Protests then and now—even fictitious student Bart Simpson–have not stopped technological innovations. That is the power of techno-optimism. Change is good. Change means progress. Changes makes life better. Sure, even if new technologies disrupt industries, people lose jobs, and corporate mergers drive out small businesses, life will be better than what existed before. Techno-optimism reigns in America.
The belief that new technologies can improve individual and collective life–personal health, workplace productivity, home conveniences, school productivity, community engagement– has existed in Europe and the U.S. for centuries (see here and here). It is (and has been) pervasive irrespective of race, ethnicity, social class, and religious belief.
The dream that the Internet would advance democracy, for example, fueled the first generation of global users. Yet after a few years, it became obvious that the Internet, like most technologies, can be used for good or ill; it can expand popular participation in democracies or tighten the grip of dictatorships to control their citizens. Or the Internet turns commercial and invasive in vacuuming up personal data and sold to the highest bidder. Add in social media platforms that surely connect people to one another while simultaneously becoming a vehicle for bullying, hate-mongering, and interfering with national elections in other countries.
Soiled dreams aside, techno-optimism remains the default belief for most Americans.
And optimism (stripped of its adjective) characterizes educators as well. After all, the men and women who become teachers, principals, and superintendents believe in their heart of hearts that children can change for the better, learning is good, and that all children and youth can profit from “good” schools. Few pessimists about the human condition enter the profession and if they do, they seldom last more than a year or two.
Techno-optimism among practitioners, however, becomes tempered over time. Reforms come and go. Hype is easily recognized and dismissed. Some changes do occur but often fall well below reformers’ expectations. Most important, however, in creating this tempered optimism is the taken-for-granted age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” in which teachers work daily. Within that organization, school working conditions (e.g., heavy teaching loads, class sizes, limited planning time, insufficient supplies, multiple preparations), the broad range of student abilities and performance stemming from district re-segregation and erratic–if not inadequate support from administrators produce further disappointments stripping away unvarnished optimism particularly when it comes to new technologies.
Younger teachers too often burnout and exit the job. For those teachers who have mastered the craft and retain beliefs in the importance of the work they do, these veterans have learned to parse the hype and select particular new technologies to fit the contours of their classrooms. These teachers retain their optimism about the importance of helping children grow and learn while sharing their expertise with students. They adjust their repertoire of approaches to use devices and software in lessons bending them to the demands inherent to the organization of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”
All of the talk of “disrupting” schooling and higher education through MOOCs, online lessons, super-software, “personalized learning” and cyber schools, in the end, has been talk. “Personalized learning,” on line lessons, and MOOCs exist but they remain on the periphery of tax-supported and private schooling in the U.S.
Why is that? And how does it occur?
Organizations have plans for their inhabitants. The ubiquitous and enduring age-graded school for children and youth, who are compelled to attend between early childhood to 17 or 18, shapes what happens daily in classrooms, corridors, lunchrooms, and nearby playgrounds. Teacher duties, student responsibilities, and administrative actions flow from the organizational structures (e.g., daily schedule of classes, separate classrooms, sliced up curriculum by subject and grade, periodic tests, report cards). This “grammar of schooling” embedded in the age-graded school influences what students do, what teachers teach, and what occurs between 8AM-3PM in U.S. schools. Apart from military and crime-fighting agencies, most Americans underestimate the power of community-based organizations such as schools to shape (but not determine) individual adult and child behavior. And that is a mistake. School organizations do steer (but not control) behavior of those within its confines.
Part of that steering, that guiding of behavior, becomes evident when it comes to new technologies clothed in promises of transforming teaching and learning from people who have spent nary a day in a classroom.
Most experienced teachers have become allergic to such promises. After all, teachers have been students for 16-20-plus years and know first-hand what happens in classrooms and schools. When faced with reforms that expect major changes in classroom practices, they adapt such policies to fit the students they face daily, their content and skills expertise, and what they believe they should teach and students should learn. They do this, of course, piece-by-piece.
Consider the desktop computer. In the early 1980s, the innovative technology began with placing one computer on a teacher’s desk. In a few years, school located desktop computers in libraries then set up separate computer labs. As years passed, prices dropped, schools bought lightweight laptops for each student. Now in 2019, classroom carts with 25-30 tablet computers are stacked and ready for student use in most classrooms. Yet dominant ways of teachers organizing classes, arranging activities, and teaching lessons continue as before but now they use devices and software to achieve the same ends. Surely the language has changed when schools announce that they have “personalized learning” by providing access to devices and teachers agree as lessons unfold with familiar activities.
You want 180 degree changes in what happens in classrooms, it won’t happen. You want 10 degrees or 20 degrees of change, with teacher understanding, capacity, and willingness, such changes will occur.In short, schools adopt reforms and adapt them gradually to fit the prevailing “grammar of schooling. Teachers and administrators domesticate school reforms including new technologies.
None of this is meant as a criticism of teachers or principals. It is simply evidence of how and why organizations have major influence on its inhabitants.