Why does so much teaching in K-12 schools and universities look the same over time? To be accurate, however, what appears as timeless stability and similarity in teaching has obscured incremental changes. Now professors ask more questions for students in lectures,organize more small group work, and more use of new devices–from clickers to moodles–than academics had done a half-century ago. So, too, for K-12 teachers who have, again over time, made small and significant changes in their classroom teaching. There is more guided discussion, more group work, increased academic content in lower and upper grades, more adventurous teaching by larger fractions of teachers, and, yes, more and more teachers using high-tech devices for instruction.
Yet looking back on one’s experience in most university and secondary school classrooms, the teaching–even accounting for these incremental changes over the decades– sure looks like the same o,’ same o.’
Here’s the heart of the puzzle: In universities, student attendance is voluntary; in K-12 attendance is compulsory. Note also that the complexity of the subject matter, freedom of movement, course choices, student ages, and teachers’ deep knowledge of their subject are other critical markers that distinguish university classrooms from those in K-12 schools. Yet–and you knew there was a “yet” coming–with all of these essential differences many studies point out the similarities in teaching. Including the use of technology for instruction.
Technology Use in Universities
Academics use computers at home and in their offices to write, analyze data, communicate with colleagues, and compose syllabi and handouts for their courses. Personal accounts and surveys report again and again that most academics use computers and other technologies for routine tasks in laboratories, lecture halls, and data analysis (see here and here). A 2018 survey noted that 75 percent of responding faculty adopt and adapt new technologies to their instruction. That same survey reported only 11 percent of professors opposed increased use of classroom technologies. Moreover, many professors blog, make podcasts, create web-based classes and teach online courses.
Yet using computers and other new technologies to improve instruction has had little tangible effect on undergraduate classroom teaching or learning. The lecture has remained central to undergraduate instruction.
Except now lectures are often conveyed through Powerpoint and similar software. According to a 2008 national student survey, 63 percent of professors use PowerPoint software in their undergraduate courses. At some institutions, the percentage runs higher. Except for a small fraction of faculty, abundant high-tech hardware, software, and services have hardly made a difference in how professors teach and students learn in most undergraduate classrooms.
While the exact same statement cannot be made for K-12 teaching, there are enough similarities to make even the most ardent high-tech advocate wince.
Unlocking this puzzle of same o,’ same o’ for university and school teaching requires different answers for for each institution. For universities, look at institutional goals and organizational structure. Consider that a primary goal of universities is to produce knowledge (i.e., doing research) and disseminate it (i.e., teach and publish). Structures and incentives to achieve that goal are faculty rewards in tenure and promotion for research productivity rather than effective teaching. To insure that faculty have time to do research and publish, university administrators reduce teaching obligations by creating large lecture classes in the undergraduate courses and small classes in graduate courses. Those goals, incentives, and structures shape how classes are organized and influence how professors teach.
Technology use in K-12
Rather than cite again all of the surveys (10.1.1.90.6742-1), ethnographic studies, and reports (Bebell_04) of direct observation of classrooms over the past thirty years, the evidence seems clear, at least to me, that nearly all teachers endorse the use of technology for both administrative and instructional tasks but prevailing use falls short of that endorsement. Nonetheless, an increasing fraction of teachers are integrating high-tech devices into their daily lessons. A larger group of teachers use laptops/desktops/ hand-held devices occasionally–say once a week–and now, only a fraction of teachers in most districts, both urban and suburban, refrain from even minimal use–once a month or never.
Reasons for this frequency and type of use by K-12 teachers? When I and others (David K. Cohen on Teaching PDF) look at the organizational conditions of teaching in the age-graded school, the flaws in the technological innovation and its implementation, and the lack of incentives for teachers to go the extra mile even when they endorse technology, it becomes understandable why there have been far more laggards than early adopters of technology among schoolteachers. But that is slowing changing.
Two crucial educational institutions differ in governance, organization, curriculum, and authority to compel attendance yet show similar patterns in instruction and use of technology. Changes in both institutions continue to occur. Will the patterns of instruction diverge or remain the same ‘o, same o’?