Fussing with the Word “Transformation”

Recently at a dinner in my home, I heard this story retold with glee from one of the guests. She told of her friend who had lost her iPhone and was frantic. Then she found it. She was overjoyed and spontaneously said to the iPhone: “If I had met you before I met my husband I would have married you.”

Of course, we all laughed. Each of us–all college educated, all professionals using mobile devices with laptops and desktops at home–had stories to tell about misplaced phones and moments of panic. But no one spoke of a marriage proposal.

It is a tale that speaks to the enormous hold that smart phones have on our minds, our bodies–watch people walk on streets without looking up from their mobile device–and the relationships we have with friends, family, and co-workers. The old: “I think, therefore, I am” has morphed into: “iPhone, therefore I am.”

The conversation then segued easily into talking about how smart phones have “transformed” our lives. Instantaneous communication, the feeling of being constantly informed about what’s happening, and how the device that fits into a small pocket contains, for some, the totality of their lives. As you would guess, Facebook, Twitter, and social media entered our back-and-forth over dessert. The feeling around the table was that new technologies, both hardware and software, had transformed our daily lives, the ways we communicate with others, and, of course, access to information. The only reservation expressed at the table was the point raised by the host that, sure, these new technologies had changed our lives–maybe not to the point of dumping a mate–but clearly we are doing things differently than we did 20 years ago.

But is “transformation” the same as change? Can a distinction be made between swift “acceleration” in getting information and communicating and the idea of “transformation?” After all, there has been telephone land lines and postal delivery for many decades. Sure, now everything is high-speed. Has that “transformed” our lives?”

As someone who has taught in schools, led a district school system, and done historical research on school reform for many years, I had seen and heard the word “transformation” many times. Here is former Florida governor Jeb Bush:

“Digital learning can transform education from a factory-style system into a personalized, achievement-based system….[T]hese revolutionary tools can bring education into the digital age where learning is customized to prepare every student with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and challenging careers.”

Then there are the U.S. Department of Education efforts to turnaround failing schools through multimillion dollar School Improvement Grants. One of the strategies is called “transformation.” Remove the principal, change curriculum and instruction, increase student learning time, have professional development and a rigorous teacher evaluation that includes use of student test scores. Then the school will be “transformed” from a failure into a success (Comparing Turnaround and Transformation SIG Models-1 ).

The truth is, I have grown allergic to the word.

The common use of “transformation” means change, often dramatic, even radical change. Yet change is not necessarily improvement. Moving furniture around in a room is change. Painting the room is a change. Sodding the lawn is a change.  To the home- owner these changes are considered improvements. But the house is hardly “transformed.” For dramatic improvement–in the eyes of the homeowner–you don’t move furniture around, repaint rooms, and put new sod in the lawn. You tear it down, design a new house, and start over. For that homeowner, that would be a “transformation.”

The baggage surrounding the word, particularly improvement, becomes troublesome because in using the word improvement, the immediate question is: toward what ends. And “ends” means values. For the homeowners who wanted a new house for its design, spaciousness, and to raise their status in the neighborhood, these values (and the money that they had) made possible the “transformation.”

Turn to schools. Few policymakers, parents, and practitioners eager for “transformation” debate the different values embedded in the changes they desire and the consequences of the kind of improvements they seek. With the many purposes for schools in a democracy, contested values become the norm.

For those who prize Deweyan learning-by-doing, for example, “transform” means going from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction. No more frontal teaching. Instead, students work independently learning basic skills, if necessary, or in small teams collecting information, asking questions of the teacher, thinking through decisions they have to make in framing and solving real-world problems as they forge ahead on their projects. For many seeking improvements in the current system of public schooling, that is a “transformation.” And it is rare because school structures, school processes, and teacher behaviors have to change dramatically. Yet its uncommonness has seldom halted the rhetoric of transformation infusing either new technologies or turning around failing schools.

And it is the rhetoric that we have to watch. I do not know for sure whether smart phones have “transformed” the lives of those who carry them around. The larger socioeconomic and political structures remain in place; national norms of individualism, climbing the ladder of success, and everything that can be sold is for sale remain in place. So whether new technologies have improved lives is a question that device owners can only answer once they have figured out the values that are central to living what they consider a “good” life. Not an easy task.


Filed under Reforming schools

10 responses to “Fussing with the Word “Transformation”

  1. Pingback: Fussing with the Word “Transformation” @LarryCuban « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  2. Janice

    Yes, very interesting discussion indeed. Great post on a timely topic!

  3. If I had a pound for every time I’d heard “transformation” used in a commercial discussion about education…!
    Where I would push the boundaries of your discussion a little Larry, is into childhood and especially the developing brain. The question of whether or not new technologies have genuinely “transformed” the way children are becoming adults is one I’d dearly like a clear answer to. My experience tells me at the very least, to recommend caution. At worst, one has to wonder if many toddlers today will be able to sustain their attention long enough to read a novel by the time they’re twenty one.

    • larrycuban

      The point about technologies and developing brain in infants and toddlers I had not thought about in reference to “transformation.” Thanks, Joe.

  4. Sally Graham

    Thanks Larry I found your post very interesting and very timely. I’m preparing a session for early years practitioners at a conference next week here in the UK. I’m assuming you’re in the USA. My focus is on how technology can be used to enhance young children’s multiliteracies. I agree so strongly with what you say about the need for us all to indentify the values that underpin our practice. It’s what I strive to do in my work as a teacher educator but it takes time and most people are too busy to be able to find that space. Shame…must crack on myself… nice blog hope to read more in the future….if I can find the time!

  5. Sally Graham

    Hi Larry me again! Enormous coincidence has just happened. As I’m preparing my session I’ve realised I’m quoting you: ‘Many educational settings remain the same as they were as far as the content of the curriculum, methods of teaching etc despite advances in the use of technology (Cuban 1993).’ Hope it’s not cheeky to ask but have you published anything more recently that I could make reference too saying something similar? I’m trying to put forward the argument that technology has changed enormously but have we in early years settings? Cheers Sally

    • larrycuban

      Try “Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability” (Teachers College Press, 2009). Thanks for the comments, Sally.

  6. Karen Rosenquist

    Great article for me to read as a grad student studying change management in Education. I will check myself with diligence that I don’t lapse into the rhetoric of transformation. Do you feel that those behind 21st Century Skills movement make claim to the rhetoric too easily, dwelling too much on the promise of technology and too little on addressing core values or developing shared beliefs?


    • larrycuban

      School reform historically in the U.S. has been strong on exaggerating the problem to be solved and underestimating the issues that have to be contended with in schools and classrooms. Thus, the hype about “transformation” accompanies school reform including high-tech, 21st century skills, Common Core Standards, charter schools–need I go on? Thanks for the comment.

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