Category Archives: school reform policies

Forget technology–Let’s Talk about Tools for Teaching (Karin Forssell)

Karin Forssell, directs the Learning, Design, & Technology master’s program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Her students design innovative solutions to learning problems. She studies the conditions under which teachers choose to use digital tools, and the features that make them useful.

For some teachers, the idea of incorporating technology into teaching is intimidating, to say the least. It’s complicated. It’s distracting. It breaks. It is not necessary for good teaching.

In common parlance, “technology” is a word we use to describe things that are new.  To quote Alan Kay, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”  Hence Marc Prensky’s distinction between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.”  If you were born before the advent of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, or SnapChat, you might well have a sense that they are different, uncharted, and not critical to good teaching.  By talking about technology, we invoke a sense of exciting novelty, but also untamed wilderness.  Untamed wilderness is not necessarily what a K-12 teacher or a university professor is looking for in a course.

And yet.

“Technology” is useful. The National Academy of Engineers defines it as “any modification of the natural world made to fulfill human needs and desires.”  By this definition, technology for teaching includes not only student response systems and MOOC platforms, but also lecture halls, blue books, and chalk.  All of these can help us address the challenges we face when teaching.  If the word “technology” distracts us from talking about improving instructional practices, would it perhaps be better to use a different word?

First, we can focus on the different “needs and desires” that instructors might want to address in teaching. For example, we might want to provide students with a sense of how ideas are connected through interactive representations.  Or allow them to quickly receive feedback on whether their understanding is correct.  They might need to engage with some ideas in ways that protect them emotionally, or interact with something that would be too dangerous in real life.  We might want to find out who among the students does not understand the concepts, and to explore why. Once we have identified the needs and desires, we may need new “tools.”

Unlike “technology,” the word “tool” evokes a sense of stability. Humans have used tools for thousands of years.  We use tools to provide us with leverage, or power, or the insight needed to act on a given situation.  They make us smart.  In courses, they help our students engage with the content we teach.

Tools are used by people to allow them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. They amplify human capabilities. So different tools are appropriate for different skill levels, or for individuals with different strengths.  An instructor in history would reasonably be interested in a different set than an instructor in physics, given the nature of the content being taught.

Tools are designed to solve problems. Tools make it possible for us to do things more easily, more quickly, or better.  They have handles.  Whereas “technology” often feels inscrutable, a “black box” that operates as if by magic, a tool was designed to be operated by someone.  On a well-designed tool, that handle is obvious.  Of course, not all tools are well designed.  But thinking of tools as designed allows us to get inside the head of the designer.  It suggests ways that we might create a theory of mind.  (If all else fails, it allows us to blame the designer with our own dignity intact.)  For our teaching purposes, a tool that does not do what we want and expect is perhaps not the right tool for the job.

An interesting effect of talking about tools instead of technology is that it frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that “technology” can bring. Instead, we focus on the problems we want to solve in our teaching, or the challenges we choose to take on for our own continuous improvement. The beauty of focusing on the challenges instead of the solutions is that we might uncover a variety of ways of approaching the problem.

In having conversations about the nature of teaching, learning, and our students, we grow far more than in debating the merits of “technology.”


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

Looking Anew at How Teachers Teach

Today, reformers from both ends of the political spectrum push Common Core Standards into classrooms. They champion charters and more parental choice of schools. They want teachers to be evaluated  on the basis of student test scores. Policymakers, philanthropists, and vendors send tablets to classrooms. Look at these reforms as blood relatives fixed on changing how teachers teach so students can learn more, faster, and better. An old story to be sure.

Why old? Two traditions of teaching have competed with one another for millennia.  Each has had a grab-bag of names over the centuries: conservative vs. liberal, hard vs. soft pedagogy, subject-centered vs. child-centered, traditional vs. progressive, teacher-centered vs. student-centered, mimetic vs. transformational.

Each tradition has its own goals (transmit knowledge to next generation vs. helping children grow into full human beings);  practices (teacher-centered vs. student-centered); and desired outcomes (knowledgeable and skilled adults ready to enter the labor market and society versus an outcome of moral and civic engaged adults who use their knowledge and skills to help themselves and their communities). No evidence, then or now, has confirmed advocates’ claims for either tradition. These are choices anchored in beliefs. While posing these traditions as opposites, I, Philip Jackson,  and others have pointed out that most teachers, including the very best, combine both ways of teaching in their lessons.

Educational battles have been fought time and again over these traditions in how teachers should teach reading (phonics vs. whole language), math (“new” vs. traditional), science  (learning subject matter vs. doing science) and history (heritage vs. doing history). Yet even at the height of these public wars fought in words and competing policies, teachers  taught lessons that combined both traditions.

Since the early 1990s, however, states have embraced standards-based reforms, accountability measures, and mandated testing with No Child Left Behind (2002-2015), Common Core standards and tests (since 2010), and Every Student Succeeds in 2016. How, then, in the past quarter-century of standards and accountability-driven schooling have teachers organized instruction, grouped students, and taught lessons?

For those who listen to teachers, the answer is self-evident. Classroom stories and teacher surveys have reported again and again that more lesson time is spent preparing students for high-stakes tests.  And what is taught has narrowed to what appears on tests.

Such stories and research studies describe classroom instruction, particularly in largely poor and minority schools, as more teacher-centered, focused on meeting prescribed state standards and raising test scores. Teachers have felt pressured to drop student-centered activities such as small group work, discussions, learning centers, and writing portfolios because such activities take away precious classroom time from standards-based curriculum and test preparation.

To confirm or challenge these stories and surveys, I  and others have gone into scores of classrooms across the nation. I can sum up the evidence during these years of strong state and federal backing for standards-based reform and accountability into the following statements:

*Teacher-centered instruction has increased in those districts and schools that performed poorly on state tests.

Where state and federal authorities threatened districts and schools with restructuring or closure for low student performance, shame and fear drove many administrators and teachers to prepare students to pass these high-stakes tests. Teachers spent time in directing students to get ready for the skills and knowledge that would be on the state tests. Yes, a shift in classroom practices occurred with more whole group instruction, more seatwork, and more teacher-directed tasks such as lectures and worksheets in secondary school classrooms

All were aimed at improving student performance on state tests. The record of that improvement, however, is, at best, mixed.

*Even with that shift to more teacher-centered instruction, hybrids of the two teaching traditions still prevailed.

As an historian of teaching practices, I have written about how teachers decade after decade have combined both teacher- and student-centered instruction in both elementary and secondary school classrooms.

Even with the current concentration on standards and testing, blends of teacher-centered and student-centered practices still prevail. In short, teachers have had a degree of autonomy—some more, some less–to arrange their classrooms, group for instruction, and choose among different activities for the lessons they taught even in the midst of being labeled failures and school closure threats.

On the whole, then, since the early 1990s when standards, accountability, and testing came to dominate U.S. classrooms, there is a tad more teacher-centered instruction but mixes of the two traditions remained very much present.

Even so, research-backed efforts to add further fuel to the embers that  have burned over the centuries glow between Progressives and Traditionalists are found in the push for Direct Instruction. Often scripted materials for teachers to follow with their students, researchers have found time and again that such instruction shows gains in student test scores ( here, here and here). Yet from Distar to Open Court, elementary school teachers in particular, have been reluctant to embrace such materials.

The struggle over how teachers should teach continues. Policymakers, researchers, practitioners, parents, and, yes, students need to know that both constancy and change have occurred in teaching over many decades. Knowing that these competing traditions of teaching–whatever label is given to each one–turn up in classrooms in 2016 call up anew the persistent progressive and conservative beliefs that have divided policymakers, practitioners, and parents for decades.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

A British High School and Its Integration of Technology (Jose Picardo)

Jose’ Picardo, describes himself in his blogI am a Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School, where I teach Modern Foreign Languages and I am in charge of developing the school’s digital strategy, which can be summarised as follows: ensuring the integration of technologies that enable and facilitate teaching and learning into the life of the school and its wider community….”

Jose’  Picardo commented on a two-part post on my technology integration project. He gave me permission to use his comment. In Picardo’s comment he included a three-minute video about different classrooms in Surbiton High School, outside of London. The video shows the range of usage in both high- and low-tech tools across academic and non-academic subjects.


Hi Larry,

I’ve recently led the adoption of tablets across our school in a suburb of London, UK. Depending on who you ask, we’re either incredibly innovative or completely foolish.

Perhaps surprisingly then, I’ve always been very sceptical of claims of transformation when it comes to the adoption of technology in schools. Throughout the deployment of our 1:1 tablet programme one thing above all was always present on our minds: There is no app for great teaching.

From the start, some of the myths that we found ourselves dispelling most often were that technology would substitute teachers; that tablets would stop children from writing; and that we were somehow giving up on rigour and in to edutainment. As if mobile technology and high academic standards were somehow mutually exclusive.

Anticipating my seminar at BETT yesterday, I had asked a colleague, who is a dab hand at filming and editing, to go round the school and film instances of tablets being used in lessons (if they were being used), so we can paint an accurate picture of how they are used, as opposed to how some folk assume they are being used.(see video at: )

It is actual lesson footage. Nothing was ‘put on’ for the camera. If you have time to watch this 3 min video, you will notice how students weave seamlessly between tablet and paper. Tablets are not substituting paper or preventing children from learning how to handwrite.

The teacher is still the ‘sage on the stage’ most of the time. Students are still students. They are still mostly sitting in rows. Some would argue that if tablets have not transformed the classroom beyond this traditional paradigm, then what is the point? But when you tailor into the equation the multiple ways in which mobile devices support teaching and learning (in the classroom and beyond), then their value begins to become more apparent.

Our school is a great school by all measures. Our results and inspection reports confirm this. Tablets have not yet been shown to have had a great impact on exam results (to early to tell) but, to be honest with you, we will not be surprised if exam results are not dramatically improved by the adoption of these devices. Having said that, our current data leads us to expect a modest improvement.

At the end of the day, the decision to use tablet to support teaching and learning when appropriate was a value call. Good luck measuring that!


While I have no idea how representative Jose Picardo’s video and his comment are of other UK schools that have integrated new technologies into their daily classroom routines, both the comment and video  illustrate two points that I have observed in U.S. classrooms over the past few decades. First, no “transformation” in teaching has occurred (see third paragraph from end of Picardo’s comment). Second, the perpetual hope that use of new technologies will improve “exam” results  (see next-to-last paragraph of  comment).

Both of these points capture the current climate for adopting and integrating tablets and hand-held devices into U.S. classroom instruction. In the technology project I am just beginning, I stay away from linking usage of hardware/software to student achievement for the simple reason that if instruction stays pretty much the same after high-tech devices and applications are regularly used, then chances of gains (or losses) in how much students learn, as measured by existing tests, are slim to non-existent. If teaching is, indeed, linked to student learning then noticeable changes in teaching have to occur for that learning to improve. And that is why in my current project, I focus on how teachers teach in classrooms, schools, and districts  where technology integration has been identified by multiple individuals and agencies rather than how students perform on tests.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools


  1. (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
  2. (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
  3. (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.

Any definition of “kludge” that you pick among the three above–I lean toward the second one but I do like the third as well–fits what has occurred over the past three decades with the introduction of desktop computers into schools followed by laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with scads of accompanying software. Computing devices and accompanying software have been (and are) adds-on to education; all were initially introduced into U.S. manufacturing and commerce as productivity tools and then applied to schooling (e.g., spreadsheets, management information systems). Software slowly changed to adapt to school and classroom use but the impetus and early years applied business hardware and software to schooling. That birth three decades ago of being an add-on tinged with business application has made it a “kludge.”

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to speed along more efficiently the improvement of U.S. schools to strengthen the economy. The push for more business-flavored high-tech in schools has become the “kludge,” that is, “an improvised device, usually crudely constructed” and “typically inelegant” that has become “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.”

I say that because the evidence thus far that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, solved any of the problems is distressingly missing. Student academic achievement surely has not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream of high-tech advocates that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) has yet to materialize in the nation’s classrooms. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school do not necessarily step into better-paying jobs. Thus, high-tech infusion in schools designed to solve problems “temporarily” or “expediently” has become a “kludge.”

Nowadays, the rationale for using tablets and hand-held devices in classrooms has shifted to their potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to achievement), the necessity for all students to take tests online, and the mirage of exiting students marching into high-tech jobs. From flipped classrooms to blended learning, to personalized lessons, the hype continues even in the face of sparse evidence. This approach, then, remains a “kludge” that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and vendors continue to push for solving teaching and learning problems.

Fortunately, there are district officials, school principals, and classroom teachers who avoid the “kludge” effect by reframing the problems of teaching and learning as educational not technical (e.g., getting devices and software into the hands of students and teachers) or grounded in economic reasons. The problems are educational (e.g., how will these machines and software be used to help students understand essential concepts and apply necessary skills)—see here, here, and here. They know in their heart-of-hearts that learning is not about the presence of technology, it is about teachers and students interacting with subject-matter and skills and using paper, pencil, tablets, and Google docs to achieve learning goals. Learning is about teachers using these technological aids to get students to say “aha” about what they have learned, to acquire confidence through practice of skills.

But the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools–continues to dominate policy action. Escaping the origin of technologies imported into schools is very hard to avoid. Technologies in schools remain a band-aid promising solutions to ill-framed problems. Too often it functions as another Rube Goldberg invention to solve the wrong problem.




Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

New Project in Technology Integration in Schools and Classrooms (Part 2)

In Part 1, I laid out my reasons for shifting my focus from disappointments and failures in uses of new technologies to best cases of such use in districts, schools, and classrooms. I also laid out two puzzles that have bugged me for a long time that may find solutions in describing and analyzing exemplars of technology fusion into schools and classrooms. In Part 2, I want to share my current thinking about how I plan to do the project in the next year or so and the obstacles that I see in front of me.

How do I plan to do the study?

The design of the project is a series of case studies drawn from districts and schools. The methodology I will use is interviews with district administrators, school principals, and classroom teachers. Also I will directly observe lessons, sit in on meetings on technology integration, and related professional development. Analysis of district, school, and classroom documents will provide the context of goals, strategies, assessments, and outcomes at different levels of schooling. Finally, describing the history of the district and schools insofar as access and use of new technologies over past quarter-century. All of these data make up each case study.

Where will I do the study?

I have chosen Northern California because it is the epicenter of techno-optimism about new technologies transforming the direction and nature of  both K-12 and university education. Major high-tech firms located there such as Google, Apple, Oracle, Intel, and others have launched major initiatives in both software and hardware that focus on improving the practice of schooling. Some of these firms have designed specific educational software, trained teachers, and offered products directly to schools (see here, here, here, and here). Specifically, I will focus on the Bay area which includes “Silicon Valley”–an area that covers San Jose through San Francisco. Early adopters and unvarnished fans of technology are in ample supply. A pervasive ideology across the region is anchored in taken-for-granted beliefs that new technology improves every aspect of daily life. Cultural norms among established firms, start-ups and wannabe entrepreneurs prize innovation, accept failure as part of life, and turn out beta versions of the “next new thing”daily. That ideology and culture is in the water Northern Californians drink and in the air they breathe. So exemplars of technology infusion in K-12 schools, powered by  hallowed beliefs in the power of new technologies to alter habits and institutions, would surely exist here.

Thus far, one high school district and one charter management organization in Northern California have invited me to do this research this Spring. Where I go after February and March, I am uncertain. So far, so good.

What obstacles do I anticipate?

The first barrier I have to get around is defining exactly what is meant by “technology integration” or “technology infusion.” Not an easy task. Multiple definitions abound (see here and here). Moreover, standards used to inspire action and then judge to what degree “technology integration” occurs in a district, school, or classroom vary widely (see here, here, and here). Rather than pick one among many definitions, I plan to find out how teachers, principals, and district administrators I interview and observe in action define technology integration and determine to what degree it is occurring in their locations.  Moreover, I will have an array of standards for technology infusion from which to choose such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), National Education Association (NEA), National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and similar organizations.

Another barrier is determining whether the example I describe and analyze in a district, school, or classroom is “good” technology integration. Why an obstacle? Because conceptions of “good” teaching and learning vary among educators and non-educators. Furthermore, because I am not looking at students’ test scores and other common measures of success to determine “goodness,” I cannot say that what I find out about “technology integration” can be attributed to student outcomes, be they high, plateauing, or low.

Then there is the problem of the design and generalizing from what I find. Doing case studies and figuring out to what degree I can generalize about “technology integration” becomes an issue to think through because the sample (districts, schools, and classrooms) is both small and unrepresentative–they are, after all, exemplars of integration. One way around the issue of generalizing is, of course, comparing what I find with other district and school case studies elsewhere in the U.S. The issue is a perennial one when doing case studies.

Add even another obstacle to the list. “Technology integration”–a desired change–is a reform. District policymakers want teachers to alter how and what they teach in order for students to learn more and better than using conventional classroom approaches. In most districts, such a “reform” is often part of a larger package of desired changes that district policymakers seek (e.g., Common Core standards, school-site decision-making, revised budget formulas). Thus, sorting out the effects of “technology integration” on teachers and students becomes very tricky because it is one of many initiatives undertaken in a district or a school. The temptation to attribute any degree of success–however defined–to, say, schools and teachers integrating technology into their daily routines is a common error (see here, here, and here ). I want to avoid making that mistake.

The list of obstacles is incomplete and this post is running too long. If viewers have any suggestions for me as I begin this work—particularly around obstacles that I anticipate–I welcome your advice and counsel.


Filed under technology use

Technology Integration in Districts and Schools: Next Project (Part 1)

For decades, as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I have been a consumer and a skeptic of new technologies in both K-12 schools and higher education. My books, articles, talks, and this blog have documented the hype, adoption, and partial implementation of new devices from the 16mm film in the early 20th century, radio in classrooms in the 1930s, instructional television in the 1950s and 1960s, and the desktop computer since the early 1980s. And within the past decade, I have researched and written about the exponential growth in laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with a cornucopia of apps and software that have swept through U.S. schools and colleges.

Student and teacher access to these shiny, new devices–ones that often become obsolete in the blink of an eye–and increased use in districts, schools, and classrooms for data gathering and instructional materials have been stunning to early adopters in and out of schools. Results of these major investments especially in the last decade, however, have been less stunning, even disappointing because the initial reasons for distributing the digital wealth have fallen short time and again. Gains in academic achievement, major shifts in teacher methods, and entry into decent-paying jobs–original goals for buying new technologies–have been missing-in-action when it comes to evaluating the return on investment in digital classroom tools. Thus, I have remained a skeptic and will continue to question the claims of high-tech entrepreneurs and avid champions when it comes to “transforming” the organization and practice of schooling.

Being skeptical, however, does not mean I have a closed mind. I have diligently looked for instances where districts, schools, and classroom teachers have mindfully infused software into their lessons to reach the learning outcomes they seek for their students. On my blog, I have featured such examples (see here, here, and here). For my next project I want to be more systematic in seeking out exemplars of technology integration in districts, schools, and classrooms. Why select exemplars?

First, the often-told story that highly promoted devices and software fall short of the promised outcomes is accurate. The literature on technology use in schools and universities is strewn with examples of broken dreams. I have no enthusiasm to contribute further to that literature since I know that others will document the holes in the Swiss cheese of high-tech hype. Furthermore, stories of failure have hardly blunted the continuing promotion of districts, schools, and classrooms that have come to rely on the latest app, software, and device. The volleying back-and-forth between uncritical advocates and skeptical users will continue into the next decade whatever I think and do. So I want to take a break from that badminton game.

Second, seeking out exemplars of technology integration leap-frogs over the current debates by examining (yes, critically) those instances where experts and local users believe that they are infusing software seamlessly into actual instruction. For them, the technology “works” (what I and others mean by “works” will be addressed later). By describing and analyzing “best cases” of technology integration I can delve deeper into puzzles that have rattled around in my mind as I researched access and use of new hardware and software over the past three decades.

And exactly what are those puzzles?

One that has bothered me for a long time is why “technology” in education is considered separate, an add-on, when that is not the case when observers look at technological tools applied to business, medicine, architecture, engineering and other professional work. For some reasons in these other domains high-tech tools are part-and-parcel of the daily work that professionals do in getting the job done well. Doctors, for example, diagnose illnesses. New technologies—hand-held devices that do EKGs and monitor heartbeats, machines that do CAT-scans–help doctors in figuring out what’s wrong with a patient. In medicine, technology helps in making diagnoses. That’s it. Not in schools and higher education. There, use of such tools is the subject and predicate. The problem to be solved is secondary. Why, then, unlike other professional work, has the use of educational technology been front-and-center in discussions about improving schools, changing teaching, and preparing students for the labor market? In looking at exemplars of educators infusing technology into their daily activities, perhaps a few clues will emerge to unravel this puzzle.

The other puzzle that has bothered me over the years is that teachers, like clinical physicians, nurses, and therapists engage in the “helping professions” where the use of their expertise is wholly dependent upon the responses of their students, patients, and clients. These helping professionals depend a great deal on frequent interactions to achieve any degree of success in improving learning and maintaining health. The introduction of online lessons, 1:1 tablets, Google glasses for doctors, robots in hospitals, and the like raise significant questions about the nature of the work these professionals do and how success is defined. Keeping this view of teaching as a “helping profession” and the crucial importance of teacher-student interactions lays out questions for me to answer in examining exemplars in districts, schools, and classrooms. In what ways do the best cases of technology infusion improve or hinder (or both) relationships between teachers and students?

Part 2 describes my thinking about how I will go about this project in the next year.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

Teachers, Learning Styles, and Using Data to Drive Instruction

Everyone likes data that back their prejudices. Academics call it “confirmation bias.” It runs rife among U.S. Presidents, state governors, legislators, school district policymakers, and Moms and Dads. I include myself in the crowd. People with beliefs on one or the other side of an issue lean heavily on examples and evidence that supports their view of, say, gun control, dieting, the worth of alternative medicine or the two-shooter theory in the Kennedy assassination. Resisting confirmation bias and being open-minded, a process that is closer to sandpaper rather than a soft pillow, requires awareness of one’s beliefs, values and positions on issues. It is hard work and requires attention in what one chooses to read, listen to, and think because it is far easier to screen out or avoid contrary information. Convenience often trumps thinking. All of this is also true for teachers. Consider the issue of  data-driven instruction and learning styles.

Gurus, vendors, and policymakers urge teachers to use test data such as research results and experts’ lists of “best practices” in their daily lessons (see here and here). The record of actual teacher use of data in classrooms however, is, at best, spotty. What happens, then, when research evidence overwhelmingly goes against deeply-held teacher beliefs in “learning styles?”

The most recent and detailed reviews of the literature on learning styles reveals little support for providing materials that play to the auditory, visual, tactile, and other ways that students learn (see here and here). Yet teacher beliefs about the importance of differentiating instruction to meet students’ varied interests, attitudes, abilities, and “styles” continue to be unflagging (see here).

Making sense of the contradiction between using data to drive classroom decisions and the poverty of studies that support “learning style”

So many teachers and studies have claimed–the operative phrase is “research shows”–that learning styles exist and differentiating instruction to match varied “styles” will lead to higher academic achievement (see here and here). Yet meta-analyses of available research has found little concrete evidence of such linkages. Even more so, the research on student learning styles is often deeply flawed in both design and methodology. Researchers have concluded:

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them.
There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtually no evidence for [causal links between styles and achievement]…. Al-
though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.
A less jargony and concise analysis of learning styles and connections to student outcomes can be found in psychologist Daniel Willingham’s Q & A on the subject (see here).
So what’s going on here? Are teacher beliefs so powerful as to overcome strong findings that challenge those very beliefs? The answer is, unsurprisingly, yes. Not only do teacher beliefs in learning styles trump evidence but similar tensions between beliefs and data-driven decisions occur around direct instruction, multiple intelligences, and holding students back for a semester or year and other practices. But teachers, of course, are not the only professionals to succumb to confirmation bias. Doctors, lawyers, software engineers–name the profession–have similar issues. In short, the practice is pervasive among professionals and average folk.
If such cognitive bias is rife among the highly and barely educated, where does that leave data-driven instructional decisions as a “best practice?” Such biases mean, at least to me, that for any reforms aimed at teaching and learning the very first step is to deal openly and directly with the varied beliefs (and assumptions) that teachers have about their content knowledge, how best to teach that content to the young, and how do children learn more and better. These beliefs influence teacher choices of daily activities, instructional materials, arranging classroom furniture, what subject-matter and skills to teach, and grouping of students.
Without attention to teacher beliefs, confirmation bias will continue to go unnoticed as it so often does among physicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and software developers. And data-driven instruction will remain lofty rhetoric rather than classroom realities.


Filed under how teachers teach