Same o’ Same o’: The Puzzle of Similar Teaching in Universities and Schools

Why does so much teaching in schools and universities look the same over time? To be accurate, however, what appears as timeless stability and similarity in teaching has obscured incremental changes. Now professors ask more questions for students in lectures,organize more small group work, and more use of new devices–from clickers to moodles–than academics had done a half-century ago. So, too, for K-12 teachers who have, again over time, made small and significant changes in their classroom teaching. There is more guided discussion, more group work, increased academic content in lower and upper grades, more adventurous teaching by larger fractions of teachers, and, yes, more and more teachers using high-tech devices for instruction.

Yet looking back on one’s experience in most university and secondary school classrooms, the teaching–even accounting for these incremental changes over the decades– sure looks like the same o,’ same o.’

Here’s the heart of the puzzle: In universities student attendance is voluntary; in K-12 attendance is compulsory. Note also that the complexity of the subject matter, freedom of movement, course choices, student ages, and teachers’ deep knowledge of their subject are other critical markers that distinguish university classrooms from those in K-12 schools. Yet–and you knew there was a “yet” coming–with all of these essential differences many studies point out the similarities in teaching. Including the use of technology for instruction.

Technology Use in Universities

Academics use computers at home and in their offices to write, analyze data, communicate with colleagues, and compose syllabi and handouts for their courses.  Personal accounts and surveys report again and again that most academics are enthusiastic about using computers and other technologies for routine tasks in laboratories, lecture halls, and data analysis. Moreover, many blog, podcast, create web-based classes and teach online courses.

Furthermore, adventurous faculty have designed disciplinary projects. Associate Professor Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano of Stanford University’s Spanish and Portuguese Department, for example, worked with technology staff to create “Chicana Art,” a multimedia database of works by various Mexican-American artists. Digitized slides have links to what the artists have said, their biographies, and lists of references.

Yet using computers and other new technologies to improve instruction has had little tangible effect on undergraduate classroom teaching or learning. The lecture has remained central to undergraduate instruction.

Pork Barrel Grants
Except now lectures are often conveyed through Powerpoint and similar software. According to a 2008 national student survey, 63 percent of professors use PowerPoint software in their undergraduate courses. At some institutions, the percentage runs higher. Except for a small fraction of faculty, abundant high-tech hardware, software, and services have hardly made a difference in how professors teach and students learn in most undergraduate classrooms.

While the exact same statement cannot be made for K-12 teaching, there are enough similarities to make even the most ardent high-tech advocate wince.


Unlocking this puzzle of same o,’ same o’ for university and school teaching requires different answers for for each institution. For universities, look at institutional goals and organizational structure. Consider that a primary goal of universities is to produce knowledge (i.e., doing research) and disseminate it (i.e., teach and publish). Structures and incentives to achieve that goal are faculty rewards in tenure and promotion for research productivity rather than effective teaching. To insure that faculty have time to do research and publish, university administrators reduce teaching obligations by creating large lecture classes in the undergraduate courses and small classes in graduate courses. Those goals, incentives, and structures shape how classes are organized and influence how professors teach.

Technology use in K-12

Rather than cite again all of the surveys (, ethnographic studies, and reports (Bebell_04) of direct observation of classrooms over the past thirty years, the evidence seems clear, at least to me, that nearly all teachers endorse the use of technology for both administrative and instructional tasks but prevailing use falls short of that endorsement. Nonetheless, an increasing fraction of teachers are integrating high-tech devices into their daily lessons. A larger group of teachers use laptops/desktops/ hand-held devices occasionally–say once a week–and now, only a fraction of teachers in most districts, both urban and suburban, refrain from even minimal use–once a month or never.

Reasons for this frequency and type of use by K-12 teachers? When I and others (David K. Cohen on Teaching PDF) look at the organizational conditions of teaching in the age-graded school, the flaws in the technological innovation and its implementation, and the lack of incentives for teachers to go the extra mile even when they endorse technology, it becomes understandable why there have been far more laggards than early adopters of technology among schoolteachers. But that is slowing changing.

Two crucial educational institutions differ in governance, organization, curriculum, and authority to compel attendance yet show similar patterns in instruction and use of technology. Changes in both institutions continue to occur. Will the patterns of instruction diverge or remain the same ‘o, same o’?


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

5 responses to “Same o’ Same o’: The Puzzle of Similar Teaching in Universities and Schools

  1. Bob Calder

    There is a complex ecology of finance that prevents k-12 from creating a stable technological classroom environment because it makes the teacher responsible for the entire experience. Because knowledge is uneven and funds are distributed with different priorities, this seems to be fairly usual across the school landscape. There are notable exceptions, but they bear a resemblance to stories of superstar teachers. In other words, outliers.

    Another bit of interesting trivia is the way evolution has placed me and others where we are evaluated on our student’s scores on “professional certification exams” in order to get continued funding to maintain our status/facilities. Although the tests are relatively trivial, it leaves me with the decision to focus my lessons so I can get money. The so-called professional certifications test highly focused skill sets that are frankly not what I am interested in teaching. Nor do I think my students benefit learning software tips and tricks. Enough crying in our beer!

    Finally there is the issue of poisonous software. Of course I refer to death by Powerpoint. The evolution of presentation software and our cultural reaction to it – a co-evolution of sorts – has allowed poor practices to proliferate even unto the very tiny pointy things at the tops of ivory towers. Finials. Those printout storyboard things should be outlawed. Things have got so bad that a student that gives a good Lessig-style presentation runs a risk of poor marks.

    Perhaps what we need is Dragon Naturally Speaking running while a presentation is given so that the full text can be available merged with figures in booklet form if necessary.

  2. Rick Fletcher @TRFletcher

    (This comment is about university. I think K-8 is probably different and 9-12, probably a little different.)

    What about the obvious? The relative dearth of really useful websites that are appropriate to university coursework? I have taught university chemistry for 20 years and I use the technology in my classroom (pretty good) and available to the students (excellent) as much as I can. I make instructional videos for large book publishers and my students alike. I explore use of clickers, in class video, virtual office hours, skype – anything I can find. I use it when it is useful and adds value. But honestly, seriously, I really really really mean it – while there is a lot of information on the web (and much of it dubious) there is very little to elevate the thinking processes of my students who I want to work at a college level and beyond.

    Just the other day I got tangled up in a tweet battle with those who insisted they learned all they needed to know about nuclear physics fromWikipedia, and felt free to pronounce the crisis in Japan “nothing to worry about.” Sigh. I am afraid to say, this is the level we will sink to as we are compelled to use the web as our source of information. More and more, students and others feel they really have all they need at their finger tips. They really believe this, even as ten minutes of small talk with a typical college freshman will reveal the lack of depth and in many cases, lack of real education.
    The day we figure out how to build web tools that elevate the thinking process I will be first inline to use those tools and sing their praises. To be fair, I am slowly finding resources that can be helpful – but the in general, that day isn’t today. If my university would give me an inkling of incentive to work on development of those resources, I would do my best. But again, that day isn’t this day.

    • Bob Calder

      NSDL finally realized gateways were dead and took a look at the mess they had. The new: should be a step in the right direction. Chemists really have a great community. There are Moodle modules, video resources, online textbook, graphing that allows you to demonstrate in a teaching friendly manner. has the computational resources. Choose an element in the interactive periodic table then look at the tabs in the next window to change modes. I hope you didn’t see it already.

      In a couple of years we *will* have everything online for fingertip research. Most of it is already there but students don’t know how think their way to it, as you say. Students don’t really understand why they can’t get everything. Even if they could, grabbing endless information is useless if they don’t understand how a process is likely going to evolve because there is a complex interaction going on in a reactor or wherever the pieces ended up.

      I keep thinking about Kurosawa’s Dreams segment with the different colored threads of smoke representing the different isotopes drifting by those that didn’t jump off the cliff.

      • Rick Fletcher @TRFletcher

        Thanks for the reply Bob. I don’t think I was clear – I do use the kinds of resources you suggested. I am a proponent of online education – however, students don’t usually choose the best sources of online information or learning – like students since Plato’s time, most of us choose the easier of all options. And that is where I think we are today – there are too many “easy” sources that too many people are passing off as revolutionary.

        I *think* we agree – that students need to be moved quite a distance to be able to use *real* resources that will help them to full understanding and deep knowledge. My post was trying to highlight the use of what is now popular – the “look it up and I know it” way of using the internet now prevalent and at least from my twitter interactions, seems to be promoted by many now trying to establish leadership roles in the business place. I believe there is a wide gap between the way the work force is using online training and education and the way younger people still of formal education age are using the internet. I get a very wide range of response from my college students when I set them loose online. As an educator, I want to maintain my focus on bringing a student’s understanding of content area to a level where they can analyze and synthesize – which still requires face to face – in a way, what used to be called mentoring or apprenticing. As of today, we don’t have online resources that can do the same job.

  3. Pingback: Reforming Higher Ed #3: Teach Differently | Getting the Words Right

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