In the three part series on evidence for use of computer devices in classrooms I posted recently, one reader highly supportive of classroom technology questioned my focus on evidence by pointing out on his blog that no studies had been done when textbooks were introduced so why should the introduction and use of electronic devices and their software be held to that standard. Here is, in part, what the reader said:
For instance, we spend a lot of money on textbooks. Is there evidence, research based, that paper textbooks are an effective teaching tool with today’s students? How about pencils? Pens? Air conditioned classrooms? The point is, there are lots of things we spend great deal of money on in education without asking if there is evidence to show that the program works. I have NEVER, in all my years in education, ever heard any school board or state legislator ask if textbooks are worth the money that is spent on them. And I would venture to say, that along with technology, textbooks are perhaps the most expensive purchase that school districts make. Do they make a difference, especially in the connected wireless world where the exact same information is available for free on the internet?
This is a familiar rebuttal from advocates of using new high-tech devices for classroom lessons. They believe that it is unfair to expect researchers, including both academics and teachers, to investigate the worth of district investments in classroom software and hardware when the value of so many low-tech devices (e.g., the slate blackboard, pencil, paper, textbooks) used for centuries have not been either researched or evaluated. Why pick on use of software and hardware, they ask?
Here are two answers to the question.
First, when different groups inside and outside schools compete for limited resources at a time of high-intensity accountability, demands for data-driven decisions and asking for evidence of worth are as obvious and necessary as rain during a drought. But what is obvious and necessary give way to political choices since high-tech software and hardware compete for those scarce dollars with other highly-valued alternatives such as smaller class size, teacher professional development, and school security. Faddish as they may be such phrases as “evidence-based practice” or “best practices” at least contain a non-political response that raises the standard for school decisions higher than pointing to strong political support for new technologies from parent surveys, top policymakers, vendors, and others who have unvarnished faith in the students being exposed to the next new thing.
Second, there is a historical answer. Two hundred years ago, the most basic tools for teaching reading, math, writing geography, and history in mostly one-room public schoolhouses with students ranging in age from four to twenty-one were in very short supply. Before children had individual textbooks filled with the knowledge and skills they were expected to learn, the teacher had a book–the Bible, Webster’s Speller, or similar texts–and told students everything that was on the page that they had to learn. Initially before the Civil War, parents had to buy books for their children to attend school before some city schools (e.g., Boston, New York City) began to buy textbooks for all children attending school. From the 19th century until the mid-20th century, textbooks were the computers of the day giving students access to basic knowledge.
So questions of whether or not to have textbooks are moot. It is (and was) taken-for-granted that every student has to have access to community-sanctioned knowledge and textbooks are (and were) the answer. Even today when some districts buy licenses to load current textbooks on tablet computers or laptops, it is the text that remains central to most, but surely not all, teachers’ lessons.
As blackboards have given way to whiteboards and now smart boards, as pencil and paper–still in much evidence in schools–slowly give way to the keyboard, low-tech devices and high-tech devices will continue to compete for dollars in a district’s budget. Policymakers will continue to decide what gets funded based on tradition, available data, and community values. Tax-supported public schools have been political institutions from their very birth in the early-19th century. Decisions made to buy iPads or air-conditioning are, in effect, political decisions subject to social beliefs, whims, and available data. Recognizing the political nature of schools does not mean, however, ignoring or dispensing with evidence when decision-makers decide among competing choices.