The High-Tech Journey from Engagement to Achievement

Look at ads for software for schools and you will see words that promise student engagement and improved academic achievement (see, for example: Dell Computers: 2011-western-heights high school). Like hot dogs and mustard, Harry and Sally, the upbeat words about software and new mobile devices engaging students, raising test scores of minority students and closing the achievement gap are joined like Siamese twins. “Schools powered by (put in your favorite software company) report impressive gains in first year.” Or listen to what educators and students say about new tablets, clickers, interactive whiteboards, or the latest mobile gadget:

An  elementary school teacher: “The two mobile labs in our school have enabled and encouraged real-world learning regardless of grade level. Grade two students are the most active, especially with multimedia projects.” From a high school student using an iPad: “I think it is a wonderful way to gain knowledge. Maybe more practice would help improvement in skills.” From a college student: “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.”

What’s the connection between engaged students and academic achievement? I know it sounds like a dumb question because the connection seems so self-evident. But it is not as obvious as needing a parachute to skydive. It is more complicated.

Most parents, educators, and voters assume–as do policymakers and researchers–that engaged students will do well in school, score better on tests, and graduate than disengaged students who grow alienated from academic tasks and engage in behaviors that often lead to dropping out of school. Engagement, then, is a psychological process where students not only pay attention to school activities but invest themselves by doing the work.

That many students are disengaged from schooling has been documented time and again. Causes for that alienation range from schools’ socioeconomic characteristics, curricular fragmentation, and pedagogical approaches–the environment that students find themselves in–to the background of students that shape their attitudes, interests, and motivation–the social psychological explanation for disengagement. The taken-for-granted truth that student engagement leads to improved achievement rests in the social psychological explanation.

Buried in this assumption about engagement are separate links in a chain of reasoning that need to be examined. I specify these links in the chain  and then I will insert the use of high-tech hardware and software in schools as another link into that chain. The complications will become self-evident.

1. Motivated students will engage in academic work that teachers assign.

2. Engaged students are attentive, participate in classroom activities, and complete assigned work.

3. Because students pay attention, participate, and complete work, they acquire academic knowledge and skills from teachers and peers that result in classroom and school rewards further strengthening engagement.

4. Expanded school-based knowledge and skills produce academic improvement as measured by teacher grades and standardized tests.

That is the generic chain of reasoning supporting the concept of engagement. To many experts and lay people, psychological involvement in schooling–engagement–is the solution to low academic achievement and dropping out of school.

Where do  laptops, whiteboards and mobile devices running academic software from phonics to calculus fit?  See 2 above. Software and hardware will motivate students to get engaged in academic work by increasing students’ attentiveness to classroom tasks, participating in teacher-designed activities, and completing assignments.

What evidence supports the chain of reasoning, especially the link dealing with high-tech devices and software?

I have already mentioned above the claims that vendors and tech enthusiasts made about student engagement. Based mostly on responses from students and teachers who are using the software and hardware for a few months–let’s discount “evidence’ displayed in ads or in “white papers” that vendors supply to potential buyers–even a year of hands-on experiences and immediate feedback along with bells and whistles accompanying software surely count as evidence. Here comes a “yes….but”

Yes, it is evidence of the “novelty effect” but not evidence of engagement leading to achievement. The “novelty effect” is the initial gush of enthusiasm that most (but not all) teachers and students experience when using new devices and software. Note, however, that the novelty wears thin over time and the effects–attentiveness, participation, and completion of work diminish as well.

And that is what has happened with the use of films, instructional television, computer assisted instruction, desktop and laptop devices over the past century. In sum, while hardware and software may at first engage students, that engagement and its effects deteriorate. Increased academic achievement remains, again, out of reach. The chain of reasoning and its linked assumptions gets broken. No more hot dogs and mustard, no more Harry and Sally, and no more engagement=achievement.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

12 responses to “The High-Tech Journey from Engagement to Achievement

  1. Hey Larry, I actually agree with you regarding a technology topic. The research that supports your argument comes out of the 80’s. The research was part of a foundation of knowledge on technology integration that I learned back in the late 90’s in my doctoral program. You will find related articles by searching the topic, media effects. That’s right, technology itself does not engage, its a tool, it’s media. So how do we use technology to engage, to extend the classroom, to extend learning? Well I think Richard Clark had it right in the 80’s when he was involved in this media effects debate. Media is nothing more than a grocery truck. It’s the groceries that count. What do I mean? It’s the learning strategies that count. It’s knowing when and how the media can help augment the pedagogy. It’s matching objectives, learning strategies with the appropriate technology. But wait, there’s even more data out there regarding this. More recently, Punya Mishra at Michigan State has led the way in promoting the concept of TPACK. TPACK is nothing more than an expertise model. But it is one that addresses a teacher’s expertise in integrating technology and supports the 80’s media effects research. So, you are right about engagement and novelty, that wears off. What we see in the market are technologists and corporate entities who are trying to sell their goods. You are correct when teachers lack this understanding and wonder why things don’t work when then novelty wears off. It’s because they lack the understanding, the depth of knowledge etc. As for the corporate folks, they don’t care as long as their sales volume is high. All they need be concerned with are school leadership, and in many cases, those individuals lack understanding of technology and effective pedagogy so that’s who companies approach. That’s my 2 cents.

  2. It’s fairly well understood that giving teachers technology doesn’t change their pedagogy. Focus on standardized tests is also a barrier to using technology in new and innovative ways. Standards movement does the same thing by telling teachers what they must teach rather than allowing them to pursue students’ passions. Check my summary of “The Myths of Standardized Testing” at

  3. The British Educational Technology Agency(recently closed down by the incoming government) produced their ImpaCT research some years ago and whilst it is difficult to “prove” a causal link between technology,pedagogy and attainment it nevertheless is more robust than vendors white papers and sponsored case studies?

  4. Pingback: The High-Tech Journey from Engagement to Achievement (via Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice) « Gonzalez Education Weblog

  5. Cal

    Larry, I used to point that out at STEP. The instructors and teacher candidates both would talk about how engaged the students were with technique A or curriculum B.

    I’d ask why they assumed that more engagement meant better learning. At first nonplused, they would then point out that surely engaged kids would learn more. But where’s the evidence, I’d ask. Where is the evidence controlling only for engagement (skills, ses, etc similar) proving improved results?

    Ultimately, the instructors and teacher candidates would alway come back to intuitively, this was more fun–and it was certainly more fun to teach–and it just seemed unlikely that engaged children wouldn’t learn more.

    So here’s an interesting thought experiment, I’d respond: suppose that evidence showed unambiguously that “drill and kill”–practice practice practice–was the best way for students to master content and improve academic achievement?

    Pretty much everyone I spoke to said they’d give up teaching.

    Maybe that’s how you convince high achievers to be teachers–romanticize the process, say that curriculum is the key to engaging students, and give teachers the idea that the creative process–showing a lesson in a way that interests *them*–is what teaching needs.

    Except it doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t know if drill and kill per se is the answer, but I suspect that research will ultimately show that low ability (not low income) kids need far more structure, far more repetition, and far more direct instruction to learn half as much. But will high achieving teachers (whether at STEP or TFA) be attracted to teaching if that ends up being the solution?

  6. Cal has described Special Education classrooms: “far more structure, far more repitition (for example, of specific strategies of learning to read) and far more direct instruction to learn half as much.” Although not always for the last one. Some kids make tremendous gains with the instruction they receive in Special Ed classrooms.

  7. Pingback: Engagement might not equal achievement « The Fargo XO / Sugar Project

  8. Johna Walden

    This is all well and good, but what are we supposed to do about it. As teachers we can alter how we teach and what we teach, but in the end if the students are not willing to put in a little effort it will be like throwing rocks in a well, we’ll get a few splashes but mostly just ripples. There is only so much we can do as long as the government continues to pass laws without any input from teachers, students, and parents.

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