Technology Evangelists, Skeptics, and Those in the Middle

In a recent post from EdSurge (November 5, 2015), the following graphic was shown:



The text in EdSurge accompanying the graphic said:

Everyone loves a good metaphor–and this week, New Jersey principal Jon Cohen made us think with this “pencil metaphor” graphic posted via Twitter, describing the educator spectrum of edtech lovers and resistors [sic]. Where does your school fall? Do you have a lot of leaders, or or are you struggling to convert the “erasers”? We bet this newsletter can help you “sharpen” your skills, even though we all … suffer a few breaks now and then!

EdSurge evangelizes for more and better high-tech use in schools. They ask entrepreneurs and hard-core advocates of more devices in schools to listen to both students and teachers before marketing their particular mousetrap to the world. But this post is not about EdSurge. It is about two graphics, the one above and one below.


I begin with the pencil graphic. While titled “Integrating Technology in Schools” it slams all those teachers and principals who do not leap on the latest high-tech bandwagon careening through school boards and superintendent offices. The graphic assumes that all high-tech innovations are positive for both teachers and students. Those who wait and ask questions are labeled “resisters.”

The “leaders” and “sharp ones” at the pointy end of the pencil are the early adopters, implying that they are both smart and astute about teaching and learning while those further down the pencil’s shaft–the “wood” and “hangers on”–are way behind the curve as adopters. Then those at the “ferrule” and “eraser” end of the pencil are active resisters, even enemies, of using tech in the classroom. This is, of course, nonsense but it does mirror many an evangelist’s view of teachers and students using (and not using) devices and software in schools and classrooms. The title is a misnomer since nothing here is about “integrating” high-tech into school routines or classroom lessons.

The pencil graphic, at best, is a warped version of Everett Rogers‘ “diffusion of innovation” graph that he had published in his 1962 book (it is in its 5th edition now). Diffusion of Innovations has been a staple of those interested in institutional and sector innovation across agriculture, medicine, health care, business, and, naturally, education for over a half-century. But, at worst, the pencil graphic is an unfunny indictment of those teachers, students, and parents who raise questions, express skepticism, and lay out reservations about the wisdom of mindlessly adopting the next new thing produced for schools and classrooms.

Now, look at Roger’s graph of adopters. Rogers avoided the loaded words used to describe adopters except for “laggards.” in the U.S., few teachers would puff out their chest after being called a “laggard.” Rogers was aware that the graph he constructed prized innovation–that it is “good” to adopt a new idea, practice, or technology– and possibly from that core assumption, the word “laggard” snuck into the categories. The five categories Rogers created roughly map onto the “pencil” but note the far more negative and positive language in the pencil graphic.

For each category, there are many examples among teachers. The sixth grade teacher who bought and brought into her school the first Mac machine was an innovator. The first teacher in a building who designed a piece of software just for her class is another innovator. Early Adopters are those teachers who first tried out email, spread sheets, iPods, iMacs, laptops, and tablets in their classrooms shortly after they heard about them or the district technology director invited teachers to demonstrations of the hardware and software. As the number of teachers seeing colleagues using devices and software spread, more teachers asked those early users how it worked, for what kinds of lessons they were used, and even watched the tools being used in lessons. In many schools, two-thirds of the teachers (Early and Late Majority) became occasional (weekly or monthly) to daily users. In short, these teacher-users became the middle of Rogers’ graph. In every school, however, there were non-users and reluctant participants–“laggards,” in Rogers’ phrase.

Seldom did the categories and percentages of “innovators” to “laggards” map perfectly onto specific schools or districts. What Rogers built was a map for researchers and practitioners to use in understanding how innovations–again, a positively charged concept in U.S. culture–spread across sectors and in institutions. It is a heuristic, not GPS directions for innovators.

Evangelists would find the “pencil” to their liking because of the shared assumptions under-girding the clever graphic. Those assumptions are dominant in the U.S. where if you do not have the latest device or software, eyes roll or snide comments get said. Evangelists for technology seldom engage in reflection because they are true believers. True believers seldom entertain questions or skepticism because they are often taken as an attack upon bedrock principles.

And for teachers, principals, parents who ask questions or raise issues about the new technologies, they risk being called resisters, an epithet that in U.S. culture, enamored with innovation and technology, is akin to the Scarlet Letter.



Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

20 responses to “Technology Evangelists, Skeptics, and Those in the Middle

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Agree with your observations about the aggrandizement of innovation within the culture and with technology a great example. I recall a new technology conference from the 1960s touting closed loop 8mm films among other wonders. The federally funded event was held in D.C. Almost of all the technology malfunctioned.
    USDE’s technology plan as well as tech industry have made much of the real-time data-gathering now possible and power of big data analytics to “improve learning outcomes.” So far, I have seen little that supports this enthusiasm unless the programmed content is really conventional and the paths to answers, and answers themselves, are easily designated right, wrong, or partially correct. There also seems to be a quest for more efficient learning, less time on task, with little regard for the enduring value and significance of what is learned. Of course there are opportunities for treating some technologies as tools for thinking and expression, but the endgame of so much rhetoric and investment seems to be “buy this to improve your test scores.”

  2. Thanks Larry for your post

    As you and I know, the assumption regarding technology is that its “educationally innovative” and is proven to advance individual student learning outcomes. If you look at the pencil graphic in this light it makes a lot more sense.

    As you and I I know, traditional educators primarily are subject matter experts. Unfortunately, they don’t chose to engage their profession at the higher level that has been mandated by new research, best practices, other similar schools experiences, etc. There is a professional need for them to ALSO be experts in best practices pedagogy (21st Century learning methodology, seamlessly integrated into software, run on technology) and education reform, best practices.But few traditional educators have ANY knowledge on this and certainly don’t know what ‘deep learning’ is.

    Instead we get posts like this, which are totally and completely useless in advancing individual learning outcomes:

    When to choose ipads vs chromebooks:

    AND we have ‘experts’ in education, Harvard, Stanford, MIT who massively promote one size fits all MOOCs as the revolution in learning…only to find out they knew better and I assume offered MOOCs as a way to slow down real change specific to individual student learning outcomes. (a 15% job placement rate…lets get real, this is a terrible outcome)

    2011 Chicago schools, one size fits all teaching delivered over ipads…No improvement in student learning (go figure, who learned from this?):

    Then you have the arguments that before education can advance individual learning, these items MUST be fixed: poverty, teacher pay, parental involvement, etc.These may be issues, but are sub issues (diversions to the real issues)t o the big picture that educators drive individual learning..Educationally innovative deep learning methodology addresses these issues:

    The solution that works is in this graphic, but rarely is this known and rarely is this implemented: (using the TPACK Image)

    The research is copious. it must be understood, engaged, and appropriately implemented to advance

    These are the real professional issue. All else are a diversion to the real issues.

  3. Thank you, as always, for your perspective, Larry. Though I have been an early adopter in the past, I would like to point out that an effective teacher’s position on the adoption curve is probably variable and possibly cyclical. In order to integrate technological tools into one’s teaching well, especially tools that students can use to extend their thinking and creativity, a teacher has to develop a deep knowledge of the tool’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as how to help students learn to understand and use the tool. To master each tool, students need several opportunities to use it in many ways without a lot of distraction. All of this takes time away from latching on to the next big app. Savvy teachers must choose which tools are likely to endure and are therefore worth this investment of time and energy. Effective school leaders should respect and support their teachers’ efforts toward refining their practice, (high tech or not).

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Jay, for raising some important points about variability among teachers insofar as the adoption of innovations curve.

  4. JoeN

    Larry, I recommend the link below for connoisseurs of the foolish educational metaphor. They would be funnier if real teachers and pupils were not on the receiving end.

  5. I had a meeting with the elementary tech committee Wednesday. The pencil was a perfect intro. As the school IT guy I see all the people on that graphic. The only people who make me nervous are to lead and the eraser. Almost everybody else is willing to learn and make educated decisions towards tech. It is only a metaphor but …

  6. Pingback: Technology Evangelists, Skeptics, and Those in ...

  7. I like to use the words pioneers, fast followers, and anchors.

    Pioneers are those who blaze the trail. They are heading towards the promised land. They understand that they could get lost, could get hurt, could fail in their pursuits, but they are believers.

    Fast followers won’t go first, but they will trod on the trails pioneers have created before they are full-blown paved roads. They test the waters and cautiously venture.

    Anchors are deeply rooted in their practices. They need a lot of convincing to let go. And, anchors can also be necessary. They prevent people from steering completely off course.

    One other concept is that everyone is a pioneer, fast follower, or anchor in some ways but not in others. For example, the anchor who does not want to incorporate new technology, might be a pioneer in restorative justice practices.

    We need to respect ALL educators and not have labels that convey judgment when it comes to adoption of technology.

  8. Pingback: Week 4: Tech-Rich Lessons – Melissa's COETAIL Journey

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