Using Computers To Transform Teaching and Learning: The Flight of a Butterfly Or a Bullet?*

As regular readers of this blog know, I have embarked on another project examining “best cases” of teachers, schools, and districts integrating computers into daily activities.  After four months of classroom observations, interviews with teachers and principals, and much reading I have begun to think of this project as a possible book. Much remains to be done, however, before it becomes one. In the fall, I will visit more classrooms and schools to do observations and interviews. I will do more reading of national surveys, case studies, and rigorous inquiries into what teachers and students do with devices. But the makings of a book are there in my mind.

So here is part of a proposal that I have sent to a publisher to see if they are interested. Subsequent posts will elaborate on other parts of this book proposal.

Overview and Rationale for Proposed Book

For over 30 years, I have examined the adoption and use of computers in schools (Teachers and Machines, 1986; Oversold and Underused, 2001, Inside the Black Box, 2013). I looked at the policy hype and over-promising accompanying new technologies in each decade. The question I asked was: what happens in schools and classrooms after the school board and superintendent adopt a policy of buying and deploying new technologies to improve schooling? This is the central question for any reform-minded policymaker, entrepreneur, parent, and practitioner because if teaching practices fail to change in the desired direction embedded in the policy then the chances of any changes in student performance are diminished considerably. Thus, in pursuing the issue of changes in classroom lessons in books, articles, and my blog, I moved back and forth between adopted policies for using computers, their classroom implementation, and shifts in teaching practices.

I described and analyzed computers in schools and classrooms across the U.S. including the highly touted Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay area. I tracked how these advocates and donors were often disappointed in how little school and classroom practice changed, anemic results in student achievement, and uncertainties in getting the right jobs after graduation, given the claims accompanying these devices and software.

There have been, however, occasional bright spots in individual teachers thoroughly integrating laptops and tablets into their practice and moving from teacher- to student-centered classrooms. And there were scattered instances of schools and districts adopting technologies wholesale and slowly altering cultures and structures to improve how teachers teach and students learn. I documented those occasional exemplars but such instances of classroom, school, and district integration were isolated and infrequent.

What slowly became clear to me over the years of studying the use of computers to improve how teachers teach and students learn and attain the overall purposes of public schooling is that policymakers have avoided asking basic questions accompanying any policy intended to reshape classroom practice. I concluded that those questions and their answers are crucial in understanding the role that computers in schools perform when it comes to teaching and learning.

This conclusion is behind my writing this book.

Reform-driven policymakers, entrepreneurs, researchers, practitioners, and parents have sought substantial changes over the past three decades in classrooms, schools, and districts to transform schooling while improving student outcomes. Yet, too often, they either avoided the inevitable steps that need to occur for such changes to materialize in schools or hastily leap-frogged over important ones. Four simple questions capture the essential steps in going from adopted policy to classroom practice.

  1. Did policies aimed at improving student performance get fully, moderately, or partially implemented?
  2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?
  3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?
  4. Did what students learn meet the intended policy goals?

These questions apply to innovations aimed at improving student academic performance such as creating small high schools and launching charter schools to states and districts adopting Common Core standards, competency-based learning and project-based teaching. Most importantly for this book, these questions pertain to making new technologies from laptops to hand-held devices not only accessible to every student but also expecting teachers to regularly use computers in lessons.

The questions emphasize the critical first step of actually implementing the adopted policy. Policies are not self-implementing. They require resources, technical assistance, staff development, and administrators and teacher to work together. This is especially so for teachers who are gatekeepers determining what enters the classroom door.

So without full or moderate implementation of a policy aimed at improving student performance, there is not much sense in pursuing answers to the other questions. Evidence of putting the policy into classroom practice is essential to determining the degree to which a policy is effective (or ineffective).

Once evidence of a policy’s implementation in schools and classrooms is available then the question of whether teaching practices have changed arises. This question gets at the nexus between teaching and learning that has been taken for granted in U.S. schools since the introduction of tax-supported public education nearly two centuries ago: Change teaching and then student learning will change. This is (and has been) the taken-for-granted belief driving reformers for the past century. Determining the degree to which teaching practices have changed in the desired direction and which have remained stable is essential.

The third question closes this circle of teaching producing learning by getting at what students have actually learned as a consequence of altered teaching practices. In the past half-century, policymakers have adopted measures of desired student outcomes (e.g., test scores, graduation rates, attendance, engagement in lessons). They assume that these measures capture what students have, indeed, learned. If teaching practices have changed in the desired direction, then changes in student outcomes (i.e., learning) can be attributed to those changes in classroom practices.

The final question returns to the immediate and long-term purposes of the adopted policy and asks for an evaluation of its intended and unintended outcomes. Immediate purposes might have concentrated on student test scores and graduation rates. Long-term purposes, the overall goals for tax-supported public schools, refer to job preparation, civic engagement, and producing independent and whole human beings.

These questions establish clear linkages between reform-driven policies and teaching practice. They steer this proposed book.

What if, however, policymakers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and parents looked not only at failed uses of classroom computers but also exemplary instances that have actually altered teaching practices to achieve policy ends? Examining how such “best cases” happened and their stability (or lack of it) might unlock the crucial next step of assessing changes in teaching practices and student outcomes.


*The sub-title is a quote used by Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (1968), pp. 166-167.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

14 responses to “Using Computers To Transform Teaching and Learning: The Flight of a Butterfly Or a Bullet?*

  1. Jeffrey M Bowen

    Wow, terrific topic, simple and clear in purpose and premises. My own evaluations of principals constantly stumble against every one of you four big points. Particularly the points about whether an intervention produces a different learning result are potent. I have found that Bob Marzano’s leadership evaluation model and its domains get at this concern, but the impediment is how to best measure the learning outcome. Measurement is the chronic issue.

  2. David

    Hi Larry, Thanks for sharing this–I look forward to seeing your book in print. One thought–in the past you have discussed resource allocation in terms of return on investment. It would be interesting to have an evaluative section which weighed the changes made through technology integration against what was going on previously (and in what the resources allocated could have been spent on instead) and ask whether–even in the best of circumstances–the money spent was worth it. For example, I am a proponent of reducing class sizes (see here for the research: However, doing so involves a significant investment of resources. All things considered, in a world of limited resources, is spending dollars on ed tech a more effective use of resources rather than hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes? I feel that this is a question that often gets missed.

  3. Dan McGuire

    Well, Larry, at least, you found a real metaphor to use instead of an awkward description. I don’t think this proposed book is going to do much for anybody, though. You seem to be just playing with concepts about policy about education and the other amorphous terms that lots of people like to throw around that don’t have much to do with actual teaching and learning.

    If you would actually examine in detail the things that have potential to make a real difference you might have a topic worthy of a book. Jeffrey Bowen commented above that ‘measurement is the chronic issue.’ I think ‘chronic’ is a poor choice of words to use about measurement, but measurement is really important to all levels of education. How we measure and what we measure is a big deal. I’ve yet to see a serious study of the possibilities of learning management systems in K12. The problem, of course, is that they haven’t really been used very much for actual interactive instruction that includes teacher presence. Without using LMSs for instruction it is then impractical, at minimum, to use them for assessment. And, that’s a shame because learning management systems could work very well for for all kinds of things in education. Making LMSs useful will require, however, that teachers, administrators, and schools of education actually learn how to use them effectively for instruction and assessment..

    The other huge development in education that you have not mentioned is the advent and possibilities for open education resources. To be effective OERs need learning management systems. If OER is used with LMSs then we might as well us the LMSs to measure learning. Using LMSs to measure teaching is mostly entirely different than using them to measure learning, but related. If we get better at using LMS for authentic teacher and/or student created learning activities it will be possible to use them to measure some parts of teaching. I hesitate to even suggest using LMSs to measure teaching because even hinting that their use can and will change how we look at and measure teaching causes red flags to go up in the minds of almost everyone involved in education. But, there’s not much that doesn’t raise some red flags for somebody in education. We live in interesting times.

    Here’s a couple of blog posts for more about LMS and measurement.

  4. GE2L2R

    Just an observation about “the nexus between teaching and learning”:

    ” Change teaching and then student learning will change.”

    Probably, but has it improved? However difficult change, improvement is far more elusive.

    • larrycuban

      Ah, that distinction between “change” and “improvement” is crucial. Thanks for pointing it out.

      • GE2L2R

        Hi Larry,

        As you ponder your next book on the role, effects and implications of computers in education, I would suggest that it might be considered in light of that same dilemma facing our entire society with varying degrees of success. Many of those issues remain under today’s radar and are as yet unnoticed, and that is the impact of innovation made possible with the rapid introduction of new and evermore powerful technology. It too addresses that conundrum as to whether a particular change is improvement or just change.

        In an Op-Ed piece in the 7/10/16 New York Times, “Solving All the Wrong Problems”, Allison Arieff notes that innovation and disruption are not always improvements. Her comments are applicable to change in teaching/learning as well.

        “If the most fundamental definition of design is to solve problems, why are so many people devoting so much energy to solving problems that don’t really exist?”

        Arieff cites from “Design: The Invention of Desire”, by Jessica Helfand, who writes that Empathy, humility, compassion, conscience: These are the key ingredients missing in the pursuit of innovation . . . and that innovation seems to have lost its way, and is now predicated less on creating and more on the undoing of the work of others.

        Arieff lists a sampling of products, apps and services that promise a better life, but a better life that has not been forthcoming for most.

        “Do we really need an app that lets us brew our coffee from anywhere?” It is a change that may change the way of life for some, but is it an improvement? Is it a necessary change or change for its own sake – because we can make such a change?

        I would suggest that there are many aspects of the current efforts to integrate more technology into schools that falls into this category of change and disruption, but that the claims that they will reform and “change teaching – change student learning” may be dubious.

        The difficulty for cash-strapped school districts and teachers with limited time is how to tease out those innovations that will actually improve teaching and learning rather than being mere disruptions that waste both money and time.

        On second thought, it would allow me to start brewing a pot of coffee in the faculty room while I was teaching a class elsewhere in the building so that it would be ready for my 20-minute lunch!

      • larrycuban

        I had not seen the op-ed you cite and will read it. Your distinction between change and improvement in earlier comment and now in the NYT op-ed between apps that provide convenience but not necessarily improvement gives me something to think about. Comparing tech in schools to the distinction you and Arieff make about change-for-change sake (or disruption) is something I want to think more and more about. Which is why I am interested in finding exemplars where teachers, schools, and districts seamlessly integrate technology into their lessons, procedures, and cultures. Technology is not foreground; it is background to doing what is important in teaching and learning.

        My own view, up to now (and with your comments to posts, reconsidering) is that change can be documented but improvement is in the eye of the beholder. That is, parsing “improvement” requires getting at the values of the person (or persons) believing that the change is an improvement. What do you think?

  5. I think the book idea sounds an excellent one. However I hope it is polyvocal rather than restricting its focus to administrators and educators; learners matter too.

    • larrycuban

      For the reasons I gave in the proposal, I will focus on what happens in the classroom, that is, teaching practices.

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