Change and Stability in Classrooms, Schools, and Districts (Part 2)

Organizations are dynamically conservative, that is to say, they fight like mad to remain the same.

Donald Schon, 1970[i]

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard [ii]

Based upon my research into exemplars of technology integration in 41 classrooms, 12 schools, and six districts in Silicon Valley in 2016, I concluded that the teachers and administrators I have seen and interviewed have, indeed, implemented software and hardware fully into their daily routines. In these settings, technology use shifted from the foreground to the background. Using devices has become as ordinary as once using pencils and paper. And in many instances, the integration was seamless, no stitches showed. So what?

Putting a reform into classroom practice is no stroll in the park.  Policymakers and researchers must answer four basic questions about any policy aimed at improving how teachers teach and how students learn.

  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?

Too often those who make consequential school decisions and those who research such efforts ignore these questions. And that is a mistake.

In answer to the first question, my data show clearly that in the 41 Silicon Valley classrooms I observed–spread across nine schools and five districts—the local policy of making software and devices available to every teacher and student had been implemented fully. For these teachers identified as exemplary in integrating technology into their daily lessons, access to software-loaded tablets and laptops, a district infrastructure of technical assistance, and professional development gave them many opportunities for daily use. All of these teachers had the discretion in deciding to use the technologies and they chose to do so. And I saw that use in all of the classrooms I visited.

That these “best cases” portray complete implementation toward altering routine teaching practices—a necessary prior condition for any instructional reform to reach students–does not yet answer the next crucial question of whether uses of these technologies altered the lesson format and content in these exemplary classrooms.

The assumption reformers carry in their heads is that fully implemented policies aimed at improved teaching will payoff in student learning. For that payoff to occur, however, there is a far less appreciated interim step: usual classroom practices would have to change in the direction reform-minded policymakers sought such as abandoning traditional instructional practices and adopting student-centered ones. Such changes in content and practice, reformers believe, will lead to improved student outcomes and eventually achieving district goals.

So the second question of whether the content and format of teaching in these “best cases” classrooms have actually changed and in what direction is imperative to answer. For little to no change in how and what teachers taught mean that chances of students learning more, faster, and better—as reformers sought–would diminish. Just as important, were there to be no substantial change in how teachers teach then the third and fourth policy questions become moot.

Turn now to these teachers’ views on change as a result of using technology. Most said that their classroom practices had changed, even improved. About a third said that while there were some shifts in how they taught, ones they appreciated a lot, but the basics of teaching their lessons had not changed.

As a researcher who sat in the 41 classrooms I agreed with the two-thirds of the teachers who claimed that their lessons had changed but I reached a different conclusion about basic changes in format and content of their lessons. Determining the truth about changes in content and practice can be dicey insofar as how much weight to give to teachers’ opinions and a researcher’s view of both the direction and substance of classroom change. [iii]

Without denying that 65 percent of the teachers believed their classroom practices had changed, in the previous chapter I offered two points to make sense of their opinions. First, teachers who saw changes in their teaching, for the most part, identified important incremental (not fundamental) changes due to technology use in planning and implementing lessons. These changes added to their productivity as teachers in completing classroom administrative tasks efficiently, providing a broad array of information sources previously unavailable to their students, and being able to help students in real time. Only one of the 37 teachers who responded to my questions on changes in their practices as a result of using technologies in lessons claimed that his practices had departed substantially from how he usually taught. [iv]

Second, I, as an outside researcher, offered a historical view of public schooling evolving as a institution committed to both instilling community values into the next generation and preparing the young to become independent thinkers, fully engaged citizens and workers. This split mission for tax-supported public schools existed for centuries and remains the order of the day in 2017. Based upon this dilemma-ridden goal, I also drew from scholarship about century-old teaching patterns within age-graded school organizations that suggested strongly that both change and stability were systemic and embedded in daily lessons. This historical view of both the institution and classroom was also anchored in thinking about my experiences of nearly four decades teaching high school and graduate students.

In answering the question of whether technology use had shifted teaching practices, given these differing views, it is clear to me that what teachers said, what I observed, and what I know–those perceived changes had occurred. Such technology-induced changes were incremental and useful to teachers but seldom altered the goals, fundamental classroom structures embedded in the age-graded school, teacher/student relationships, basic format of lessons, or the craft of teaching that has evolved in public schools for well over a century. All of these underlying features of teaching persisted among the classroom changes Silicon Valley teachers recognized in their lessons. Change and continuity in teaching practice have been and continue to be entwined.

None of this should surprise readers. As the epigraphs suggest, stability and change are the yin and yang that these exemplary teachers, schools, and districts illustrate and part of a far larger way of seeing how the world works. The explanation for this persistent interaction between stability and change that I offer here is consistent with similar patterns in the larger environment within which we live, the organizations in which we work and play, and our individual lives.


[i] Donald Schon,”Dynamic Conservatism,” Reit Lectures, 1970 at:

[ii]Giuseppe Lampedusa, The Leopard (London: Fontana, 1963), p. 29.

[iii] As described in the previous chapter, of the 41 teachers I observed, 37 responded to my questions about change in their classrooms. The ratios and percentages detailed in these paragraphs refer to the 37 teachers.

[iv] I attach no greater importance to either incremental or fundamental changes. Both are necessary in any institution serving the community. Each can (or cannot) be significant depending on the direction, say from teacher- to student-centered—and upon available resources and the context. To make either kind of change requires enormous cooperation and heroic action on the part of participants.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

4 responses to “Change and Stability in Classrooms, Schools, and Districts (Part 2)

  1. Hello Professor Cuban,

    Thank you for sharing these sections of your upcoming book as they connect to my dissertation research. I am looking forward to reading the final publication. In the meantime, I hope you don’t mind a few questions.

    When you observed these teachers and schools, did they have a vision for the desired learning environment that they hoped to achieve with the technology? Though you mention that only one teacher indicated that he had extensively changed his classroom practice, did the leadership within the school ever articulate a desired end state beyond access and surface level use of devices?

    In my own research, I keep coming back to your book Tinkering Towards Utopia. Your description of the “grammar of school” still seems to be an underlying factor impacting educators’ abilities to extensively implement change despite access to technology. Did you also find this?

    Thank you,

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Beth, for your comment and questions. On the first one, I observed and interviewed individual teachers identified as exemplary in integrating technology into lessons; they did offer their vision of teaching. But for schools and districts identified as exemplary, I did not interview principals and superintendents for their vision.

      On your second question, yes, the grammar of schooling–in particular the age-graded school structure–shows up time and again not as a limiting factor (as you suggest)–these teachers figured out how to get access and use digital tools regularly–but an influential factor in shaping how these exemplary teachers and schools use the tools in daily lessons.

      • Thank you for the reply, Professor Cuban.

        Just to clarify. In your second paragraph, the grammar of schooling did or did not show up as a limiting factor?

        I am looking forward to your keynote at our residency at Johns Hopkins this summer and hope to meet you in person.

        Thank you, again.

      • larrycuban

        Yes, Beth, the structure of the age-graded school (part of the “grammar of schooling”0 has shown up as a limiting factor in exemplary teachers planning and carrying out lessons.

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