Physics Teacher Speaks Out on Technology (Alice Flarend)

“Alice Flarend is a National Board Certified Teacher and is the physics teacher at Bellwood-Antis High School in Pennsylvania.  She holds a B.S and M.S in Nuclear Engineering from University of Illinois and University of Michigan respectively. Alice caught the teaching bug while doing engineering doctoral work at the University of Michigan and has been teaching for over twenty years.  She is currently working part time on a Science Education Ph.D at Penn State.  She plans on remaining in her classroom to be a bridge between the worlds of higher education  and public K-12 schools.”


Technology will revolutionize the classroom! I have been hearing these promises for most of my 20 year physics teaching career and yet there is scant high quality evidence for it. Cyber schools show little learning ( The OECD found “no appreciable improvement in student achievement” with large scale investments in computer technology. ( Computer technology seems like such a natural fit in the classroom. Why has it not been the game changer that it should be?

I claim that most educational applications of technology ignore what we know about basic learning theory. Technology is viewed as the whole toolbox, table, chairs and school rather than a tool itself.

We know that humans individually construct their knowledge and this construction is heavily influenced by a person’s prior knowledge and experiences. We also know language is the primary vehicle by which knowledge is constructed ( Contrast this with most uses of technology where the learner passively watches multimedia presentations, clicks through an online textbook or manipulates a meaningless simulation. The learner appears to be active, but we commonly mistake clicking with thinking.

A useful analogy for learning is the construction of a building. Tools and materials are needed but are useless unless there is an architectural design that is structurally sound and suited to the owner. Technology can provide the materials and can be tools, but the teacher is needed to design instruction for their students. The teacher is the architect and the contractor. The idea that people are pondering whether we will even need teachers in the future illustrates the misapplication of technology.

To illustrate this disconnect, a personal story helps. Early in my career I participated in a summer-long institute on teaching physics using inquiry. That experience really changed my teaching.

Back in my classroom, student learning did improve, but not to the degree that I expected. They were highly engaged in hands-on experiments and problem solving. I appeared to be doing everything right. However, my students were still not achieving deep conceptual understanding. They still needed me to tell them the physics even though they had just correctly answered questions during the lab. What was I doing wrong? I found the missing piece at the beginning of my doctoral program in science education when I completed classes on learning theory. I was using lots of tools but without a sufficient plan. I was not explicitly using their prior knowledge so my students looked at this new information wearing the lenses of their old ideas. I was not giving my students opportunities to talk and to write deeply about the science. My students were doing without thinking.

This brings me back to technology. Technology can provide efficient access to content but it teacher must manipulate the technology to fit the student, the curriculum. Google can provide factual information on almost any topic, but without design, those facts remain a pile of useless lumber. A simulation could be effective at addressing a common scientific misconception. The students could use it to test their prior knowledge, gather data to find a pattern or model a complex scenario. Without a design, however, the students will “play” but fail to develop a robust understanding. Too often the lesson is built around the technology rather than the technology helping to build the lesson.

Large-scale technology products with their all encompassing content, assessment and monitoring give the illusion of building knowledge. The program, however, cannot deviate from its code. A student must choose everything from a pre-generated list. There is no chance for spontaneous conversation about a meaningful detail that addresses a student’s unique prior knowledge. There is no sharing of examples from a student’s life that can then be discussed to expand beyond the textbook example. Without even trying, meaningful conversations occur in face-to-face classrooms. They must be “allowed” in digital settings.

Online discussion boards may seem a substitute for these conversations, but there is not the give and take needed for successful construction. Missing is the intonation, the emotions, the smiles and frowns, which are all a part of effective human communication. Google Docs can help kids co-construct knowledge but there must be a rich, teacher-constructed prompt requiring the knowledge of the entire group. If it can be answered or created by a single person, there is no need of a sharing tool.

I do hope that technology will help students learn. But, there will be no game-changing tech revolution. Let’s instead use it as a tool in rich lessons that help our students construct deep understandings rather than choose a lettered answer.





Filed under school reform policies, technology use

30 responses to “Physics Teacher Speaks Out on Technology (Alice Flarend)

  1. Pingback: When you say “technology,” what do you mean? | bloghaunter

  2. David

    I’m reading Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization and this made me think of something he says in the first chapter–that in a capitalistic society, technology is used to increase profits and not to increase social welfare. Neil Selwyn says something similar about ed tech in Distrusting Educational Technology. What Alice Flarend describes above is the old problem of ed tech companies trying to push products into the classroom to make a buck rather than actually enhancing student learning. Throw in how the industry warps the educational milieu by pushing self-centered consumeristic ideologies (again, echoing Mumford) just perpetuates the problems.

    Mumford suggests that it doesn’t have to be that way and Selwyn says the same for ed tech. Audrey Watters has been writing about the potentialities of the “domain of your own” platform such as the University of Mary Washington utilizes:
    Perhaps by pushing for a different direction (disrupting educational technology? hah.) there is hope of better utilizing digital technology in ways that enhance insted of supplant the educational process.

    • Alice Flarend

      Just downloaded the Selwyn book for my holiday ride. It looks like an interesting read and I like the idea of disrupting the disruptive technology. We definitely need to look at technology in the classroom a different way.

      Having some trouble posting so this may end up being a double post.

      • David

        It is a good read. Interestingly, Selwyn makes an argument echoed by Pope Francis–that technology is NOT neutral (something we hear often from the tech enthusiasts). It’s more than just a tool, as it carries the cultural and political assumptions of its designers. Audrey Watters (whose blog, Hack Education, I would encourage folks to follow) writes about the “California Ideology” here:

        Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si (para 107): “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”

    • Alice in Pa

      I downloaded Selwyn for my Thanksgiving ride. If looks like it explores the romanticism of tech in depth.
      I like the idea of disrupting the disruptive technology. We need to get past the shiny polish and see what we can do with it.
      I am having trouble posting so I appologize if this is a double post.

  3. Thanks for this contribution to the technology for learning debate. Would you accept that education is much more than acquisition of knowledge? Would you also accept that the use of technology for learning is not just about down loading and consuming content? Could you consider that technology could be used for creativity?co-construction? critical analyisis?communication? collaboration? As Andreas Schleiser OECD report suggest that perhaps it is the failure of pedagogy to adapt to and utilise the ptential of technology which is the real issue here?hnology wh

    As the recent OECD

    Part o

    • Alice Flarend

      I do think tech can help communication like my Google doc example. However the pedagogy must come first and I have found it rarely does. Instead teachers are told to use Google Docs without a serious exploration of what it can offer. There are endless plans for a 1-1 rollout but little planning time for sound usage.
      I found the ending of the OECD report interesting in that it made the statement you referenced without much backup, at least in the report I read. So it seemed that it repeated the hope for tech without addressing how.

    • Alice in Pa

      I do think that tech can improve collaborative communication as wth my Google Doc example. But it needs to start with the reason why we want students to collaborate and how that will aid learning. Then we can see if a tech tool will enhance that. Often teachers are told to use tools to improve their teaching without any discussion about it uses. It not that admin is purposefully squelching that discussion. They are merely repeating the claims about tech that they have read or been given. Everything sounds good and we are exhorted to change or our students will get left behind that no one stops to evaluate.

  4. Laura H. Chapman

    1. For people interested in the recent history of US technology policy for education see: “A Retrospective on Twenty Years of Education Technology Policy” (2003) prepared for the US Department of Education (USDE) by American Institutes for Research (Douglas Levin, Project Director).

    This report shows the role of “blue ribbon reports,” from CEOs of tech and testing companies, McKinsey & Co., the US Chamber of Commerce and other groups in putting technology front and center in K-12 education and teacher education. The push is illustrated by the dates and titles of publications included in this “retrospective” report that begins in 1983 with “A Nation at Risk,” from the National Commission on Excellence in Education. (In the 1960s USDE thought 8mm closed loop videotapes were the hot new technology).
    2. In one of the first of several USDE technology plans, issued during the tenure of Secretary of Education Rod Paige, we see one of the first claims that proper policies on technology will revolutionize education. Notice the long and grandiose title (caps in the original) “A New Golden Age In American Education HOW THE INTERNET, THE LAW AND TODAY’S STUDENTS ARE REVOLUTIONIZING EXPECTATIONS: National Education Technology Plan 2004.”

    One of many predictions:

    “With the benefits of technology, highly trained teachers, a motivated student body and the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the next 10 years could see a spectacular rise in achievement – and may usher in a new golden age for American education.” p. 46.

    3. The follow-on technology plan from USDE, 2010, has the same theme: “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology: National Education.“ This report calls for “revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering.”(p.ix).“ Specifically, the envisioned integrated technology-powered learning system should be able to:
    • “Discover appropriate learning resources;
    • Configure the resources with forms of representation and expression that are appropriate for the learner’s age, language, reading ability, and prior knowledge; and
    • Select appropriate paths and scaffolds for moving the learner through the learning resources with the ideal level of challenge and support.”
    “As part of the validation of this system, we need to examine how much leverage is gained by giving learners control over the pace of their learning and whether certain knowledge domains or competencies require educators to retain that control.”

    “We also need to better understand where and when we can substitute learner judgment, online peer interactivity and coaching, and technological advances, such as smart tutors and avatars for the educator-led classroom model.” (p. 78).

    Part of the marketing pitch for this envisioned learning system, one with a minor role (if any) for human teachers, it a request for federal investment in a national “mission” comparable to that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is credited with “the birth of the Internet.”

    The DARPA-like mission for education? “Identify and validate design principles for efficient and effective online learning systems and combined online and offline learning systems that produce content expertise and competencies equal to or better than those produced by the best conventional instruction in half the time at half the cost (p. 80)

    In other words, “conventional instruction” is inefficient, ineffective, amateurish, takes too much time, and it costs too much. “Learning systems” can produce more learning, in less time, at lower costs…and with more content “expertise.”

    If this “mission” succeeds, face-to-face encounters with wise and caring human teachers are likely to become a luxury, a frill, a bonus, an enrichment. For the masses, algorithms contrived and organized to function as depersonalized learning systems will do the job of transmitting knowledge, deciding what questions should be presented, what forms the answers may take, and whether particular responses are satisfactory.

    Orwell smiles, along with Bill Gates and all of the CEOs who have marketed this vision, and cynically advertised such systems as “personalized.”

    Click to access netp2010.pdf

    If you want to see USDE’s latest enthusiasms for technology, go to and look especially at page 9, a project to change student “mindsets” with the link to USDE funding of this “at scale” project.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Laura.

    • Alice Flarend

      I cringe every time I hear the word “efficient” applied to the learning. Learning is messy and definitely nonlinear. That is one reason I find canned curricula,both online and offline, to be ineffective.

    • Alice in Pa

      I cringe every time I hear the word “efficient” applied to learning. Learning is messy and nonlinear. That is why I dislike canned lessons or curriculum, either on or off line. Each year my classes trajectory varies a little depending on the questions the students ask. Actually they vary every single day as I and the other students respond to each other.

  5. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    One of the more important quotes in this piece is “Technology is viewed as the whole toolbox, table, chairs and school rather than a tool itself.”

  6. Technology, (the ipad, e.g.) is not THE solution, or even A solution to advancing individual student learning, that results in advanced individual student performance improvement. Nor is maintaining the current ineffective, inefficient once size fits all teaching paradigm.

    The research is clear that it takes two to tango (to change teaching to advance long term individual student learning and performance improvement outcomes):

    (1) Traditional educators need to expand their horizons (be open to research driven, best practices paradigm change) beyond subject matter expert, to include pedagogy expertise (21st Century Learning Skills) as well as education reform expert. Be open and willing to change from one size fits all teaching, to 21st century learning. They MUST also understand,choose and implement ONLY educationally innovative software that is proven to advance individual deep learning, adaptive skills and sustained performance improvement (no more whiteboards, lectures, one size fits all MOOcs e.g.)

    (2) Software developers must seamlessly integrate research driven, best practices, pedagogy, into their truly personalized, adaptive learning software, delivered over technology (chromebook, e.g.) AND individually coached, facilitated and reinforced, by a professional instructor

    On occasion (1) and (2) come together. More times than not (1) continues to maintain the once size fits all paradigm, at all costs, spending time & money on educationally useless technology, or old one size fits all incumbent paradigms, that will NEVER advance individual learning outcomes nor advance individual performance improvement outcomes.

    Traditional educators have been empowered to be singularly self directed within their classrooms . Some choose and implement the right paradigm change methodology, most do not. This key pedagogy decision MUST be student centric, but institution driven to ensure the proper choice and the desired outcomes

    There is a positive revolution happening outside of traditional education, but it appears to me that the professionals within traditional education are the biggest nay-sayers and resisters to positive change.

    The focus MUST be on the student and advancing student success.

    The revolution/paradigm change MUST be embraced by those in education, because their sole reason to be there is to benefit the students.

    There are lots of educationally innovative software providers that have a history of advancing individual student learning outcomes (up to 300% increase in individual student learning efficiency and learning outcomes), just like there are lots that promise and don’t deliver. The vetting process for the right provider is critical.

    But for the process to work, the incumbent traditional paradigm MUST change and the institution, faculty, administration MUST collectively embrace change and collectively be focused on advancing individual student success outcomes, resulting in relevant adaptive learning skills, relevant employment, sustained performance improvement resulting in long term contributions to society.

    This is a MASSIVE undertaking. Educators must stop dragging their feet and embrace evidence based positive change that directly and measurably benefits their students advanced success outcomes

    The Council of Chief State School Officers has released the long-awaited set of professional standards for educational leaders.

    Click to access ProfessionalStandardsforEducationalLeaders2015forNPBEAFINAL.pdf

    • larrycuban

      Are you commenting on the guest post by Alice Flarend? Does not appear that way.

      • Larry, yes, this is a direct response to Alice’s post. I’ve reread her post as well as mine.
        For the most part I agree with what Alice says, but I disagree with certain parts of what she says:
        Educationally innovative technology (SIS, LMS, LCMS) will revolutionize (is revolutionizing) education and deep learning. Its a key part of a systemic, seamlessly integrated, blended learning/flipped learning environment (21st century learning) that will do the heavy lifting, creating the foundation for deep individual adaptive learning of must know information. The instructors role will change to personalized ongoing facilitator, resulting in individual student adaptive learning skills, that advance individual student performance improvement of key information.
        I’ve talked to countless educators and they all agree the ideal model is one teacher for every student..Okay economically we can’t afford that. But we can afford innovative, adaptive, learning technology that does the heavy lifting. BUT when it comes to adding proven, educationally innovative technology to their methodology they don’t move forward (my personal experience is with the leadership of the CA continuation Assoc). Talk is cheap, money buys whiskey.
        For some crazy reason traditional educators perpetually choose technology that is NOT educationally innovative…something that baffles me…its either cause they can, they don’t know any better, they don’t care, or they must preserve the current paradigm at all costs.
        PLUS, learning can be effective AND efficient. Parallel learning methodology to individual learning and there is a proven 300% increase.
        Educators, which seem to be totally against educator accountability find this approach appalling, even though it is hugely advantageous to students, the only reason education exists. In all other fields effectiveness and efficiency are target goals. Education, which favors the institution, thinks these objective are unattainable. These learning deliverables currently are achievable. They must be implemented whether educators like them or not. Educators are public employees that are professionally tasked with advancing student success outcomes.
        My objective is to reflect what is proven to work to advance individual student, deep, relevant adaptive learning, that advances relevant job placement that leads to long term contributions to society. I am a student advocate, NOT a teacher advocate, nor an educational institution advocate.

      • Alice in Pa

        I actually disagree that one to one ratio is the best for learning. So do many of our colleagues. We have discussed classes that were too small to really have a good math or science discussion.
        We need diversity to learn. We need to test our ideas, our explanations by explaining th to others. We need to hear those idea of others to test them against our own which may be very different. I did some research on a learning progression for solar system formation. We interviewed, at first, about 40 students. The range of ideas was astounding.

      • The research on how individuals learn must know skills, long term (written to long term memories, so they are relevantly accessible), in an adaptive way (able to later, properly access and use that new information, in new and differing scenarios, to advance individual performance improvement outcomes) is one to one, ongoing, coaching, reinforcement and facilitation
        When a classroom is flipped and innovative, adaptive elearning platforms are used to do the heavy lifting,outside of class, then class time, through individual coaching and facilitation, is used to turn that learned information into relevantly use able data to realistically improve individual performance
        The traditional argument is the smaller the class size the better..more personalized instruction…and larger class sizes don’t allow personalized facilitation…i’m confused

        Please, if you have a disagreement with this methodology, or would like to validate your approach, please show research validation..Thanks

      • Alice in Pa

        The validation of the need for more than a single person/tutor in deep learning can be found in the foundational learning theory which has been validated through decades of research. Gordan Wells’ Dialogic Inquiry is an excellent starting place or Lave and Wenger’s Community of Practice. There is also Vygotsky’s Mind and Society.
        What I am advocating for is not is the minimally guided instruction discussed in the Kirschner article. Constructivist learning theory is often misinterpreted to mean throw students into a complex problem space and they will figure out what to do. This is a different line of discussion than the need for multiple interlocutors.
        Thanks for the interesting responses.

      • Thanks Alice for your response and validation of your deep learning methodology.

        Since one size fits all teaching (lecture, video, pdf, powerpoint, word doc, textbook, MOOC), at best, provides part of the class, superficial, initial understanding, which is soon forgotten (teaching to the middle), How do you create individual student deep learning (initial understanding, fluency, ability to recall information correctly long term, appropriate application, adaptive learning skills to use knowledge to individually advance performance long term)?
        Since one teacher for every student is not economically viable….and since there is not enough classroom time with multiple facilitators to individually develop deep learning, so adaptive learning leading to performance improvement cannot happen, educationally innovative technology, that creates an individual course plan based upon what each student should know, but doesn’t, comes into play (a paradigm shift from teaching to learning). The technology does the heavy lifting, effectively and efficiently, including long term, individual reinforcement, facilitation, writing must know information to long term memories, at each individuals students pace, outside of class. Then each student comes to class with similar key material knowledge foundations .
        Then within the classroom individual, coaching, facilitation happens empowering each student with appropriate, relevant, application , adaptive learning and relevant skill sets to advance individual performance improvement (job skills) with that knowledge.
        Without the educationally innovative technology to do the heavy lifting specific to individual deep learning objective, how do you ensure deep learning occurs for each and every student?

  7. JoeN

    Alice’s account is one of the most penetrating contributions I have ever read to this increasingly pernicious problem. Her building analogy is perfect.

    I’ve watched weak teachers deploy technology as a decoy or sticking plaster for their ineffective practice for decades, encouraged and nurtured by the industry who are in turn bolstered by consultancies with a vested interest in appearing innovative rather than effective, writing “research” no better than fairy tales.

    For anyone who might share Alice’s view, I wrote about this in the Times Educational Supplement a few weeks ago.–-according-someone-who

    • Alice in Pa

      ” appearing innovative rather than effective”
      This is what I experience as a teacher. We must do things a new way just to use tech because this is how our students live. No evaluation of whether a school should contribute to that lifestyle or how they should. And of course we must keep up with the tech of other districts. The discussion of what actually improves the learning is rarely part of the discussion.

  8. GE2L2R

    I experienced Alice Flarend’s epiphany early in my career as a chemistry teacher. For me, it was the result of hearing George Bodner (Purdue University) discuss how we come to know what we know – a theory of knowledge called Constructivism – that recognizes that knowledge cannot be transferred from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the learner. Simply put:

    “Knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner.”

    This is directly related to Alice Flarend’s observations as to how learning occurs and technology’s role in that learning process.

    The thoughts in the following paragraphs are essentially from one of Bodner’s papers published in the Journal of Chemical Education and cited below.

    Her analogy to the “construction” of a building is indeed parallel to how knowledge is “constructed” in the mind of the learner. All too often, the accepted model of instruction is based on the hidden assumption that knowledge can in fact be transferred directly from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the learner. The use of technology is often focused on the goal of getting knowledge into the heads of students.

    What Ms. Flarend and I have discovered is that “teaching and learning are not synonymous; we can teach, and teach well, without having the students learn.” Her awareness of those interactions that are uniquely human – Susan Bennett, aka Siri – notwithstanding, cannot be overemphasized in our on-going quest to find technological fixes for the inherently human process of learning.

    I suspect that Alice Flarend’s perspective on the role of technology in the learning process will not be well received by the enthusiastic promoters of the use of often untested technology in education not as a tool, but rather a solution itself. Nevertheless, it is a perspective that needs a greater voice.

    Bodner’s work draws significantly upon Piaget’s theory of cognitive development – a theory based on observation increasingly supported by advances in the neurosciences today.

    His paper, Constructivism: A Theory of Knowledge was published in the Journal of Chemical Education – in 1986. (1986, 63, 873-878)

    Click to access 24_Construct.pdf

    A follow-up was published in the same journal in 2001.

    The Many Forms of Constructivism; Bodner, Klobuchar and Geelan; Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 78, p 1107, August 2001

    Click to access 72%20Many%20Forms%20of%20Construc.pdf

    • Alice in Pa

      Love the Siri comment. I admit playing with Siri quite a bit after having a Discourse Analysis course. While “she” at first appears to be capable of human interaction, she is obviously not for a variety of reasons including her use or lack of use of questions.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting on the similarities between your experience and that of Alice’s.

  9. Pingback: Technology is No Game-Changer in the Classroom – SOS Australia

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