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.