, rather than what you are wearing on the outside.” Some have argued that students wearing school uniforms will increase academic achievement. No evidence supports the claim. Anyway evidence to prove that school uniforms is a sound policy is beside the point. The school itself as a socializing agent is the point.

Laptops and hand-held devices can help teachers teach and students learn subject matter but school rules and structures, teacher habits, and institutional norms teach fundamental lessons that parents and voters want in the next generation. Those myopic soothsayers who predict that high tech devices will transform schooling have yet to learn that lesson.


Filed under school reform policies

8 responses to “Can High Tech Hype Trump School Uniforms?

  1. Hi Larry,

    A question regarding this statement: “In their myopia, they lose sight of the crucial task of socializing children and youth into the community.”

    What is it that you think we’re doing with technology if it isn’t social learning? Take a look at our classroom blog at and you’ll see parents and students interacting. You’ll see classrooms of students interacting with other classrooms of students. Students who have never met face-to-face. You’ll see pre-service educators, multiple states away from my kids, interacting with my students. The weekend discussions that we have on our blog have been featured in the community’s newspaper.

    If this isn’t the socialization you’re looking for, you may need to be more specific.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Russ,
      Bob Dreeben wrote a small book in 1968 called “On What Is Learned in School.” He points out that the structures of schooling (the age-graded school, schedules, homework, grouping, school norms, etc.) teach at a deep, hidden level key societal values such as individualism, compliance with authority, predictability, and achievement. Students absorb these daily in their routine activities in and out of class. Sometimes this covert teaching and learning is called the “hidden curriculum. You make fine points that social learning is occurring with many groups of students, parents, teacher educators interacting. But you do not specify what is taught and what students learn overtly and covertly from the extensive interactions you describe. Your turn.

  2. I certainly agree that the tech advocates routinely take information for instruction, and assume that cognitive learning is the sole purpose of school. A foolish, and even dangerous, reductionist fallacy. And, I would agree that the social compact that supports the basic form of K-12 school remains largely unchanged, and school reform advocates usually tend to ignore this powerful conservative influence on the evolution of school.

    I would argue, however, that ICT is rapidly changing the nature of knowledge work at every level from perhaps middle school on through adult learning and work (for a variety of reasons, I think preschool and elementary years are a different case). Even a casual observer would probably agree that the changes in higher education and corporate training brought on by ICT and especially online learning are at a scale which can be called disruptive. As the blog implies, it remains to be seen if similar changes at the secondary level will approach disruptive levels. And again, I would argue that the face of change here is not just online learning, but the fundamental changes in the nature of knowledge work; eLearning is only a part of this change.

    The blog commits a common rhetorical error, of opposing “traditional” school with “eLearning.” It’s not an either-or choice; for many reasons (including some important learning science-based ones), the optimum solutions tend to blend methods and resources of both kinds. So, let’s stop talking about how eLearning will displace school; let’s start talking about how ICT is redefining the role of the teacher and the school as one component of a global learning community. No, it’s not about information transmission: information is cheap and instantly available; it used to be expensive and difficult to get. the same can be said for communication and thus online learning communities/social media. Knowledge, however, still requires every learner’s hard work to build, and there are a great many kinds of learning environments which are needed for different types of knowledge and different types of students. The challenge for teachers and schools and eLearning architects is to understand the various roles each system component (including teachers and schools) can and should play in these various learning environments.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Rob,
      Thank you for the clear, crisp comment you made on this post. Your first paragraph is a gem of conciseness. Where we part company, however, is in your second paragraph. You concede that the socialization function dominates preschool and elementary but less so secondary schools because “the face of change … is …in the nature of knowledge work.” Maybe outside of middle and high schools but, given the evidence I see in private and public schools in direct observation and empirical studies, “knowledge work” in classroom lessons remains strikingly similar to what it has been for decades. So I would ask you: Tell me where I should look for these shifting patterns in “knowledge work” and (in your third paragraph) “how ICT is redefining the role of the teacher and the school?” Please don’t send me to New Tech High, or High Tech High or other variations of alternatives, magnet, and charter schools that students and teachers can choose. These are fine schools but they remain at the margins of the regular school systems–for better or worse–that dominate tax-supported public schools. I have seen them and I see the beginnings of what you are suggesting. I mean mainstream suburban, rural, and urban secondary schools. I agree with your final sentence: “The challenge for teachers and schools and eLearning architects is to understand the various roles each system component (including teachers and schools) can and should play in these various learning environments.” One exception, however. You omit a prime purpose of schooling in the U.S.: socializing the young into adult roles as a contributing citizen, worker, and decent human being.

      • Larry,
        Thanks very much for your thoughtful reply. You raise a number of important points which show that my original post wasn’t as clear as you give me credit for! I’ll try to respond to your comments, in order:

        1) Less socialization at the secondary level: my intent here was not to argue that there is less socialization to be done at the secondary level (clearly not the case, to any parent of a teenager!), but only that socialization is proportionately less of the agenda of school, and there is more emphasis on cognitive learning. Also, I would argue that at the secondary level more students (but certainly not all) have developed the self-directed learning skills needed for eLearning.
        2) My point about the change in the nature of knowledge work is drawn from studies done in the workplace on knowledge management and informal learning (see, for example, the work done at Xerox PARC). I don’t know if this work has been replicated for post-secondary institutional learning. I would agree that the nature of knowledge work has not changed at the secondary level for formal school subjects, in most classrooms. However, the pattern of informal learning and information retrieval I describe has been observed at the secondary level, at least in self-reports such as the Sloan Foundation studies of internet usage. Some technology advocates argue that this disparity in learning and knowledge work environments is a reason that classroom learning ought to change (I am reminded of McLuhan’s line, speaking of mass media, about kids who “interrupt their education to go to school.”) But again, I would agree it hasn’t happened in mainstream schools – yet. My guess is that what is happening is that informal learning, using Web resources, may be accounting for an increased proportion of the total learning kids do; in other words, we shouldn’t assume that the only meaningful learning is school learning. But aside from anecdotal reports, I don’t know how one could study this trend formally.
        3) I would agree that socialization is a major part of the mission of schooling in the U.S. But I would be surprised if studies of socialization concluded that socialization does not also occur online, as well as in other community contexts.

        Thanks again for a thought-provoking post!


  3. Hi Larry,
    My comment hasn’t shown up yet, so that may be confusing if someone is following the conversation. Just a heads up.

    I’m not sure just how in-depth you’d like me to be with what is taught (and my prep periods are coming to a close, so time is not on my side) but I teach 6th grade Language Arts. All final drafts of the essays the kids write are published on our blog. So they are learning “writing skills” — I’d be happy to link to our writing curriculum if that’s what you’re looking for.

    Covertly, I am hoping they learn that “learning about Language Arts” does not stop when they leave my classroom, and that learning in general does not stop when they leave the school.

    Overtly and covertly, we are in a nearly daily discussion about what it is that they need to unlearn before they can begin learning.

    I’d also like to point out that these societal expectations that need to change are not just pushed by schools. Parents are pushers of this hidden curriculum as well.

  4. Technology is social as well… we have to prepare digital citizens who know how to control their digital footprints, who can debate ideas respectfully, rationally, and openly.

    The structures of collaborative productions, such as they can learn with google docs, teaches team skills, group and individual responsiblity, and new ways of producing in a horizontal group structure.

    While film, radio, and television were both touted as ways of replacing teachers and changing the face of education, technology has always, and only will, enhanced the abilities of the teachers. Today’s tech is different: it is interactive and allows for direct output as well as input. It is shaping the world and will shape the future of our students. Their socialization with other students from all over the world will prepare them for an international future. Collaborative projects across the world will make increasing differences in creating and using the best ideas possible… which gives me hope that our children will survive the problems they inherit from us. (I would like to point out that I am writing this from my netbook in Spain. 5 years ago, the average 12 year old in America had faster internet access than the banks here. Not now. The rest of the world is catching up, and have useful ideas.)

    Let’s support socialization. For me, that means supporting tech in schools.

  5. “Near-sighted champions of high tech, however, in their eagerness to get powerful information and communication devices into the hands of students and teachers miss the fact that daily life in schools continues to socialize children and youth.”

    So what would be wrong with for example suggesting that kids each have a laptop instead of carrying around multiple textbooks and notebooks. Is that really a fundamentally bad idea?

    Isn’t it just a gradual evolution of all the technologies that are already part of schooling?

    Aren’t ‘powerful information and communication devices’ already part of daily life?

    In the 1800s there was research on blackboards (chalk boards) correct? In the 1950s there was research on felt boards. Today many teachers are clamoring for smart boards (even if it may be just as some kind of new status symbol).

    I have to admit I relate to your post – I have a child who finished kindergarten this past year (so I saw all the socialization instructions) at a charter school (which is indeed on the periphery of mainstream public schools) AND they all wear uniforms 🙂

    And yet our child and virtually every child clamors for technology on their own – Nintendo, laptops, cell phones, etc.

    So, to summarize, yes perhaps it is and was wrong to claim new technologies are going to cast out the old ways of schooling, but I guess I am arguing that new technologies can be seen as a gradual evolution of the technologies and practices already used in schools (such as books, desks, lecturns, ‘field trips’, etc.).

    Anyway, thank you for your contributions here. I’ve long followed your work, but it’s nice to see it out here in the ‘blogosphere’ since “if it’s not on google, it doesn’t exist” (i.e. not many people and teachers have the time or money or access to read academic books and journal articles).

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