The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice: The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 3)























Parts 1 and 2 of this series made the case that when it comes to putting technology into classrooms, political reasons trump evidence from research and experience time and again. The lack of evidence supporting policymakers putting new devices and software into classrooms (e.g., produce gains in student test scores, transform teacher-centered into student-centered classrooms, and prepare children for entry-level jobs) is an open secret. Because public schools are political institutions reliant upon taxpayers and voters, beliefs–a.k.a. political ideology–have far more clout than evidence-based studies when  purchasing new technologies. And these beliefs (e.g., technology modernizes schooling, increases confidence of stakeholders in public schools, and saves time and money in testing) dominate policymaker thinking now.

While it would be forthcoming of top public and private decision-makers to stop using a fig leaf of evidence to hide the nakedness of their arguments, the official  reasons for deploying new technologies remain in play.  Part 3 removes the fig leaf in turning to technologies for young children. That is why the above photos launch this post.

The main point is that the push to arm kindergartners with iPads, put laptops into little hands, and place earphones on tiny heads has no basis in hard evidence. Few, if any studies, have dealt with toddlers or kindergartners. It is the political reasons noted above that school boards, superintendents, state and federal officials hide behind when they spend public dollars to equip four- and five year-olds with new technologies that will be obsolete in a few years. So in the rush to deploy devices into little hands, important questions go unasked.

Does the combination of screen time at home (e.g., television, smart phones, tablets, etc.) and then at school help or harm young children grow and learn?

To what degree do classroom screens isolate young children from one another in the name of personalized learning and thereby reduce collaborative activities?

What exactly do children learn (both intended and unintended) from clicking keys when viewing software for 15 or 20 minutes a day (or longer)?

How does the introduction of tablets or laptops alter the relationship between teachers and young children?

Asking such questions should be part of any public discussion when considering new devices for young children. They are not now asked. School boards and superintendents continue to trip over one another in equipping young children with devices that will soon be obsolete

When I answer parents emails or respond to journalist questions about new purchases of brand-new hardware and software for little kids, I ask the parents and journalists what reasons do school boards and superintendents give to the community. Since evidence is paltry on academic achievement, few policymakers ever say “research studies show….” What they do say, according to parents, journalists, and from what I have gathered in the media, is that these tablets, smart boards, laptops engage the children. Young children are enraptured when finger-swiping a screen, overjoyed with dancing colors and unexpected sounds–it is like a spanking new toy.

Two thoughts come to mind when I hear top decision-makers say”engagement” is the reason for  young children using these devices. First, four- and five year-olds can get “engaged” with popsicle sticks and cardboard cylinders from toilet paper rolls. It doesn’t take much to “engage” (or distract) a young child.

Second, the concept of “engagement” becomes a stand-in for student achievement. Policymakers assume that a child engaged in an activity is learning what was intended and when assessment rolls around will demonstrate that learning. The fact is that engagement may be a necessary condition but it is insufficient to show that the child has, indeed, learned what was intended. In short, there is a novelty effect that accompanies new technological devices  and, yes, as readers know well, the novelty wears off in time. Thus the linkage between engagement and achievement is hardly iron-clad. Yet top decision-makers assume, without evidence, that the two are locked together.

So policymakers have manufactured yet another reason–student engagement–for persuading parents and taxpayers why they use scarce education dollars for soon-to-be-obsolete technologies.

And beyond the noisy hype and the ever-hungry news cycle, what happens in these classrooms  equipped with new devices?

Except for those schools where young children are sent to computer labs, I have been in many classrooms where the majority of young children do not yet have row- after-row of devices. Usually there are a few machines in the classrooms. Most early childhood teachers allocate limited time for children to rotate through different activities such as a reading corner, art station, blocks, sandbox, and math center, and a center equipped with computers.Yet as preschool and kindergarten have become academic boot camps for first grade in the past decade and hype for having kindergartners use iPads increases, I do worry.

Especially, I worry about those Rocketship-like schools  where children sit in cubicles–see first photo–tapping away at keyboards for two or more hours daily located in mostly low-income neighborhoods where parents seldom ask the above questions.

When it comes to policymakers deciding on placing new hardware or software in classrooms serving small children, after thirty years of computer use in schools, evidence-based decisions are missing-in-action. The real reasons for such purchases have far more to do with beliefs and ideology than data-driven decisions.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

28 responses to “The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice: The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 3)

  1. Larry, as usual, and just like those you criticize, you fail to document any of your assertions. Second, I note that some of your assertions are based on dated knowledge of how schools are currently using technology. Let’s just be honest with your readers and say that you don’t get technology and thus you will never support its use. But don’t do what you do now because without documentation, its just opinion and its beginning to sound a lot like Fox News in its lack of accuracy.

  2. None of the questions raised in this article regarding use of technology is important. The key question, and only one, is What technology and what uses of technology enhance and improve children’s acquisition of the curriculum, above that of using less technological approaches?

    Above this question must be an understanding of how people/children learn and the best or even the good ways of presenting the material or even what needs to be learned. I don’t believe these latter issues have been agreed upon in practice.

  3. As the main guy who gives the administration advice on technology these last three blogs are thought provoking. Do I take everything said here as God’s honest truth? No. Do I consider everything said here? Absolutely. I can do my own research and develop a bias from what I read but it is blogs like this that start the thinking process. I do not have to agree or disagree, but I do have to consider. Sometimes the administration gets bit by the Good Idea Fairy and just takes off. It is my responsibility to have the background knowledge to give them an educated opinion. Blogs like this, agree or disagree, help form the opinion and send me in directions for that needed background.

    I believe in using and teaching technology not because it improves some score or improves reading or whatever. I use and teach technology because the kids should know technology. Technology is a field of its own to be understood just like math or reading. Giving a 3rd grader an iPad may not improve their reading skills, but it does improve their iPad skills. Is that important? That is the argument that needs to be considered.

  4. Jeffrey Bowen

    Strangely enough, our military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are predicated on political ideology and policymakers’ prejudices rather than on the basis of real evidence that any lasting results will be produced. Indeed, we justify such interventions on the notion that “engagement” makes all the difference. See the parallel? Sure, we teach technology because “our kids should know technology” to cope with 21st century American life. Funny how we seem to use an ironically similar justification to rationalize our chronic engagement in wars around the globe. Perhaps if our elected officials spent a little time on the battlefield, or actually in our classrooms encountering the challenges our teachers face, they might stop embracing the Good Fairy Idea.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting,Jeffrey.

    • There are definite parallels in both arguments. The difference lies in the interpretation and observation. As a soldier for 38 years I was directly involved in many of those wars around the world and my observation/opinion is that there were good logical reasoning for being involved. We live in the technology based world. Knowing technology is sort of required to operate in many fields. How much and what is the problem. I am the teacher in the classroom but I am a tech teacher so I have a large bias in the tech direction. Those that do not use or need tech to teach will have a bias in the other direction. What we need is to look at least 5 years down the road and see where the middle ground lies. Kind of like those wars. What would happen 5 years down the road if we did not get involved? In both cases it is guess work and opinion. That is what makes it all interesting.

  5. JoeN

    Larry, an interestingly accessible look at some evidence, from the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation toolkit. What strikes me, as someone who has read plenty of “evidence” is the age of the studies cited, and that one at least (the Becta study) is like asking McDonalds to research hamburgers and health.

  6. The 3-part blog could have as aptly been titled, “The Lack of Practice-Based Evidence.” But the substance of the blog would be the same with either title.

    The thing about EdLand, is that the research lit is such you can find “evidence” to support or refute any statement you want to make about any
    matter In tech-talk: “if-then statement about independent variables”) And ed practice is such that wherever you look, the variability overwhelm whatever matter (Tech-talk: “dependent variable”) is of interest.

    Since we have little or no replicability evidence (how-to technology) to rely on in EdLand, personal experience, ideology, and failed-fad have free rein.

    So how to best address the situation? Short answer: View the variability as an opportunity to conduct Natural Experiments that can generate reliable “if-then statements”–just like the big people in science and technology operate.

    Meanwhile, more to the point of the blog:
    “Educate 1-to-1: The secrets to successfully planning, implementing and sustaining change through mobile learning in schools”

    You can get the jist of the book by clicking on “Inside the Book.”

  7. Thanks Larry…I would like to cite Steve Higgins Durham University EEF funded project as my friend Joe Nutt has done
    Evidence of correlation and and positive impact but it is teachers use of technology not the technology itself that makes the difference.
    And as tech gets cheaper and teachers more discerning things are getting better?

    So my asssertion is completely opposite to Joe!

  8. Larry, I am a fan of your work, and I have read many examples of hard evidence that technology can benefit learning. The question, at this point, is not if technology enhances learning it is how teachers can implement and what technology is best. The facts that I have come across are that technologies (such as digital photography) greatly enhance constructivist learning practices. Digital photography, with early childhood learners in particular, has great promise for allowing kids to document their experiences and their ideas. Here is some evidence of this that you will note when you go to this link:

    • larrycuban

      I agree on how you phrase the question, Devonee: “The question, at this point, is not if technology enhances learning it is how teachers can implement and what technology is best.” That question, however, is not what most studies investigate. The NAEYC piece is a fine example of how some classrooms use technology to enhance student-centered learning. It is not evidence that technology “works.”

  9. So my assertion is completely opposite to Joe!
    Proof of my contention that the ed research lit provided support for any assertion one cares to make.

    it is teachers use of technology not the technology itself that makes the difference
    Proof of my contention that EdLand views “technology” as electronic devices and their accoutrements rather than as the “how to” in Science and Technology, which is produced by the “D” in R&D.

    In every other sector when a device isn’t working as intended, the standard procedure is to troubleshoot, “why not;” the expectation is that the device is fit for purpose. “Operator error” is recognized as one possible “what’s wrong”, but that possibility can be quickly identified. If the error is idiosyncratic, it can readily be remediated. If “operator error” is eliminated as the obstacle, it’s gotta be with the device.

    EdLanders take on the responsibility of “making the equipment work.” This has two undesirable consequences. First, it makes schools and teachers look incompetent, which is a bad rap. Second, and more consequential, it precludes the design and development of “how to” technology that would advance the schooling endeavor.

  10. cerouse2015

    This blog post really intrigued me. I also worry about the “rocketship-like schools.” I often see technology used as a way to distract and calm a child down. I have even heard technology being called a babysitter rather than a tool to aid in education. Although I believe that children should be exposed to technology in schools, I question the duration of this exposure and the extent of money being allocated for these devices in some areas.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you,Tim, for your extended comments on me personally and the ideas I included in the three-part series. I hope you get a large readership for your comments.

      • Thank you Larry, I doubt if I will ever have the audience you have. You have established quite the bully pulpit over the years as part of your work, whereas I have to work at my regular job and then blog as a side. Different strokes for different folks as my father used to say. I am lucky if I get a single comment.

        However, I do think, when someone is incorrect, as I do in the case of these three blog posts, that they cannot be left unchallenged. Reading through the comments on all three, there seems to be others that feel that way as well. People that are in your position, as I am sure you know, have influence over others, something I do not. Your words have impact far beyond anything I could ever dream of. When you come out against something that has fundamental flaws in thinking (at least in my humble opinion) I think there needs to be a pushback to show that there are more ways to think about issues that presented. I appreciate your willingness to post my comments.

      • larrycuban

        Thank you for pushing back, Tim.

  11. Pingback: Report on virtual learning reminds us that well-respected outlets sometimes publish uninformed articles « Uncategorized « Keeping Pace

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