Clickers and Technology Integration

So many techno-centrists believe in their heart-of-hearts that the road to student- (or learner-centered) instruction is paved with high-tech devices. New technologies can transform traditional teaching.  That is what they want to happen.

Yet, as Judi Harris has pointed out, the decided tilt of techno-centrists toward student-centered instruction–a tilt that she called “pedagogical dogmatism”– is a bias that confuses integrating technology into daily lessons with the reform of traditional teaching methods. That confusion between changing the dominant pedagogy from teacher- to learner-centered lessons and finding the most effective ways of integrating technology into the curriculum regardless of the pedagogy stymies clear thinking about using high-tech devices in classrooms.

“Clickers” in higher education and secondary schools is a case in point. Clickers,  hand-held devices that register students’ answers to teacher questions, are merely tools, ones that can fit any form of instruction. In most classroom situations, however, clickers are used to engage students in the content of teacher-centered lessons.

Consider Northwestern Professor Bill White who teaches undergraduates “Organizational Behavior.” Each student has a hand-held device with numbers on it that looks like a TV remote to record their presence in class and then answer multiple-choice questions that White asks frequently during his 90-minute class. There is also a numbered button for students to press when they are lost or confused. Reactions from students to these instant voting devices vary, of course, but those responding to a journalist’s questions were positive. As one said: “I actually kind of like it. [Having clickers to register your opinion] make[s] you read. It makes you pay attention. It reinforces what you’re supposed to be doing as a student.”

The company that sells “clickers” (cost: $30 to $70 each) has shipped over a million this year, half to colleges and universities and half to schools.

I have seen “clickers” used in math classes at Las Montanas with interactive whiteboards. Like the undergraduates at Northwestern, students participated often and energetically in the lesson. Moreover, they responded with comments when they saw that others shared their opinions. Clearly, these devices were being used to engage students in traditionally taught lessons. Just as clearly, these devices were being integrated into the daily curriculum.

So what’s the problem? It is a matter of expectations. Most techno-centrists believe that more integration of innovative machines into daily lessons–from interactive white boards to laptops to clickers–will move teachers away from teacher-centered to learner-centered pedagogy. Wanting both integration of devices into lessons and the reform of teaching confuses, if not irritates, those teachers and professors who believe their integrating software and hardware into teacher-directed lessons (see above examples) is both worthwhile and effective.

Yet such examples of high-tech integration are often scorned by advocates who point out that they are not advancing student-centered pedagogy. The preference for student-centered learning infects professors of education and most high-tech promoters located in academe (hannafin PDF), foundations (e.g., MacArthur),  business (e.g., CEO Forum on Education and Technology) and educational media (e.g., Edutopia). The dream that high-tech tools, in Judi Harris’s apt phrase, will be a “Trojan horse” that will end teacher-centered instruction perseveres in the face of mounting evidence that most innovative technologies from iPads to laptops to interactive white boards and, yes, to clickers–engage and motivate students in responding to traditional teaching practices.

The curse of a one best way of teaching–learning-centered or direct instruction or open classrooms or what-have-you–persists in the smartest of techno-centric minds even when the daily evidence from classroom teachers and others whose eyes are not blinkered by bias that students have varied interests, motivations, and aptitudes that require multiple ways of teaching. When that “pedagogical dogmatism” gets mixed in with “integrating technology with lessons” then sorting out the worth of “clickers,” interactive white boards, and laptops becomes especially tough to do. Getting rid of that inherent bias toward student-centered teaching remains at the core of assessing the degree to which enthusiastic and skilled teachers can integrate high-tech devices into daily lessons.

In my experience and research, most teachers have adapted their pedagogy by drawing from both teacher- and student-centered repertoires and crafted hybrids in lesson after lesson. Techno-centrists need to shed their blinders.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

8 responses to “Clickers and Technology Integration

  1. 15 years of cognitive psychology research suggests that you are wrong about direct instruction, see National Academies report, How People Learn and all the supporting literature on project learning, problem solving, knowledge transfer, etc.

    • larrycuban

      You might be right, Bob. And you might be wrong.

      I am not advocating direct instruction nor any kind of instruction for all children and youth. What I seek is for all teachers to have in their repertoire a wide ranging expertise to teach in a variety of ways. Why? First, because of the differences among students in their motivation, interests, aptitudes, and what they bring from home. Second, because of the organizational, political, and socioeconomic structures in which public schools have evolved and operate. Both of these sets of factors influence the what and how of teaching.

  2. larrycuban

    We may disagree about how teachers should teach but you are in fine company as a friend of Bonnie’s. She was my daughter’s science teacher at Long Branch elementary school in Arlington and made a lasting impression on her. I had the good fortune of watching Bonnie teach a number of times when I was in Arlington.

  3. Pingback: Borderland › A Brief Comment on Technophilia

  4. I’m not sure your and my problem with “clickers” is the result of anything that arises from educators’ beliefs per se.

    They seem to me to have the social qualities of a particularly strong meme.

    Dare I say they are like pogs or game card systems or even Hummel figurines? The only difference I see is that old clickers are not being sold as collector’s items. They are almost completely a product of marketing and packaging. To the extent they have fans in the teaching world, they appear as if they were something new and different but the thought process comes to a halt right there and critical thought ends.

  5. I’ve been using clickers for about 4 years to support a more “student-centered” approach to learning. The questions I pose are subjective and prompt more lively discussion with higher levels of participation. My follow up question “what do you see in the data?” invites someone to tell us what patterns they see in the class responses, without even being forced to reveal how they “feel” on the subject.

    Or, clickers can be used to play classroom “Jeopardy.” They are just a tool, but a powerful one if your goal is to create learning environments that provoke student reflection.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Peter,
      Thanks for your comment and examples on how you use “clickers” to support the kind of teaching that you do. I am certain that these devices can be used in any kind of teaching since they are, as you say, a tool.

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