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.