Have the 41 exemplary teachers in integrating technology into daily lessons that I observed and interviewed in Silicon Valley in 2016 changed their practice as a result of using new devices and software?
Straightforward as the question sounds, it is tricky to answer. Why?
In a society geared to constant change as America is, the word has far more positive than negative connotations. Fashions in clothes, car models, gadgets, and hairstyles change every year trumpeting the next new thing to acquire. Both Presidential campaigners Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016, for example, promised their supporters that America will change for the better. Change is “good.” Embracing the new is progress. It is a norm that Americans revel in.
Especially when it comes to taking on new technologies in the past (e.g., household appliances, radio, television) and present (e.g., desktop computers, laptops, and smart phones). So for teachers, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and elected officials not accepting the next new electronic device and changing their daily practice is often seen as resistance, a fondness for the “old” that is out of step with American values and the future. Reform-driven policymakers, deep pocket donors, entrepreneurs and vendors believe a lack of change or very slow adoption of new digital tools to be a detriment to student learning, patients, clients, customers, and voters. So a social and individual bias toward change, particularly technological change, is built into American society, history, institutions and professional behavior.
Acknowledging a historical bias toward change hints at the trickiness of the question I ask. Judging whether teachers have actually altered their daily classroom practice is surprisingly hard to do. Teachers, imbued with the culture’s values, often say that they have changed their lessons from week to week, year to year due to new district curricula, tests, and programs. Yet policymakers and researchers are less certain of such changes.[i]
Consider that researchers ordinarily find out whether teachers have changed their practices through direct observation before and after change occurred, interviews, surveying faculty opinions, sampling principal evaluations, and soliciting student views. Few researchers, however, have the access, time, or funds to tap all of these sources so they use short cuts and depend upon one or two sources at best and snapshots of one moment in time. Occasional teacher interviews, drop-in classroom observations, and faculty surveys are often what researchers end up using to answer to the question.
Yet even when researchers or other inquirers believe they have sufficient information to determine that teachers have changed how they teach lessons, such a conclusion does not tell you the direction of those changes, that is, from more teacher-centered to more student-centered or whether those changes were superficial or substantial, whether they were a step forward or a step backward in classroom practice.
Think, for example, of a classroom where teachers once used a low-tech device for nearly two centuries to reach students and within the past half-century that low-tech device has morphed into an expensive high-tech tool in classroom. I speak of the chalkboard.
The innovative slate chalkboard introduced in the early 19th century was eventually replaced in the mid-20th century by green boards and then soon after whiteboards using erasable markers. Now electronic smart boards have become pervasive (60 percent of K-12 classrooms have been installed as of 2014). These changes in a classroom technology have helped teachers convey knowledge, students practice skills, and display lesson objectives and activities. And these changes have strengthened familiar teacher-centered practices (e.g., lecture, recitation, guided whole group discussion) that have dominated public school teaching for over a century and a half. [ii]
The evolution of the slate chalkboard into electronic smart boards mark classroom changes in the past century. So what did those Silicon Valley teachers, exemplars of technology integration, tell me about changes that had occurred in their classrooms?
According to what teachers told me, they have altered their practice. These teachers identified as being exemplary in integrating technology took attendance, recorded assignments, checked homework, assessed students, and emailed parents routinely using laptops and tablets and other devices. They organized lessons to include whole-group, small group instruction, and independent student work. Many of the teachers I observed created individual playlists of math, science, and social studies sources for their students to engage in research projects. They individualized lessons and helped students self-assess their grasp of content and skills. So these teachers have, according to their recall of how they taught previously, modified practices when using new technologies.
But just listing new and altered practices associated with the spread of electronic devices does not get at the depth of the change or its direction in classroom practice. Consider the following queries:
*Is using an interactive white board instead of an overhead projector and chalkboard a substantial “change” or simply a modification of a habitual practice?
*Is it a superficial or deep “change” in classroom practice when a teacher takes attendance on her tablet instead of checking off names on a sheet of paper?
Surely, these queries reveal “changes,” in familiar practices. The teachers I observed and interviewed would readily acknowledge that such alterations in routines have been important to them because these changes saved time and energy. In conversations with these teachers, the word “efficient” popped up repeatedly. Using less time for administrative details and having at one’s fingertips information from multiple sources for students to access was of great importance to teachers. Such changes gave teachers an edge in racing against the clock during a lesson. Teachers perceived such changes as important. Yet ardent reformers often under-appreciate and overlook these changes.
Technologically-driven reformers might begrudgingly admit that these examples are “changes” but not ones that they envisioned. Entrepreneurs eager to help schools dump the “factory model” of schooling (e.g., age-graded school, traditional teaching) might categorize these “changes” as merely shallow or, perhaps, trivial compared to schools that convert to “blended” learning combining online and face-to-face lessons that are “personalized.” Reform-minded policymakers and donors want to see teachers creating individual playlists for students, students working on projects every week, frequently use online lessons, and similar “transformative” changes. They see technologies steering classrooms toward student-centered teaching, a direction they promote. Anything less than these kind of fundamental (or sometimes called “real”) changes in pedagogy, they would be disappointed.
Or researchers, deeply believing in student-centered learning observing lessons in these teachers’ classrooms, might see such changes as mere adjustments that reinforce dominant patterns of teacher-directed lessons. Yet these researchers know that they must be alert to their own values and biases when they collect, analyze, and publish their studies. In analyzing these facets of classroom practice, attention has to be paid to the tacit biases that inhabit those who observe, describe, and analyze how lessons unfold. Where one sits (or stands), surely shapes one’s perspective.
Teachers, principals, parents, researchers, and policymakers, for example, have different organizational roles and experiences. They approach data from varied viewpoints. And they are Americans socialized to see change as progress and an unalloyed good. These differences among academics and members of district and school communities have to be made explicit in making sense of what teachers say and do.
So answering the question of whether widespread student access and teacher use of technologies has “changed daily classroom practices” depends upon who is the asker, who is the doer, and what actually occurs in the classroom.
The next post dips into who asks the questions, the role of teacher and researcher in making sense of what occurs in lessons.
[i] Diane Stark Rentner, et. al., “Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices,” 2016 (Center for Education Policy, George Washington University).
[ii] Kim Kankiewicz, “There’s No Erasing the Chalkboard,” The Atlantic, October 13, 2016 at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/10/theres-no-erasing-the-chalkboard/503975/