More Magical Thinking about Technology in Schools

I watched the World Series and saw both New York Mets and Kansas City Royal fans wearing hats, shirts, and displaying signs designed to get their teams to win. I saw similar clothes and painted faces on soccer fans during the World Cup. The belief, the intuition that these caps and jerseys would get their teams to win borders on superstition. And most fans would agree. Yet, yet, yet just maybe wearing the stuff, painting the face, and holding signs aloft would be just the thing that would snatch defeat from the other team. As a recent op-ed put it: fans “have an powerful intuition and, despite its utter implausibility, they can’t just shake it.”  The contradiction is aptly caught in the title of the opinion piece: “Believing What You Don’t Believe.”

This is no rant, however, about how emotion trumps reason or how thinking thoughts (or fans waving signs) will produce the desired outcome. Nor will this post elaborate how our cognitive “slow” and “fast” thinking ways do not always work in sync or that our “slow thinking” will correct the impulsive move where we have “trusted our gut. ” In this post, I again look at how local, state, and federal policymakers, high-tech entrepreneurs, and CEOs of major corporations engage in “magical thinking.” Inhabiting a technocratic mind-set, these leaders who rely on experts  believe that more and more use of high-tech tools will provide the adrenaline shot for U.S. schools to match international rivals’ test scores and lead ultimately to a larger share of the global market for U.S. goods and services.

I offer two examples of high-tech industry and civic leader aspirations to link all public schooling to the job market and larger economy that highlight this phenomenon: MOOCs and every child learning to code and taking computer science courses.


Massive Open Online Courses burst on the scene three years ago with claims that such courses offered free to anyone on this planet with an Internet connection will–here come the key words–“revolutionize” and “transform” higher education.  John Hennessey, President of Stanford University, said a “tsumani is coming.” Equity and excellence, values that both liberals and conservatives cherish, will be fulfilled. Nothing of the sort happened (see here, here, and here). In the Gartner “hype” cycle, MOOCs are buried in the “slough of disillusionment.” All within three years. High-tech hyperactivity has compressed time into bytes.



Coding and Computer Science

Young children learning to code in elementary schools while their older brothers and sisters take computer science in high school is currently in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” in the above hype cycle. Consider that the British government has gone even further than the mania gripping the U.S. by mandating in its national curriculum that all UK children learn to code and take computer science in their secondary schools (see here and here).  The UK “computing” curriculum is, of course, a national experiment in further vocationalizing public schooling to tie education to the economy. With no national curriculum in the U.S. (Common Core state standards is a pale, decentralized version of such an effort), the surge of interest in coding (e.g., Year of the Code, next month’s celebratory week of Computer Science, coding boot camps), much of it financed by tech industry giants, has seized the spotlight of attention. That attention has shifted from every student having access to computers in school–very close to being a fact in the U.S.–to using these devices in classroom lessons. From kindergartners getting lessons on coding to online courses to blended learning to flipped classrooms, the mania for computers in schools has corralled both public and private funding as the high-tech solution to students becoming equipped with 21st century skills.

To be clear, I do not refer to those tens of thousands of teachers and principals who, with care and thoughtfulness, have slowly integrated their devices and software into lessons to teach content, skills, and creativity. They keep their heads down and often escape the mania I refer to above.

So is there anything intrinsically wrong with pushing coding and computer science in U.S. schools? After all, both are being sold to school boards and parents as ways of teaching logic, thinking skills, as well as preparation for future jobs.  So on the surface, nothing appears to be unseemly. Underneath the surface, however, are two matters that often go unnoted by advocates of coding and computer science.

First, the original trio of goals for computers entering schools and classrooms since the early 1980s were improving academic achievement of students, altering the traditional patterns of teaching and learning, and preparing the next generation for the labor market. Nowadays, few champions of computers in schools even mention academic achievement or talk of “transforming” teaching and learning through laptops and tablets. But the vocational goal does remain in the current joy for teaching children and youth to write code and create algorithms.

Second, is the historic pattern of focusing on public schools as a national problem to be solved (think segregated schools, national defense, drug and alcohol addictions as problems that schools could “solve”) and seeking another “technical” solution to its ills. In this instance, injecting coding and computer science, online instruction into K-16 schooling. Such a technocratic strategy aims to alter traditional curriculum and lessons for one over-riding purpose to get ready for an ever-changing, fast-moving job market and economy.

So here again within a few years, “magical thinking” about the power of technical products to tie schools to the economy via coding and computer science has arisen even in the face of the dramatic shift in goals for these high-tech products over the past three decades and the failure of MOOCs to gain traction in higher education since 2012.

The feel-good attitude of World Series and World Cup fans who wear jerseys and hats believing that to do so will help their teams win is alive and well in the high-tech community.







Filed under school reform policies, technology use

29 responses to “More Magical Thinking about Technology in Schools

  1. Hi Larry

    I love your work and have you as one of my ‘hero’s’, but I find elements here really disappointing.

    Re: UK govt teaching kids to code – you’ve got this really wrong. Take it from my perspective – I was a leader in the ICT industry, designing and programming complex system for SMEs. I moved into high school teaching and found myself showing kids how to word process and create spreadsheets. This was well below their capabilities, and a severe backward step compared to my computer science high school experience in 1976-1980. In 2010, perhaps a little prescient of the UK govt changes, in 2010 I blogged, “ … from cutting edge to impoverishment”:

    I don’t think the new approach is not an experiment in vocationalizing – it is teaching computer science fundamentals that I learned at 15, that I wholeheartedly support being moved down the curriculum.

    The real question is how can we improve the tech education of kids? And here I find much good news to report – especially in my back yard (Liverpool & Preston). Caroline FelthamKeep (@Ka81) is a co-founder of @LpoolMakeFest – I went this year and was delighted to see children and their parents messing with hard and software – I even got a breadboard project to work myself: Scratch the surface and you find these events across the UK, seeping into primary schools, encouraging primary teachers to ‘skill up’.

    I think mania about this is great! I love the enthusiasm that the evangelists of these groups have.

    Very kindest regards,

    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much, David, for commenting on the post. I may well have “got this really wrong”–won’t be the first nor last time that happened–but I have a different perspective than yours, that is, your coming from high tech to high school teaching. As a historian of school reform and a high school teachers for many years, I have seen the national love affair with technology solving serious problems in the U.S. close up in schools many times over. Mania in one’s life and surely in public schools, I have found, ends up being unkind to students and teachers.

      • I, like David Callaghan, am an ardent fan of you work Dr. Cuban. But also like David, I think you have this completely wrong. The magical thinking that has most plagued schools is the persistent notion that desks in neat rows and a chalk board on one side of the room means that learning is occurring. The “computer science for all” advocates (I am one of them) may occasionally overstate their case and promise too much, but if anyone argues that the Computer 101 courses that the overwhelming majority of K-12 schools still offer (Oregon Trail anyone?) are where schools ought to be technologically, they are crazy. Programs like Exploring Computer Science and are freely available to these schools–sure, PD costs some money, but these are hardly equivalent the technology expenditures you have cited related to tablets and laptops. Coding would actually put these devices to much more meaningful use in schools. The UK’s initiative is still in its nascent stages but is an admirable and one, given a few years, which will demonstrate remarkable learning gains that go beyond our efforts here with keyboarding and Carmen San Diego.

      • larrycuban

        You might be correct in your prediction, Quinn, that UK’s initiative “will demonstrate remarkable learning gains that go beyond our efforts here with keyboarding and Carmen San Diego.” If that occurs, I want you to tell me (say in 3-5 years), “I told you so, Larry.” Were such an outcome to have occurred, I must remind you, Quinn, it would be a rare occurrence. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Pedro, for pointing out the sparsity of evidence that coding will improve problem solving, often an explicit assumption among champions of coding. The larger issue is about transfer of learning and what, if anything, about coding can translate to other cognitive skills. Here in the U.S. I often see what Daniel Willingham has to say about transfer.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for re-blogging post on magical thinking, Pedro.

      • Alice in Pa

        The transfer of skills that supposedly come from Coding or modeling has come up a lot in the WaPo comment section for the posting of this article. I too have not seen much evidence of transfer from coding or other skills. It is a source of frustration for teachers who also think skills automatically transfer.

      • larrycuban

        I read the comments at the Washington Post where Valerie Strauss reprinted the post. You certainly got your licks in.

      • Alice in Pa

        Yeah there’s some history with that particular poster from other WaPo stories and even ravitch’s blog. And of course I recognize another large positivist science ego when I see one having been one myself in a previous professional life. I do usually try to be more polite.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for reply, Alice.

  2. Alice in PA

    First, as a Cubs fan, I had to take a deep breath when I read your reference to the World Series.
    As usual, your posts come right as I become aware of a new tech seminar that my admin attended. This time it was Massive Customized Learning which, while not being all online, definitely is a techno fix. MCL can work now because technology will allow us to design individual lessons and track the students’ progress. My administrator is skeptical (yay!), but he witnessed others jumping on and already hiring people to redesign their building. I could not find any evidence of this method improving education (beyond self -report) and was horrified to find examples of the projects that will “customize learning” as being things like making a mole flag when studying the mole unit in chemistry.
    Tech is so sexy and appears to make our lives so much easier/more fulfilling/more efficient that it seems a natural fit for education. Like the latest diet pill, we keep buying and trying despite no results.
    Google docs are great for working together on a project, but if that project is just writing a 6 word memoir without any accompanying explanation, then learning is not advanced. My students can, and do, Google the solution to any textbook physics problem, but without working through the “why” of the meager solution offered, they do not further their knowledge….but they do get their homework done. I can download any book I want on my iPad…but that doesn’t mean I will read things that are difficult or with which I disagree. I can read Clive Cussler novels all I want, but that does not mean I know marine biology.
    Like having a deathly lifestyle, learning is hard work and requires going out of our comfort zone.

    • larrycuban

      Again, Alice, thanks for your comment. Ah, another Cubs fan–well, they gave it a good run this year. I have not heard about Massive Customized Learning–has the ring of an oxymoron–so thanks for telling me and other viewers about it.Comparing high-tech “solutions” to diet pills is a great analogy. Thanks.

  3. Louise Kowitch

    Larry, this week’s post is yet another one of your terrific syntheses of your previous research with contemporary observations. The confluence of so many technological “fixes” at one time with the perennial quest for educational “reform” is the real tsunami. For example, expecting students, teachers and parents to simultaneously use hard copy, Edmoto, Google drive, district-approved websites, texting, Naviance, PowerSchool, Bloomboard, ad infinitum is truly magical thinking, especially when many of us were old timers were trained in “less is more” essential understandings. Thank you!

    • larrycuban

      Louise, thanks for the comment. You make an excellent point about adding up all of the software that districts expect patrons through kids to use. Haven’t see that toting up as you put it.

  4. Over the years it has always appeared that the enthusiasm for tech in schools has come from the administrators, not the classroom teacher. Teachers that deploy tech always seem to do it slowly, not in a “POOF, and miracles will happen” mind set. I see a lot of “here is a really expensive tech tool we just bought for you to use. Figure a way to use it” mentality. Tech is a tool. Some tools look really pretty but are just crap.

  5. Thanks, again for your recent post.
    We have always looked at educators as our experts in education, from kindergarten on. “Listen to your teacher, they know whats best”.
    What we are finding out, as we learn more about education, is that they don’t always know what best and if they do know whats best,they may offer something else as an ‘interim solution’, that ends up as a delay tactic for the ‘real solution’.
    (1) Take MOOCs for example. Stanford, Harvard, MIT, all experts in student deep, cognitive, learning, outcomes, have put their expertise and credibility on the line, by rolling out, over-hyping and massively promoting as educationally revolutionary, a one size fits all model of elearning that they knew was no more successful in deep learning than a one size fits all large lecture was. These ‘experts’ had prior knowledge that this model would only provide mass access to content, like individually googling something, but would not provide individual deep learning, adaptive skills, on the job skills, that would lead to sustained individual performance improvement. Essentially, they over promoted their ineffective and inefficient traditional teaching paradigm, to the expense of the MOOC students (7% completion rate), to delay change to their incumbent paradigm. Go figure.
    (2) Not understanding the big picture, the real purpose of education (mission/vision) and over responding to over hyped pockets of educational need.
    Educators, our experts in education, must not only be experts in their subject, they must also be experts in pedagogy (how people learn) as well being an expert in research proven education reform methodologies.
    Technology; e.g. tablets: Rather than researching how individual learning can be advanced through the use of educationally innovative software run on technology, educators buy technology and deliver incumbent one size fits teaching over technology and are surprised that just individual access to information, faster, does not advance individual learning. They would fail us for this.
    Our experts in education want to be respected as professionals and paid as professionals. They speak as professionals, but their actions are not professional…their actions do not align with advancing student success outcomes, their actions are to preserve the institution focused gravy train, which they are a passenger on.
    The time has come to hold these professionals accountable for their professional contributions to their profession. Things have changed, they have to change too. We can no longer accept their excuses that everything else and everyone else is to blame.
    The public is funding these professionals to be professionals. They MUST embrace change and put their students success first.

  6. Larry – I would like permission to excerpt your section on MOOCs (with a link back to your blog) and post it on my own blog “Education as Conversation,” located at My premise is that face-to-face conversation, teacher-to-student or student-to-student is an essential component of good education. Your comments about MOOCs run right down the center lane of that issue.

  7. Sandy

    Here is what is scarey to me about this comment: vocational goal. If schools produce narrowly skilled individuals, how adaptive will they be to the changing economic forces sure to come? Yes we need coders and software engineers, but when that’s all we have, won’t that put downward pressure on salaries when we have a skills glut? Then who will be the thinker, innovator, humanitarian that considers people and not cogs in the machinery? If a school embraces STEM, what have they let go? A school day is a fixed number of hours. Something has to give if its focus is so narrow.

    Magical thinking. You really nailed that one.

  8. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    You can add the magical thinking by the Oculus Rift founder, Palmer Luckey to this list. Check this article in The Guardian and my reply.

  9. Pingback: Magical thinking on school tech — Joanne Jacobs

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