Why Is Schooling, After Adopting Computers, Yet To Be Transformed?

Today, robots build autos, assemble electronic devices, put together appliances, and make machinery. Automation has eliminated most bank tellers, white collar clerks and secretaries, salespersons, and dozens of other occupations. U.S. Agriculture has become industrialized and family farms have largely disappeared in the last two generations. Whole industries have been transformed by the advent of the computer. Moreover, from drafting plans for buildings to doing legal research to managing insurance claims, computers and software algorithms have either replaced people or reduced numbers of employees. Business leaders of large and mid-size companies seek increased productivity and lower costs in producing products and services. None of this is new. Greater efficiency, higher productivity and increased profit margins. But not in schools.

Surely, since the early 1980s when desktop computers appeared in public schools, administrators have applied business software to personnel, purchasing, transportation, food services, and assembling big data sets for managers to use in making decisions. And, yes, cuts in school employees have occurred. But these efficiencies have yet to transform classrooms.

If the inner workplace of schooling, the classroom, came late to the surge of automation, robots, and personal computers, then that helps to explain, in part, why so many teachers and principals in the past have perceived these powerful devices as an add-on to their work, something else that policymakers, parents, and administrators expected teachers to do in classrooms. The advent of higher curriculum standards, high-stakes testing, and coercive accountability since the mid-1980s pressured teachers to concentrate on content and skill standards that were tested. I said, “in part,” because this perception of an additional task (OK, burden) differs greatly from private sector employers who eagerly automated occupational tasks and transformed professional work (e.g., engineers, architects, financial analysts, online marketers).

Beyond the perception of a burden foisted onto teachers as a partial explanation, surely, minimal student access to computers in the 1980s and much of the 1990s also accounts for the snail’s pace of adoption and use. Yet many teachers and principals were early adopters and enthusiasts for applying new technologies to classroom tasks. Much evidence from teacher surveys, direct observation of lessons, bloggers, and researcher accounts clearly establishes that, as hardware and software became available in classrooms, many practitioners became regular users of new technologies in their classrooms.

What puzzles many policymakers, reformers, and vendors, however, is that while computer accessibility and use have spread, no transformation in teaching and learning has occurred leaving contemporary classrooms seemingly similar to ones a half-century ago.

I have some thoughts on why this slowness of change and the deja vu feeling of classroom familiarity over decades is puzzling.

First, districts, schools, and classrooms are not command-and-control organizations (e.g., NASA, IBM, U.S. Army) where top leaders decide policy, employees put policies into practice pronto, and crisp outcomes measure effectiveness. Schools are complex, relationship-bound networks of adults and children seeking multiple goals (e.g., literacies, socializing the young into community values, civic participation, vocational preparation, and solid moral character). They are loosely coupled organizations—the journey from school board policy to a kindergarten classroom is closer to a butterfly path than a speeding bullet. In such organizations,savvy about how the system works, subject and skill expertise and trust are essentials to the building of relationships and getting things done from the classroom to the superintendent’s office. Well-intentioned reformers seldom see these organizational differences between command-and-control companies and schools as important. They are.

Second, public schools are not profit-seeking organizations. They are community-building institutions that not only perform crucial social and political tasks for the larger society but also promise parents an individual escalator for their sons and daughters to acquire success. Organizational cultures that pervade the best schools (e.g., intellectual achievement, caring, collaboration) differ dramatically from for-profit companies. Change-driven reformers overlook these cultural differences.

Third, teaching is a helping profession. Doctors and nurses, teachers, social workers, and therapists are helping professionals whose success is tied completely to those who come for their expertise: patients, students, clients. All patients, students, and clients enter into a relationship with these professionals that influence but do not determine the outcomes either in better health, learning, and personal growth. Professionals depend upon those who they help for their success–no doctor says I succeeded but the patient died. No teacher says that I taught well but the student didn’t learn. No therapist says that I listened well, gave superb advice but the client didn’t improve. Both need one another to reach goals they both seek. And it is the relationship between the professional and patient, student, and client that matters. Not net profits at the end of the fiscal year. Policymakers and high-tech companies eager to transform practice through new technologies ignore the essential fact that these professionals are not there to become rich or famous, they are there to help others.

And this is how I am beginning to make sense out of the puzzle why new technologies, successful in overhauling many industries, have yet to transform teaching and learning.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

15 responses to “Why Is Schooling, After Adopting Computers, Yet To Be Transformed?

  1. David

    Hi Larry–Audrey Watters had a good post on the 25th anniversary of the first 1:1 program in Australia which is worth reading and relevent to your post. One of her points is that when this was done back in 1990, the goals and purposes of the technology were different. The overarching point she consistently makes on her blog is that we didn’t have to go to the place we are today…

  2. Norma Rodriguez

    Amen! Thank you for coming into our world seeking to understand.

  3. Laura H. Chapman

    The path to profit-seeking in education can be traced, in part, by looking at the websites of the groups pushing social impact bonds, currently for preschool in Chicago and Utah, with return on investment projected at 5% to 7%. These ventures are backed by Goldman Sachs, Pritzker, and others. Obama put $200 million into “hothouses” for these new financial products. Some of the metrics being used to justify the “savings to the govment” from these investments can be seen at https://www.robinhood.org/sites/default/files/user-uploaded-images/Robin%20Hood%20Metrics%20Equations_BETA_Sept-2014.pdf

    For specific SIBs, see

    Profit-seeking is also the whole point of a new exercise in rating cities for “innovation” in education. The ratings (four cities so far) are based in part on the OECD “innovation index.”

    The U.S. Education Innovation Index: Prototype and Report” (September 21, 2016) from, Bellwether Education Partners, illustrates what investors consider as “innovative” work in education and the conditions that favor those initiatives.

    Unbridled praise for “Innovation” is now the new way to speak about “reform” especially, market-based products and services with a strong preference for digital everything and governance systems that by-pass almost all elected officials.

    • larrycuban

      Again, Laura, thanks for following up on profit-taking as a possible reason for schooling hardly reformed by accessibility to new technologies. The examples you offer, particularly “social impact bonds” I am unfamiliar with. I did read the Bellwether report on innovation and will look at it again because I had not seen what you saw. Appreciate the comment.

  4. This was wonderful. I shall be passing it along. My only other comment is that Edtech companies want the public school marketplace to grow – we are the next big arena with what they think are buckets of money. And it is the Edtech companies that are defining “personalized learning” for schools. You might be amused to read this “article” in this “magazine” which is really just advertising: http://www.edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2016/10/personalized-learning-hinges-strong-tech-backbone

    Notice in the URL, it “hinges” on strong tech backbone, not on teachers, not on pedagogy, not relationships. Tech can do all. Makes me grind my teeth.

    Keep writing your clear and thoughtful pieces. Thank you.

  5. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    An interesting post with some good possible explanations. It also reminded me of this speech Barack Obama gave.

  6. Sara Hjelm

    Yes, thanks Pedro … And I have to comment on the two final paragraphs that they sure have tried. And still do. Which is a huge obstical, takes precious time from actual learning for students and robs teachers of a decent chance to do a good job.

  7. I’ve long admired Zhao & Frank’s ecological metaphor. Computer uses as an invasive species. https://msu.edu/~kenfrank/papers/Factors%20affecting%20technology%20uses%20in%20schools.pdf

    • larrycuban

      Jonathan, thanks for the link to the article. I had read it when it initially came out and forgot about the metaphor. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Pingback: Why Is Schooling, After Adopting Computers, Yet...

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