Choosing Exemplars of Technology Integration: Teachers

I have embarked on a new project of describing and analyzing “best cases” of teachers, schools, and districts. In earlier posts, I explained why I have shifted the center of gravity in my research (see here and here). The past three posts describing lessons of teachers identified as exemplars illustrate the direction I will take in my research (see here, here, and here). I am not the first, nor the last, researcher who examined and analyzed “best cases” of a practice.

What I did not explain, however, was how I came to sit in the classes of these teachers (and others who I will describe in subsequent posts).  The question gets at the criteria I used to contact these teachers and watch them teach their lessons. The answer to the question of why these teachers and not others becomes complicated because there is no agreement on what exactly “exemplary” means. In this post, I will deal with criteria for choosing “best cases” of teachers integrating technology into their lessons. In later posts, I will specify the criteria I used to choose instances of exemplary schools and districts.

Before getting into the criteria I used to enter teachers’ classrooms, documenting past efforts to identify, describe, and analyze exemplary teachers who integrated computers into their daily lessons is essential.

History of seeking classroom exemplars

In the late-1980s, Karen Sheingold and Martha Hadley surveyed 600 teachers across the nation in grades 4-12 who had been “[n]ominated because of their involvement and accomplishments in integrating computers into their teaching.” These were teachers who had developed a reputation among colleagues and administrators for being expert users of computers and its many applications to stretch their students into learning more, faster, and better. These were “best cases” of computer using teachers based on reputation. In the earliest years of teachers and students gaining access to desktop computers, this study showed that such teachers do exist. But what percentage of teachers are motivated and skilled sufficiently to become known among peers and administrators as experts in using computers in their daily lessons?

That is the question that Henry Becker tried to answer following the Sheingold and Hadley study. In a national sample of nearly 1000 teachers in elementary through secondary schools across the country, Becker found that five percent of the teachers could be called exemplary (see Table 1). What distinguished the five percent of exemplary teachers from the 95 percent of computer-using colleagues was, in Becker’s words:

[E]xemplary teachers teach in an environment that helps them to be better computer-using teachers; they are themselves better prepared to use computers well in their teaching; and, in fact, they have allowed computers to have a much greater impact in how and what they teach. At the same time, exemplary teachers make greater demands on available resources and face problems that other computer-using teachers are less likely to face….[T]heir districts provide relevant and broad-ranging staff development activities, that they have access to computers at school and have the time to use them personally, and that they teach smaller classes….
So researchers often use a criterion of reputation among peers and others to identify exemplars. Becker estimates that such teachers are a tiny fraction of teachers using computers.
Criteria I used to choose teachers
Basically, I used the reputational approach. I had asked Dominic Bigue, San Mateo Union High School District coordinator in charge of instructional technology, for names of exemplary technology-using teachers. Bigue, a teacher-on-assignment to the post,  identified the teachers.  After interviewing Bigue, I found out that the teachers on the list he drew up were ones who had initiated proposals in past years to secure carts of Chromebooks and other devices to use in their classrooms. They also had attended district-wide sessions on computers, and had led professional development sessions for SMUHSD teachers during the school year and summer. In addition, these teachers were willing to have me visit their classes.Among the seven on the list, three responded to my email requests to visit. I observed lessons of those three teachers teaching different subjects in two different high schools. Those were the lessons I described in previous posts.
Because no teacher is an island, context matters. The school setting, the departmental organizational of subjects, networks of like-minded teachers in the school and across the district, and available resources all come into play in influencing how teachers teach using new technologies. Questions about existing school structures and the ethos pervading the school that advance or impede collaboration, risk-taking, and problem solving also matter because the answers have much to do with the work of exemplary teachers and their colleagues within a building and within the district. Later posts will go into the criteria I used to choose schools and districts.




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

2 responses to “Choosing Exemplars of Technology Integration: Teachers

  1. Alice in PA

    Thanks for a glimpse into your methodology. I think it is important to be clear in what is meant by exemplary and the role of school culture because it can vary from school to school. It may even vary from teacher to teacher. A conversation about this would be interesting to have among various stakeholders.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Alice. Yes, there is as much, if not more, variation among classroom teachers within the school as across schools in the same district.

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