Does Integrating Computers into Lessons Mean That Teaching Has Changed?

For many years the rhetoric and substance of national reports written by bands of technologists eager to see electronic devices work their wonder on children and adults in schools have baffled me. In these national reports issued periodically by U.S. government sponsored agencies (e.g., Office of Technology Assessment, the National Education Technology Plan) or privately-funded groups (e.g., ISTE or the International Society for Technology in Education, CEO Forum on Education and Technology), I noted two things.

First, on the critical issue of getting new technologies integrated into regular school and classroom routines, advocates differed. Some spoke about integrating technology to advance the content of lessons in reading, math, social studies, science, math, art, music, and other subjects. Others championed learning skills such as critical thinking, analysis, creativity, and inquiry barely mentioning content. I did not find that conflict puzzling since the issue of content vs. skills–is (and has been since late-19th century educational Progressives banged the drum for learning life skills and creativity) a perennial dilemma among curriculum designers, subject-matter specialists, academics, and teachers.

Second, many of these reports used the language of fundamental change such as “transformation” while scorning any incremental or short-term teacher-crafted practical efforts that worked within the system as it is. Anything smacking of incrementalism seemed foul to those ideologues seeking only “revolutionary” changes in schools. Where my puzzlement grew in these well-funded reports written by smart folks came from figuring out how the perennial dilemma of content vs. skills got entangled with fundamental vs. incremental change.

Then I read Judi Harris’s 2005 editorial in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.  I don’t know Professor Harris personally but her work at the University of Texas (Austin) and William and Mary in integrating technology into schools positions her as someone in the community of technology educators to listen to carefully.

In her editorial, Harris tries to explain “why many–if not most–large-scale technology integration efforts are perceived to have failed.” Recall Seymour Papert’s LOGO in the 1980s, Apple Classroom of Tomorrow in the 1990s, and schools that abandoned 1:1 laptops in the past few years. She offers two reasons: technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism.

Borrowing Seymour Papert’s coined word, “technocentric,” Harris points to the blinders that eager policymakers, administrators, and teachers wore (and continue to wear) in embracing the next new gadget.

Technocentrists, she says, seek “educational uses for particular technologies.” Instead, “educators must focus upon how best to assist students’ learning.” Many teachers and principals have said repeatedly to the point of the words being cliched: “integrating technology is not about technology, it is about learning.” Yet those who buy and deploy new technologies–note that most teachers are seldom involved in such decisions–continue to seek “educational uses”  for the electronic devices. Thus, technocentrism rules.

Harris’s second reason is “pedagogical dogmatism.” Among academics, particularly, and many educators there is a decided tilt toward progressive pedagogy, now called in its various incarnations, constructivism. As an example she quotes Christopher Moersch, author of  LoTi (Levels of Technology Implementation), a popular tool used to measure classroom use of technology. The designer expresses an unvarnished preference for one kind of teaching:

“As a teacher progresses from one level to the next, a series of changes … is observed. The instructional focus shifts from being teacher-centered to being learner-centered…. Traditional verbal activities are gradually replaced by authentic hands-on-inquiry related to a problem….”

Harris find the same bias toward constructivist teaching in other commonly used tools, even in the 739-page major work called Education and Technology: An Encyclopedia.

Why, she asks, should K-12 teachers’ roles change to integrate technology effectively? Certainly, the technologies themselves do not require such a fundamental change. Evidence of technology use in Europe, Asia, and the Americas  (see here, here, and here; also JECR PDF) have pointed out how powerful devices end up being used to support teacher-centered instruction.

These two reasons, technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism, Harris argues, explain why for decades, enthusiastic policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have confused technology integration (involving  the perennial conflict of content vs. skills) with technology as an instrument for pedagogical reform (moving from teacher-centered to learner-centered instruction).  The editorial ends with her calling for a separation of the goals of technology integration from the goals of transforming teaching and learning. That call went out in 2005. Few eager advocates for more classroom tablets or more individually tailored online lessons, however, have since heeded the call.

Consider, for example, the recent push for “personalized” instruction customized to individual students (see School of Onehere, here and here). However labeled, “personalized” instruction using tablets and software are clothed in the language of “student-centered” instruction and project-based learning that Progressives a century ago and current advocates of “constructivist” teaching and learning would recognize in a nano-second. Students working online with an individually tailored math lesson is a mere step away from the customized lessons that Programmed Learning and Computer-Assisted Instruction gurus sold to districts between the 1950s and 1980s as individualized instruction (see here, here, and here).  In other words, the pedagogical dogmatism that Harris had noted in 2005 has hardly slowed down.




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

32 responses to “Does Integrating Computers into Lessons Mean That Teaching Has Changed?

  1. Alice in PA

    I do not equate the push for “personalized learning” via a computer with a constructivist learning philosophy. If individuals construct their knowledge based upon their experiences, both past and present, then merely having a computer choose modules or even individual questions does not really help people construct their knowledge, or at least construct it very deeply. Much more nuance is needed which can only be provided by a human interacting with another human.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    Excellent discussion. I taught at the University of Illinois when there was great excitement about children learning to program a “turtle” to move about on a surface, was a colleague of Charles Csuri who pioneered graphic animations in a post Sputnik era of possibilities.
    Have followed tech since, especially the innovations in digital imaging, simulations, gaming. I am impressed with possibilities and almost always disappointed by the misrepresentations of these developments as panaceas for this or that.
    If you want to see technocentric thinking in full fantasy form go to a foundation that has engaged in future scenarios and funded or received funding to promote technology as the be-all of the future of education. The assumptions are so grand that they require a utopian political vision and economic system designed to valorize technology.

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  4. JoeN

    Judi Harris was spot on and as you point out Larry, the issue remains as damaging today. I would only add, as I did in a recent article for the TES in the UK, that until the ed-tech industry accepts some responsibility for this and changes its practice, the now endemic cycle of substantial investment that produces no educational benefit, will just continue.

  5. Pingback: 2 words from 2005 still going strong in 2015: technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism, | From experience to meaning...

  6. I am not sure the “technocentrist” term is well chosen. By using it, the critics repeat the fallacy of those they are criticising that “technology” is all about hardware and generic software. The insight that both are missing is that teaching (or at least the pedagogy that underlies that activity) is itself a technology – it is *the* technology that really matters in our vertical. Digital tech is a *different* technology, which we may use as a medium to express, formalise, repeat and evidence different sorts of pedagogy – the technology that is proper to our profession.

    The same insight will decouple edtech from a particular constructivist pedagogy and so break the dependency that is the target of the second criticism.

    You might say that I am splitting hairs about the way the argument ought to be expressed – though in fact I think this insight – that teaching is a technology – is vital we are to implement edtech more effectively in the future than has been achieved in the past. But I agree with your general drift – and thank you Larry for the post.

    • larrycuban

      I follow your point, Crispin, that teaching itself can be seen as a technology. Organizational sociologists studying schools often see what occurs in classrooms as the “technology of teaching and learning.” So I get your point. The way that Judi Miller uses “technocentrist”–derived from Seymour Papert–and my acceptance of the term is common nowadays. Thanks for the reminder, however, about teaching in of itself is a technology.

      • Thanks for the reply, Larry. I do not mean to disagree with the underlying argument and I understand the very respectable provenance of the language. But the point I am making is not only that teaching *can* be seen as a technology, but that it is *only* by seeing teaching as a technology that we can start to devise useful ways of using digital technology to improve our education systems. If you have time to read my argument more fully, I make it at – in this case in relation to educational research. I think the way that the term “technology” is very generally used in the field of education represents a key reason why (as Joe Nutt observes above) we have made so little progress in applying digital technology to education.

      • larrycuban

        Point well taken, Crispin.

  7. Elise Edelson Katch

    Larry … I totally agree with you. I have been writing a piece for years about school failure to teach all children to read. I just could not finish but just a few days ago pulled together an ending. It hit me that the “re-imagine learning in the 21st century” simply exploded world-wide. The well orchested (and progressive) movement relies on us all accepting various beliefs. Taken individually they appear benign but taken together they validate personalized learning. The belief in individual learning styles and different brains and multiple intelligence pave the way for accepting the NEED for personalized learning. It is genius. Thank you for your post … I thought I was alone in seeing this battle as progressive v traditional. You have clarified ideas for me!!!! Our kids need teacher-directed learning.

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  9. The better question is: what does the proven research, on advanced individual student deep learning outcomes, that lead to sustained individual performance improvement outcomes, suggest, as appropriate pedagogy AND what does proven deep learning, best practices, suggest, as ways to measurably advance individual student deep learning outcomes, that lead to sustained individual performance improvement outcomes

    Simplistically, the current, traditional one size fits all teaching methodology is proven to be ineffective and inefficient, at deep learning and improving performance. But we continue one size fits all teaching, delivering over technology and we wonder why learning and performance don’t advance.

    The answer is 21st century learning methodology. A paradigm change.

    it works, the research is behind it, but we don’t understand it and we don’t implement it

    No mystery here…we are insane….we repeat the same approach, again and again, and again expecting a different outcomes…

    Go figure.

  10. Just a quick clarification – would further reading of books on subjects from lessons and areas of interest be classed as ‘personalised learning’?

  11. Great piece, Larry.

    I’m a serious technologist in life but not in school. I still haven’t found much technology, for example, that helps me help kids become better readers and writers.

    Yes, a computer is great for word processing. But I typically see more learning when kids write by hand: it’s slower so they think a little more about what they’re doing and it’s easier for me and for students to find and correct patterns of errors and to show growth within a single piece of writing simply by saving the work kids produce.

    It has always seemed to me that teaching and learning are fundamentally human pursuits and that the quality of social interaction has a lot to do with student and teacher success.

    The disadvantage I see in so many 1:1 tech programs these days is the number “1”. For example, when I model teaching practices in schools where every kid has a device, the devices don’t help me connect with the kids or vice versa. More often than not, they get in the way. (Just as they do in the workplace, btw.)

    Similarly, giving me a spiffy MacBook Air to “slideshow-ize” all my lessons is actually much worse than just giving me a couple of whiteboard markers and 20 feet of whiteboard which gives me much more flexibility in optimizing my teaching in the moment.

    As someone who has worked professionally in both hardware and software companies, I’m often asked for my input on the value of tech in school. Other than saying, “People value having a lot of technology around.” I really don’t know what to say that is tech-positive. Any thoughts for me here?

    Furthermore, it seems to me that technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism are, themselves, fundamentally human issues. And that here, too, social interaction plays an important role.

    Based on my years of work in technology, and my years of working in schools, I have my own theory of how tech might better be used in education. But I’ll leave that for another day.

    What I really wanted to ask you is this: “Is our fascination with ed tech dehumanizing schooling in ways that undermine any gains more tech might provide?”

    Thanks, as always, for your very thoughtful work.

    Steve Peha
    Founder, Teaching That Makes Sense

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Steve. When I visit schools rich with devices and software, like yourself,a few people ask me about the value of the technology in the school. I often answer that it depends on how it (whatever the devices and software)is used to help teachers reach the goals of the lesson. Like yourself, I am not persuaded that more hard- and software means anything more; it is the teacher’s use that matters the most and that varies across grades, subjects, and schools. As for your final question: “Is our fascination with ed tech dehumanizing schooling in ways that undermine any gains more tech might provide?” I have no answer because the question already has negative assumptions (and answers) embedded in it. Were I even to try my answer would disappoint you, I believe. Those schools where students use online instruction for more than half to three-quarters of their school day, then the core part of schooling–the relationship with the teacher–is damaged.

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  14. surfer

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. I remember “tech” being oversold and pushed when I was a student in the 80s (and it accelerated in the 90s). I’m not surprised that education professors don’t understand how this stuff really works in reality. After all, they lack a good feel (research based or direct observation) on how teaching and learning work in general. It plains me to say this as I even had a girlfriend who was into all the whole language crap.

    I am going to read through a lot of the links, but some quick reactions:

    1. I love programmed instruction and wonder why it is not longer featured much. Was it too effective and cheap? (They want expensive stuff that fails instead?) I learned Nautical Rules of the Road from an amazing English book that was programmed instruction (was an underground tip for all US naval officers to find and use it.) I also literally learned accounting 101 during a 12 hour overseas flight by working through a programmed instruction book.

    2. With the whole sage/guide debate: I am sympathetic to less lecturing–it is passive and inefficient. However, the answer is not clickers and projects and group work. The replacement should be PRACTICE. Doing HW style problems in class (math, language, vocabulary) and then recitation, passing the papers, etc.

    3. I’ve always thought that some of the advantages of technology apply to the topics that the edubabblists hate. Use technology for drill, for positive/negative feedback, for testing, and for evaluation of gaps. Basically glorified flash cards! But with a little video game effect. Drill can be a little monastic, so if you can add a little feedback (even hokey) that makes it more endurable.

    4. Think about how you would self study a course. Say calculus. You don’t want some reform crap. You want a traditional text. Maybe a little gentler and terser in text. With emphasis on drills and examples. Schaum’s is a great example. Or older Thomas Finney or even Granville. Look at the excellent Education Manuals by the War Department in World War 2 for instance. [I am later in life, considering to self study partial differential equations. I know I will select a traditional text, on the easier side, and pretty clean and well used…not cutting edge! Maybe Farlow.]

  15. surfer

    1. In defense of TEXTBOOKS. And from a very young, techish, type guy. And one with no allegiance to formal schooling (the opposite, actually, a self learning advocate).

    2. In defense of practice problems:

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