As Teacher Use of New Technologies Has Spread, Have Most Teachers Changed How They Teach?

Historians of technology point out that it took a half-century after the introduction of turbine-generated electric power in the U.S to eventually light streets, power trolleys, create industrial assembly lines, and upgrade the home with incandescent lights, refrigerators, telephones, and automatic washers. It took over five decades in fits and starts for these changes to emerge as American leaders electrified factories, transportation, street lighting, and home appliances. On a graph, electrification over these decades bursts ahead and recedes but the trend line is clear.

I believe that the introduction of computer hardware and software into schools in the early 1980s follows a similar fits-and-starts pattern of teachers choosing to integrate new technologies into their lessons. As in electrifying industry and home, the trend of greater access to devices and software and greater use in school is clear, at least from teacher self-reports. See here and here. But a graph would show an up-and-down line with a trend becoming evident over time.

Direct observation of classrooms confirms that more and more teachers are using new devices and software in lessons. For example, I studied Las Montanas high school at two periods of time, in 1998-1999 and 2008-2010. Where computer labs dominated some teachers’ and students’ use in 1999, classroom  laptops and interactive white boards were pervasive across all academic subjects in 2010. Yet even with far more teacher use, I noted that some chose not to use the devices and software. I wrote about these changes in Las Montanas in those two periods of time here and here.

While some gaps in access to new technologies still exist across the U.S.,  putting devices in most students’ hands has occurred. So, too, have most teachers, to some degree, begun integrating new technologies into lessons. What remains unsettled, however, is whether that integration has altered how teachers teach.

Many advocates for integrating high-tech devices into classroom lessons want to transform teacher-directed lessons into student-centered ones. Using new technologies from desktop computers to laptops to interactive whiteboards to iPads to online instruction, they have claimed, would shift traditional whole-group, teacher-centered, textbook-bound, homework-driven lessons to ones where teachers worked with individual students and small groups on customized assignments with students using multiple sources and exploring new skills and knowledge. In short, there is a clear bias among these advocates.

For those policymakers, academics, and practitioners who read Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms in 1980 to those who now read Clayton Christensen‘s Disrupting Class (2010), creating student-centered learning through new technologies has fueled their reform-driven efforts. They believed that these new technologies would transform, nay, revolutionize–favorite words in reformers’ lexicon–teaching and learning. That belief is the bedrock of the ideology deeply embedded in past and current efforts to integrate technology into daily lessons. It is, then, an unforgiving bias toward one form of teaching. or what Judi Harris, education professor at William and Mary, calls “pedagogical dogmatism.”

Such “dogmatism” leads to judgments that some forms of technology integration are better than others. When teachers use laptops, interactive whiteboards, and software–Keynote and PowerPoint–to extend and reinforce direct instruction or teacher-centered lessons, these “pedagogical” dogmatists cringe. It is not how these champions of tablets and laptops, of online lessons in math and reading believe students should learn.

These reformers believe that technology-integrated lessons should put students at the center–such as in blended instruction (e.g., School of One, Carpe Diem, Rocketship)– online instruction, or in project-based learning (e.g., High-Tech High). That is the right-minded use of technology. Those champions of student-centered learning believe that those teachers who use hardware and software to improve their teacher-centered lessons such as what I described at Las Montanas use powerful tools in wrong-minded ways.

This unacknowledged bias, of course leads to wrong-headed judgments about what constitutes “good” teaching. The fact is that there is no one best way of teaching and learning. No evidence that I know confirms that student-centered–however defined–is superior to teacher-centered instruction. What might make “pedagogical” dogmatists wince, however, is some evidence that teacher-centered lessons in the form of “direct instruction”does increase standardized test scores (see here and here). Moreover, practitioner wisdom–something researchers too often ignore–is rich in stories of those teachers who hug the middle and use hybrids of teacher- and student-centered instruction to increase their chances of engaging and reaching more students.

Reform-driven educators need to recognize that since the 1980s, most teachers, in fits and starts, have integrated new technologies into their lessons. Next, they need to understand the many organizational, sociological, and structural reasons that explain why most teachers have bent these powerful devices and software to improve teacher-centered instruction. Then, they must admit publicly that they are biased toward student-centered instruction and, acknowledge that at best, it is one among many ways to teach and learn effectively. My guess is that it ain’t going to happen.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

34 responses to “As Teacher Use of New Technologies Has Spread, Have Most Teachers Changed How They Teach?

  1. Cognitivist and constructivist psychology have dominated educational practice since shortly after the war. It’s those beliefs (that is all they are) which the “dogmatists,” and the commercial and strategic interests who they take their lead from, base all their arguments on. Neither psychological theory values the concept of scholarship: hence the determined and relentless undermining of the teacher as a figure of respect that the “dogmatists” also pursue, with all the concomitant behavioural issues that creates for schools.

    Only recently, with the interest shown by neuroscientists in learning, has there been any sign of that suffocating stranglehold weakening.

  2. larrycuban

    Thanks, Joe, for the comment.

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  5. A very interesting summation of the issue. When I became a teacher in the the 1970’s, Ontario was in the grips of the Hall-Dennis report which sought to revolutionize the education system. Hence, open-concept schools were built, child-centred learning in the form of learning centres was advocated in elementary schools, discovery learning was emphasized and traditional approaches to reading and writing were abandoned in favour of choice and free-writing. This was, of course, all prior to the technology we have today. The theories were good but not necessarily practical and after about a decade, the walls went back up and we moved back to more traditional approaches. I have seen continuous change in educational theory and in Ministry of Education focus in the last 36 years. Technology is transforming a lot of things but I see no movement towards the individual student focus that you described in your post. I like the fact that you describe most teachers taking the middle ground on the issue and I am pretty sure that a combination of teacher-centred/student centred pedagogy will prevail because it combines the best of both worlds.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Cathy, for the recalling of open-space architecture for schools in the 1970s both in Ontario and across the U.S. Appreciate your comments.

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  7. Briel

    Thank you for a very reasoned view on this topic. No surprise to me that you would present a reasoned view! In the midst of high-tech Seattle we take a low-tech approach with our elementary students. The tech we do us is highly intentional. I think that this is similar to the middle ground that you describe. It has allowed us to focus our funds, have teachers lead the movement and be honest about how quickly we want to implement something new. It has been working, and the challenge is to continue to ask ourselves “what’s next?” and “are we becoming stagnant?” The forces are sometimes so strong!

    I just started reading your blog and I am so enjoying being connected again. My husband (public middle school principal) is also reading and talking about your blog. Thanks for continuing to be thought-provoking. I look forward to reading more. Still loving my headship of a small private elementary school. (Briel MA 1995 Standford)

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  9. Larry
    As always thank you for coherently putting forward arguments relating to the effect of educational technologies on schools.
    Let me first concur with things you raised
    (1) more and more teachers are using new technologies in lessons
    (2) “there is no one best way of teaching and learning”
    (3) cringing at the word “revolutionize” (what power shift are we talking about when we call for a revolution?)
    (4) “unacknowledged bias” is always a problem at all level (including in universities)
    However I must take issue with your general argument and its straw man nature. As a teacher for over twenty-five year I have always been student-centered in my approach, as is every educator who is serious about the education of our young. I have also always worked within academic curriculums and see my professional duty as bringing the two together as well as I can. I have also employed learning technologies and supported teaching in finding good ways to advance their teaching (which includes considering the views of those who may have an alternative perspective – from which I have learnt and continue to learn).
    Discussions are not helped by those advocating either faddist agendas, or those advocating learning, and therefore, education as a non-changing consideration. I see the basic issue as learning value, and while standardized scores dominate (which I see as too narrow for the world we live in) then the “text-book bound” perspective can be defended without having to take in alternatives. Yet teachers, as has been the case since year dot, will try to help students to look beyond the limits of traditional frameworks, and in doing so join them. Educational technologies, if used well, are an important part of this in our time (and I please guilty to being strongly influenced by Seymour Papert and his call for more active involvement by students in their learning).
    Your final call to “admit publicly” is confusing. I admit publicly here that I am committed to student-centered instruction and that I am one of many who are trying to work together to ensure that personal ways of learning are supported by personal ways of teaching. We need to move beyond the argument presented here to address the question: do digital technologies affect learning, and if so in what ways and with what implications for school education? If a commitment to learning value in changing times, and in doing so willing to reflect on how best I can use these in my teaching, and to enter into the debate as it affects school education as a system is dogmatism, then I plead guilty.

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    • larrycuban

      As before, John, thank you for your thoughtful comment, particularly pointing out where you agree and disagree. On the latter, that you publicly acknowledge your commitment to student-centered instruction (a concept with varied meanings) is fine. What I and Judi Harris–cited in the post–object to are those who are cheerleaders for new technologies because they believe the devices and software will “transform” teacher-centered instruction (connoting “bad” teaching) to “better” teaching, i.e., student-centered.If one accepts that teachers have to have a blended repertoire of teaching approaches because of differences among students than pushing new devices and software upon teachers to move them to one approach is the “dogmatism” I mean.

      • Thank you Larry for the clarifying reply. I suppose one point I was trying to make was that I find just as much “dogmatism” in those who use “traditional” expectations wrapped around standardized scoring as justification for (singular-focused) teacher-centered approaches. Digital technologies can become the whipping-horse or solution depending on ones viewpoint. We have it the wrong way around in either dogmatism. I think we both have similar beliefs and hopes in the power of good teaching, although we may differ in what we see this as. Viva the difference.

  11. larrycuban

    Thanks, John.

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  13. Always interesting to read your balanced post Larry….and as ever the Joe Nutt “techno-bigotry” response demonstrates how out of touch he is with how technology continues to engage,inspire ,motivate pupils and raise levels of achievement here in England.

    I expect his reference to “neoroscientist” is his beloved Baroness Susan Greenfield whose “research” is really not research and has very little credibility within education or neuroscience circles. If you want to explore the work of Dr Paul Howard Jones

    Or even Professor Sugata Mitra

    We might have a basis for a scholarly exchange instead of the usual Nutt dogma!!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment. I will check out the URLs you sent. I would appreciate, however, your writing Joe Nutt directly about your differences over research and technology rather than using this blog to communicate your differences with him. Many thanks, Bob.

      • Thanks Larry…point taken…I just feel his viewpoint needs to be challenged vigorously and whilst I appreciate how balanced,considered and evidenced based your posts are the “techno-scepticism” in some of the comments becomes self fulfilling if not challenged?

        I am hoping to be in Palo Alto for thanksgiving and the following weekend if you are in town?

      Susan’s scientific reputation and achievements speak for themselves.

      • larrycuban

        I wrote the following to Bob Harrison today.
        “Thanks for the comment. I will check out the URLs you sent. I would appreciate, however, your writing Joe Nutt directly about your differences over research and technology rather than using this blog to communicate your differences with him.”

        I would appreciate the same from you, Joe.

  14. larrycuban

    Thanks, Bob, for your reply.

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  19. Dear proffessor i need one of your article to finish my thesis. would you mind helping did teachers teach 1890-1980.theory into practice22(3) 159-165

    • larrycuban

      I sent you a later article that might help. The piece you refer to was published 30 years ago and I do not have a copy to scan and send.

  20. I really appreicate the focus of this article and the wide range of views expressed by the author and the commentors. Unfortunately, as long as our society holds the teachers accountable for the student learning, the teaching will be more “teacher-focused”. If students (or even teachers) had the authority to create and defend their own assessments, then we’d see a greater shift to student-generated learning. Ultimately, there are definitions at work here that create confusion. What is education? What is a teacher? Why do we need/want either of them?


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