Natasha Singer’s series of New York Times articles in the past six months showed persuasively that top Silicon Valley companies have increased student and teacher access to digital devices and software across the nation. But Singer also claims that expanded access has led to these high-tech tools dominating classroom lessons. Google, et. al. tools shape what teachers do daily. She says:
Through their philanthropy, they are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental approaches to learning.
Yes, I have observed in Silicon Valley and elsewhere how these high-tech Goliaths have helped increase student access to digital tools across the nation. But I have not observed their influence on “the subjects that schools teach” and, most important, on “fundamental approaches to learning.” To that I say “no.”
Conflating access with use is a common error that journalists, researchers, and promoters of digital tools make. In this post I argue that access can surely lead to more use in lessons but anyone who knows classrooms understands that daily use covers a range of teacher-directed activities combining high- and low-tech tools.
I observed 41 Silicon Valley classrooms in 12 different schools during 2016 where teacher identified as exemplary in integrating digital tools have neither abandoned teacher-directed lessons in favor of student-centered instruction nor surrendered to the allure of these devices and software. While they use these digital and non-digital tools often, these devices have moved from the foreground of their lessons to the background. These electronic tools have become like paper and pencil and prompt no longer “Gee Whiz” or “look at that” responses. What these devices and software have not done, however, is alter these teachers’ “fundamental approaches to learning.”
After observing these teachers’ lessons, I asked them if using these digital tools had altered how they they teach. Although nearly two of three teachers said they had definitely changed how they taught as a result of integrating digital tools into their daily lessons, a large minority of teachers said that using new technologies in lessons had not changed their practice. How to reconcile these conflicting views?
First, I distinguish between fundamental and incremental changes, types of common changes that have occurred in the two-century history of the U.S. age-graded school.
By fundamental change, I mean altering the basic building blocks of US schooling, such as requiring taxpayers to fund public schools and give access to all students, establishing goals for schooling (e.g., all students will be literate, discharge their civic duties, and be vocationally prepared for the labor market), and organizing curricula and instructional practices in age-graded elementary and secondary schools. These building blocks are structures that have defined public schools and influenced what occurs in classrooms for the past two centuries.
Changing them fundamentally means altering funding (e.g., vouchers, charter schools), governance (e.g., site-based management, mayoral control), organization (e.g., moving from an age-graded school to non-graded teams and entire schools), curriculum (e.g., New Math, “hands-on” science), and instruction (e.g., moving from teacher-centered to student-centered pedagogy).
Often those who champion changes in public schools talk about “real reform” or “transformation of schooling.” What they refer to are fundamental changes in one or more structures of schooling, not incremental changes.
Incremental changes refer to amending current structures and practices, not making deep changes to or removing core components of schooling. Examples include creating new academic courses, extending the school day or year, reducing class size, raising teacher salaries, and introducing new reading or math programs. Such changes do not alter the basic structures of public schools. They correct deficiencies and improve existing structures. They do not replace the goals, funding, organization, and governance of schools—they are add-ons. Many promoters of deep change in schools call such changes “tinkering,” usually in a dismissive way, because they want “real reform” or fundamental reordering of existing structures.
In most instances, reform-minded teachers, administrators, policy makers, and non-educators push for change without distinguishing between one kind or the other. Often, as a result, what was urged as a reform that would substantially alter what occurs in classrooms turns out to be a minor modification of existing practice—a butterfly alighting on a rose—disappointing many advocates who seek a change that follows the trajectory of a bullet.
The same can be said for those who sought to shake–“disrupt” was the favored verb—the foundations of age-graded schools with reforms such as vouchers, online schools, or their version of “personalized learning” that then fall far short of their aspirations.
Of the 65 percent of teachers who said they had changed their practice because of using digital tools, nearly all have implemented incremental changes in how they teach using devices and software. They believe that these changes made a difference in how they teach and helped their students learn. They became far more productive and efficient in teaching lessons. After observing lessons and interviewing the teachers, I see no reason to doubt what they say.
Then there were a handful of teachers who said that digital tools had been helpful but had not basically changed how they teach. The basic planning, the activity sequence during lessons, and how they interacted with students in and out of class had not shifted because of the technologies they used. These teachers distinguished between the productivity high-tech tools brought to their work and their craft and content knowledge in formatting and enacting a lesson.
Second I see both change and stability as central to the conduct of teaching over the past two centuries. Neither one nor the other—both.
Some researchers and teachers have come to recognize that change and stability are (and have been) the conjoined twins of tax-supported schooling in the United States. They cannot be separated, since organizations including the classroom adapt to change and end up preserving stability in lesson format and content. Dynamic conservatism is another way of saying that change is crucial to organizational stability—that the pedagogical hybrids that teachers have developed over decades prove how teaching changes to retain the familiar. Stability and change in teaching is more than a passing fad; it is a permanent condition.
Based on my experience as a teacher and the knowledge gleaned from historical detective work on how teachers have taught over the past century, I conclude—and the distinctions these teachers drew demonstrate—there is both change and stability in teaching. Yes, there have been changes in practice. At the same time, there has been constancy in how teachers set goals, organize, and execute lessons; these have not been replaced by digital tools.
These concepts of the inseparability of constancy and change in teaching and the dichotomy of changes has not only helped me make sense of the language and action of school and classroom reform but also given me a way of explaining teacher responses to my questions.
And because of these distinctions I make from my observations of these 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers, high-tech Goliaths have not influenced, as Natasha Singer claims, “fundamental approaches to learning.”