EdSurge asked me to offer reflections and predictions for 2017. The following appeared in EdSurge, December 27, 2017.
As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform including the use of new technologies in classrooms over the past half-century, except for one event noted below, I found little that startled me in 2017. For digital tools in classrooms, it was the same o’ same o’.
Sure, I am an oldster and have seen a lot of school reform both successes and failures but I am neither a pessimist nor a nay-sayer about public schools. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both the idealism and optimism—keep in mind the adjectives I used to modify the nouns—have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform especially when it comes to technology. So for 2017, I offer no lessons that will shock but ones distilled from my experience.
When it comes to student use of classroom technologies, talk and action are both important. Differentiating between the two is crucial.
Anyone interested in improving schooling through digital tools has to distinguish between media surges of hyped news about, say, personalized learning transforming schools and virtual reality devices in classrooms from actual policies that are adopted (e.g., standards, testing, and accountability, buying 1:1).
Then one has to further distinguish between the hyperbole and adopted policies and programs before determining what teachers actually do in their classroom lessons. The process is the same as parsing hyped ads from the unwrapped product in your hand.
These distinctions are crucial in making sense of what teachers do once the classroom door closes.
Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.
District purchases of hardware and software continue to go up. In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Nothing startling here—the trend line in buying stuff began to go up in the early years of this century and that trend continues. Because this nearly ubiquitous access to new technologies has spread across urban, suburban, exurban, and rural school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. While surely the use of devices and software has gained full entry into classrooms, anyone who regularly visits classrooms sees the wild variation in lessons among teachers using digital technologies.
Yes, teachers have surely incorporated digital tools into daily practice but—there is always a “but”—even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.
In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons.
They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating playlists for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.
But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of lessons—setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, assessing student understanding— that differed from earlier generations of experienced teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Again, stability and change in teaching with digital tools.
Oh yes, there was one event that did startle me. That was the election of Donald Trump as President. I do not believe that his tenure in the White House or that of his Secretary of Education will alter the nation’s direction in schooling–my first prediction. Every Student Succeeds Act (2016) shifts policymaking from federal to state offices. Sure, there is much talk in D.C. about more choice, charters, and vouchers but much of it remains talk. Little change in what schools do or what happens in classrooms will occur.
What is disturbing is the President’s disregard for being informed, making judgments based on whim, tweeting racist statements, and telling lies (Politifact has documented 325 Trump statements that it judges mostly or entirely false) . These Presidential actions in less than a year have already shaped a popular culture where “fake news,” “truthful hyperbole,” and “post-truth” are often used phrases.
Indirectly, the election of Donald Trump—and here is my second prediction—will spark a renaissance in districts and schools working on critical thinking skills and teachers and students parsing mainstream and social media for accuracy. Maybe the next generation will respect facts, think more logically, be clearer thinkers, and more intellectually curious than our current President.