Category Archives: technology use

Managing Crowds: ClassDojo (Part 2)

ClassDojo is a recently-developed software platform (2011) that, according to the founders of the company, is used in 90 percent of schools in the U.S (see here). In the past five years, however, ClassDojo has become much more than a free digital tool to motivate students and manage classroom behavior. It is a platform that allows teachers to communicate with parents by posting photos and letting parents comment on what they see; students can also post photos and videos about what they are doing in school. With parent and student communication integrated with the classroom behavior tool, a social media platform is emerging.

The company has expanded beyond the initial behavioral management software and moved into the business of producing videos on “mind set” and empathy starring “Mojo the friendly monster” to construct a communication network where students, parents and teachers are knitted together closely.

And the future? With its network of parents, teachers, and students, ClassDojo will grow into an enterprise marketing far more than a motivational and behavioral tool to manage classroom crowds.

As one ClassDojo board member said: “This company has a greater market share than Coke in the U.S.” The future, according to one of the founders of ClassDojo, is coming into view when he asked:

Your entertainment bundle is Netflix. Your music bundle is Spotify. What is your education bundle?

That may be the future that the company seeks in spurring a revenue flow—ClasDojo is free to teachers and the company is just beginning to earn revenue from its videos. But it is the original software program promising to help teachers manage student behavior so that they can smoothly, without distraction or student misbehavior, carry off a lesson in reading or math within the allotted time. And that is the focus for this post.

Managing a crowd of students with ClassDojo

Across the country, teachers have glommed onto the digital platform as a way of managing 20 to 30 students daily. Whatever admirers and critics say, ClassDojo is a management tool aimed at engaging students and keeping their academic and emotional behavior on track during class time. It is the most recent of tools (think of teachers using dunce caps, corporal punishment for inattention and bad behavior, public shaming, dispensing praise and handing out M & Ms for good behavior) that teachers have historically used to motivate and control the behavior of their charges during periods of instruction.

While there is much variation in how teachers use ClassDojo,  one reporter described  typical ways the software is used in two New York state classrooms right next to one another.

Greg Fletcher, an amiable third-grade teacher at Hunter Elementary School, in Hunter, N.Y., uses a variety of old-school techniques to get his young students to settle down to their studies in the morning.

But when those fail, he turns to ClassDojo, a popular — and, in some quarters, controversial — behavior tracking app that I wrote about in an article on Monday.

“Let’s all sit like third graders,” Mr. Fletcher said one morning last month when I visited his class. Among the 13 third graders, all but a couple of boys sat.

“Let’s all get Mona Lisa quiet,” Mr. Fletcher tried again.

Mr. Fletcher was standing in front of an interactive white board on which he had projected ClassDojo. The program allows teachers to create a virtual classroom, with the real name and a cartoon monster avatar for each student, and then select behaviors — like “following directions” or being “off task” — for which they can award points to students or deduct them.

Teachers use the system to keep a running tally of each student’s score and to communicate with parents about their child’s progress. They can adapt it to their own teaching styles — and the temperaments of their students.

Mr. Fletcher, for instance, publicly displays ClassDojo’s scoreboard in his classroom. That means not only do his students know the moment he awards or deducts a point, they can simultaneously see the scores of everyone in the class.

That morning, one student in a Star Wars T-shirt was having trouble settling down.

“If I see the back of your head,” Mr. Fletcher said firmly, “it’s going to cost you a point.”

The boy immediately sat.

“I always let them see what is happening,” Mr. Fletcher explained, “when it’s a positive or when it needs work.”

the reporter then went to the classroom next door.

….Sharon Sofranko, whose shares responsibility with Mr. Fletcher for teaching third grade, was also using ClassDojo — but in private mode. At the start of the school year, she said, she had publicly displayed the scoreboard in her classroom, but it distracted her third-graders.

“Some kids were upset,” she said. “Some kids would find that they had 20 points less than someone else.”

Now she walks around the classroom with the app open on her phone, privately awarding and subtracting points without her students being able to see their own scores or those of their classmates.

If she wants a particular student to pay more attention to, say, raising his or her hand before speaking, she takes that student aside for a private chat.

“I actually do think it’s fairly effective,” Ms. Sofranko said.

Here is what ClassDojo staff said after the above article, including criticism of the reward and penalty system embedded in the software, appeared:

Teachers use ClassDojo to give students positive feedback on skills like leadership, persistence, teamwork and curiosity, and then communicate that feedback with parents. Over 90% of the feedback teachers give to students on ClassDojo is positive. Teachers use ClassDojo to communicate success with parents, and to give students a chance to excel outside an increasingly narrow framework of academic assessment.

There has been much praise and criticism of this technological tool. Praise comes from teachers who use the software (see here and here) and parents (see here and here). Criticism comes from those concerned about student information being sold to marketeers or privacy being abridged (see here), teachers who despise the  system of rewards and penalties (see here), and academic pundits who have seldom entered classrooms to see ClassDojo being used (see here).

Much of the praise and criticism of the platform centers on the issue of teachers using extrinsic rewards (e.g., points) and penalties (e.g., deduction of points) to reinforce positive behavior rather than encouraging intrinsic motivation of students to learn. While I have read copiously (and understand as a former high school teacher) the contemporary back-and-forth argument about the values of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards,  the debate skirts the deeper and central issue that explains why so many teachers across the country, without asking anyone’s permission, download the application.

What has unlocked so many classrooms to ClassDojo is that it can be a helpful modern tool to manage a crowd of children compelled to be in 900 square feet rooms for about six hours a day to learn what teachers have to teach while at the same time keeping parents informed of how their sons and daughters are doing in class. Too often some basic facts about tax-supported public schooling in the U.S. are overlooked.

Fact 1: K-12 students have to attend school.

Fact 2: Students move from grade-to-grade based upon teacher judgment, marks on tests, and report card grades.

Fact 3: Teachers depend upon students to obey directions. Without students’ motivation and cooperation with teachers, little learning occurs.

Fact 4: Over the last century, teachers have used mixes of rewards and penalties to gain student compliance and cooperation.

Classroom management, then, is an imperative deriving from compulsory attendance, the structure of the age-graded school, what the community expects students to learn, and teacher judgments about student performance.

Teachers need every tool they can grab to help them corral student energy and fight apathy, increase kindness and decrease mischievousness, encourage passion and discourage inertia. ClassDojo is the most recent incarnation of a tool that teachers believe will help them manage the crowd they see daily. In 2017 teaching and learning in an age-graded school remains a complex phenomenon that few experts acknowledge or too few teachers publicly comment on.





Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Change and Stability in Classrooms, Schools, and Districts (Part 2)

Organizations are dynamically conservative, that is to say, they fight like mad to remain the same.

Donald Schon, 1970[i]

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard [ii]

Based upon my research into exemplars of technology integration in 41 classrooms, 12 schools, and six districts in Silicon Valley in 2016, I concluded that the teachers and administrators I have seen and interviewed have, indeed, implemented software and hardware fully into their daily routines. In these settings, technology use shifted from the foreground to the background. Using devices has become as ordinary as once using pencils and paper. And in many instances, the integration was seamless, no stitches showed. So what?

Putting a reform into classroom practice is no stroll in the park.  Policymakers and researchers must answer four basic questions about any policy aimed at improving how teachers teach and how students learn.

  1. Did policies aimed at improving student performance get fully, moderately, or partially implemented?
  2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?
  3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?
  4. Did what students learn meet the intended policy goals?

Too often those who make consequential school decisions and those who research such efforts ignore these questions. And that is a mistake.

In answer to the first question, my data show clearly that in the 41 Silicon Valley classrooms I observed–spread across nine schools and five districts—the local policy of making software and devices available to every teacher and student had been implemented fully. For these teachers identified as exemplary in integrating technology into their daily lessons, access to software-loaded tablets and laptops, a district infrastructure of technical assistance, and professional development gave them many opportunities for daily use. All of these teachers had the discretion in deciding to use the technologies and they chose to do so. And I saw that use in all of the classrooms I visited.

That these “best cases” portray complete implementation toward altering routine teaching practices—a necessary prior condition for any instructional reform to reach students–does not yet answer the next crucial question of whether uses of these technologies altered the lesson format and content in these exemplary classrooms.

The assumption reformers carry in their heads is that fully implemented policies aimed at improved teaching will payoff in student learning. For that payoff to occur, however, there is a far less appreciated interim step: usual classroom practices would have to change in the direction reform-minded policymakers sought such as abandoning traditional instructional practices and adopting student-centered ones. Such changes in content and practice, reformers believe, will lead to improved student outcomes and eventually achieving district goals.

So the second question of whether the content and format of teaching in these “best cases” classrooms have actually changed and in what direction is imperative to answer. For little to no change in how and what teachers taught mean that chances of students learning more, faster, and better—as reformers sought–would diminish. Just as important, were there to be no substantial change in how teachers teach then the third and fourth policy questions become moot.

Turn now to these teachers’ views on change as a result of using technology. Most said that their classroom practices had changed, even improved. About a third said that while there were some shifts in how they taught, ones they appreciated a lot, but the basics of teaching their lessons had not changed.

As a researcher who sat in the 41 classrooms I agreed with the two-thirds of the teachers who claimed that their lessons had changed but I reached a different conclusion about basic changes in format and content of their lessons. Determining the truth about changes in content and practice can be dicey insofar as how much weight to give to teachers’ opinions and a researcher’s view of both the direction and substance of classroom change. [iii]

Without denying that 65 percent of the teachers believed their classroom practices had changed, in the previous chapter I offered two points to make sense of their opinions. First, teachers who saw changes in their teaching, for the most part, identified important incremental (not fundamental) changes due to technology use in planning and implementing lessons. These changes added to their productivity as teachers in completing classroom administrative tasks efficiently, providing a broad array of information sources previously unavailable to their students, and being able to help students in real time. Only one of the 37 teachers who responded to my questions on changes in their practices as a result of using technologies in lessons claimed that his practices had departed substantially from how he usually taught. [iv]

Second, I, as an outside researcher, offered a historical view of public schooling evolving as a institution committed to both instilling community values into the next generation and preparing the young to become independent thinkers, fully engaged citizens and workers. This split mission for tax-supported public schools existed for centuries and remains the order of the day in 2017. Based upon this dilemma-ridden goal, I also drew from scholarship about century-old teaching patterns within age-graded school organizations that suggested strongly that both change and stability were systemic and embedded in daily lessons. This historical view of both the institution and classroom was also anchored in thinking about my experiences of nearly four decades teaching high school and graduate students.

In answering the question of whether technology use had shifted teaching practices, given these differing views, it is clear to me that what teachers said, what I observed, and what I know–those perceived changes had occurred. Such technology-induced changes were incremental and useful to teachers but seldom altered the goals, fundamental classroom structures embedded in the age-graded school, teacher/student relationships, basic format of lessons, or the craft of teaching that has evolved in public schools for well over a century. All of these underlying features of teaching persisted among the classroom changes Silicon Valley teachers recognized in their lessons. Change and continuity in teaching practice have been and continue to be entwined.

None of this should surprise readers. As the epigraphs suggest, stability and change are the yin and yang that these exemplary teachers, schools, and districts illustrate and part of a far larger way of seeing how the world works. The explanation for this persistent interaction between stability and change that I offer here is consistent with similar patterns in the larger environment within which we live, the organizations in which we work and play, and our individual lives.


[i] Donald Schon,”Dynamic Conservatism,” Reit Lectures, 1970 at:

[ii]Giuseppe Lampedusa, The Leopard (London: Fontana, 1963), p. 29.

[iii] As described in the previous chapter, of the 41 teachers I observed, 37 responded to my questions about change in their classrooms. The ratios and percentages detailed in these paragraphs refer to the 37 teachers.

[iv] I attach no greater importance to either incremental or fundamental changes. Both are necessary in any institution serving the community. Each can (or cannot) be significant depending on the direction, say from teacher- to student-centered—and upon available resources and the context. To make either kind of change requires enormous cooperation and heroic action on the part of participants.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Can Technology Change How Teachers Teach?(Part 2)

Summing up results from the Silicon Valley teachers across nine schools in five districts who responded to my questions, nearly two-thirds of the teachers I interviewed and observed said that digital tools had changed how they teach with frequent mention of saving time in doing familiar tasks and being able to individualize their work with students.

The rest of the teachers had either said no because they had been using high-tech devices for years before I observed them or on substantive grounds as some stressed the deeper, persistent features of teaching that they must perform regardless of what technologies are used in lessons. Even those who said “no” also acknowledged the efficiencies that these high-tech devices brought to their lessons. These teachers saw both change in their use of digital tools daily and stability in the essential features of planning and executing a lesson. Rather than only black-and-white, they saw gray.

Does this mean that most of these elementary and secondary school teachers identified as “best cases” of integrating technology in Silicon Valley have actually altered how they teach because of using new technologies? Almost two-thirds certainly believed so. Yet a full answer to the question requires looking at their perspectives and the views of others.

Insider vs. Outsider: Whose definition of change matters?

As a researcher I observed and interviewed each teacher. I was an outsider identified as a retired Stanford professor. The teachers were insiders telling me, an outsider, their stories.

Because I had not done prior observations of these teachers before they began using these electronic devices I could not confirm whether these teachers had actually changed or not changed from how they had taught previously. From all indications these teachers believed strongly that they had modified their daily practices due to the regular use of digital tools. I believe them.

However, as a researcher who has studied archived written and printed evidence of teaching practices between the 1890s and the present and an outsider to these schools and classrooms, I bring a different perspective to these observations and interviews. I have accumulated well-documented descriptions of the dominant trends that have typified teaching over the past century. I can, for example, compare what I see in these lessons in 2016 in Silicon Valley to the historical continuum of varied teaching practices from teacher- to student-centered stretching back a century. In addition, I have conceptually defined different kinds of school and classroom change ( e.g., incremental and fundamental) distinctions that most reformers, policymakers, and others, including teachers seldom make. Such knowledge I have acquired over decades, however, produces an internal conflict in me. [i]

What does a researcher make of the teacher, for example, who says with passionate confidence that he has shifted his teaching English to eighth graders from teacher-directed activities to student-centered ones; he cites as evidence of the change the different materials and frequent use of digital tools that he uses in daily lessons, ones that the researcher has observed. Yet during the lesson, the researcher sees those very same materials and practices being used in ways that strengthen the teacher-centered activities and under-cut the student-centeredness that the teacher seeks. Neither the teacher or researcher is lying. Each has constructed an authentic, plausible and credible story. I do not imply that such constructions are untrue; only that “plausible” and “credible” are not the same as true stories.. So who do you believe? [ii]

I am not the first (nor last) researcher to have met teachers who described substantial changes in their lessons in response to district or state policies. Consider “A Revolution in One Classroom; The Case of Mrs. Oublier.”[iii]

In the mid-1980s, California policymakers adopted a new elementary math curriculum intended to have students acquire a deep understanding of math concepts rather than memorizing rules and seeking the “right” answer. The state provided staff development to help elementary teachers implement the new curriculum. Then, researchers started observing teachers using the new math curriculum.

One researcher observed third grade teacher Mrs. Oublier (a pseudonym and hereafter Mrs. O) to see to what degree Mrs. O had embraced the innovative math teaching the state sought. Widely respected in her school as a first-rate math teacher, Mrs. O told the researcher that she had “revolutionized” her teaching. She was delighted with the new math text, used manipulatives to teach concepts, organized students desks into clusters of four and five, and had student participate in discussions. Yet the researcher saw her use paper straws, beans, and paper clips for traditional classroom tasks. She used small groups, not for students to collaborate in solving math problems, but to call on individuals to give answers to text questions. She used hand clapping and choral chants—as the text and others suggested—in traditional ways to get correct answers. To the researcher, she had grafted innovative practices onto traditional ways of math teaching and, in doing so, had missed the heart and soul of the state curriculum.

How can Mrs. O and teachers I have interviewed tell researchers that they had changed their teaching yet classroom observations of these very same teachers revealed familiar patterns of teaching? The answer depends on what kind of “change” the teacher seeks and who judges—the insider or outsider– the substance of the change and its direction.

Change clearly meant one thing to Mrs. O and another to the researcher. Many teachers, like Mrs. O, had made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons as a result of integrating computer devices into their lessons. Researchers, however, keeping in mind what policymakers and reform designers intended, nay sought, looked for fundamental changes in the how those math lessons were taught.

So whose judgment about change matters most? “ Should researchers “consider changes in teachers’ work from the perspective of new policies…. [or intentions of policymakers]? Or should they be considered from the teacher’s vantage point?”[iv]

Researchers, however, publish their studies and teachers like Mrs. O and the gracious teachers who let me observe their lessons and answer my questions seldom get to tell their side of the story to an audience outside their family and school.

Teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they are genuine insider accounts that explain how and why they have altered their practices. As two veteran researchers of teaching and teachers said:

We need to listen closely to teachers … and to the stories of their lives in and out of classrooms. We also need to tell our own stories as we live our own collaborative researcher/teacher lives. Our own work then becomes one of learning to tell and live a new mutually constructed account of inquiry in teaching and learning. What emerges from this mutual relationship are new stories of teachers and learners as curriculum makers, stories that hold new possibilities for both researchers and teachers and for those who read their stories.[v]

Yet researchers are more than scribes. They cannot take what teachers say as unvarnished truth and dismiss what is known of the history of teaching as less compelling or immaterial. The answers teachers give to researcher questions are constructed from their insider view. With a historical perspective on past ways that teachers have taught, I have constructed an outsider’s view of what teachers do daily in their lessons with computer devices. Both points of view have to come into play to make sense—to get at the truth as best as I can–of both the teachers’ answers to my questions and what I observed in classrooms.[vi]

As a former high school history teacher between the 1950s and 1970s and a university researcher since 1981, I have tried to manage this dilemma of giving value to teacher stories about classroom change while honoring what I, as a researcher, have learned about teaching, past and present.

This is the dilemma that I negotiate in answering the central question in the book I am writing: Have teachers altered their practice as a result of using new technologies regularly?


[i] Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); Cuban. Hugging the Middle (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[ii] Interview with John DiCosmo and answers to my questions on whether use of technology has changed his teaching.

As a digital native, I have always used computers in my lessons but each year my teaching changes a little more to put students in the center of the lessons. I have used technology to engage my middle schoolers from the first day I stepped into the classroom, but I am increasingly ‘flipping’ lessons to support student access to materials to differentiate my instruction….

Email from John DiCosmo, October 16, 2016. In author’s possession.

For differences in stories told to researchers, see: D.C. Philips, “Telling the truth about Stories,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 1997, 13(1), pp. 101-109.

[iii] David Cohen, “A Revolution in One Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990, 12(3), pp. 311-329.

[iv] Ibid., p. 312

[v]Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin, “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry,” Educational Researcher, 1990, 19(5), pp.2-14. Quote is on p. 12.

[vi]D.C. Philips, “Telling the Truth about Stories,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 1997, 13(1), pp. 101-109.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Can Technology Change How Teachers Teach? (Part 1)

Have the 41 exemplary teachers in integrating technology into daily lessons that I observed and interviewed in Silicon Valley in 2016 changed their practice as a result of using new devices and software?

Straightforward as the question sounds, it is tricky to answer. Why?

In a society geared to constant change as America is, the word has far more positive than negative connotations. Fashions in clothes, car models, gadgets, and hairstyles change every year trumpeting the next new thing to acquire. Both Presidential campaigners Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016, for example, promised their supporters that America will change for the better. Change is “good.” Embracing the new is progress. It is a norm that Americans revel in.

Especially when it comes to taking on new technologies in the past (e.g., household appliances, radio, television) and present (e.g., desktop computers, laptops, and smart phones). So for teachers, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and elected officials not accepting the next new electronic device and changing their daily practice is often seen as resistance, a fondness for the “old” that is out of step with American values and the future. Reform-driven policymakers, deep pocket donors, entrepreneurs and vendors believe a lack of change or very slow adoption of new digital tools to be a detriment to student learning, patients, clients, customers, and voters. So a social and individual bias toward change, particularly technological change, is built into American society, history, institutions and professional behavior.

Acknowledging a historical bias toward change hints at the trickiness of the question I ask. Judging whether teachers have actually altered their daily classroom practice is surprisingly hard to do. Teachers, imbued with the culture’s values, often say that they have changed their lessons from week to week, year to year due to new district curricula, tests, and programs. Yet policymakers and researchers are less certain of such changes.[i]

Consider that researchers ordinarily find out whether teachers have changed their practices through direct observation before and after change occurred, interviews, surveying faculty opinions, sampling principal evaluations, and soliciting student views. Few researchers, however, have the access, time, or funds to tap all of these sources so they use short cuts and depend upon one or two sources at best and snapshots of one moment in time. Occasional teacher interviews, drop-in classroom observations, and faculty surveys are often what researchers end up using to answer to the question.

Yet even when researchers or other inquirers believe they have sufficient information to determine that teachers have changed how they teach lessons, such a conclusion does not tell you the direction of those changes, that is, from more teacher-centered to more student-centered or whether those changes were superficial or substantial, whether they were a step forward or a step backward in classroom practice.

Think, for example, of a classroom where teachers once used a low-tech device for nearly two centuries to reach students and within the past half-century that low-tech device has morphed into an expensive high-tech tool in classroom. I speak of the chalkboard.

The innovative slate chalkboard introduced in the early 19th century was eventually replaced in the mid-20th century by green boards and then soon after whiteboards using erasable markers. Now electronic smart boards have become pervasive (60 percent of K-12 classrooms have been installed as of 2014). These changes in a classroom technology have helped teachers convey knowledge, students practice skills, and display lesson objectives and activities. And these changes have strengthened familiar teacher-centered practices (e.g., lecture, recitation, guided whole group discussion) that have dominated public school teaching for over a century and a half. [ii]

The evolution of the slate chalkboard into electronic smart boards mark classroom changes in the past century. So what did those Silicon Valley teachers, exemplars of technology integration, tell me about changes that had occurred in their classrooms?

According to what teachers told me, they have altered their practice. These teachers identified as being exemplary in integrating technology took attendance, recorded assignments, checked homework, assessed students, and emailed parents routinely using laptops and tablets and other devices. They organized lessons to include whole-group, small group instruction, and independent student work. Many of the teachers I observed created individual playlists of math, science, and social studies sources for their students to engage in research projects. They individualized lessons and helped students self-assess their grasp of content and skills. So these teachers have, according to their recall of how they taught previously, modified practices when using new technologies.

But just listing new and altered practices associated with the spread of electronic devices does not get at the depth of the change or its direction in classroom practice. Consider the following queries:

*Is using an interactive white board instead of an overhead projector and chalkboard a substantial “change” or simply a modification of a habitual practice?

*Is it a superficial or deep “change” in classroom practice when a teacher takes attendance on her tablet instead of checking off names on a sheet of paper?

*Is it a small or large “change” when students submit electronically their notes and assignments to Dropbox instead of turning in paper homework?

Surely, these queries reveal “changes,” in familiar practices. The teachers I observed and interviewed would readily acknowledge that such alterations in routines have been important to them because these changes saved time and energy. In conversations with these teachers, the word “efficient” popped up repeatedly. Using less time for administrative details and having at one’s fingertips information from multiple sources for students to access was of great importance to teachers. Such changes gave teachers an edge in racing against the clock during a lesson. Teachers perceived such changes as important. Yet ardent reformers often under-appreciate and overlook these changes.

Technologically-driven reformers might begrudgingly admit that these examples are “changes” but not ones that they envisioned. Entrepreneurs eager to help schools dump the “factory model” of schooling (e.g., age-graded school, traditional teaching) might categorize these “changes” as merely shallow or, perhaps, trivial compared to schools that convert to “blended” learning combining online and face-to-face lessons that are “personalized.” Reform-minded policymakers and donors want to see teachers creating individual playlists for students, students working on projects every week, frequently use online lessons, and similar “transformative” changes. They see technologies steering classrooms toward student-centered teaching, a direction they promote. Anything less than these kind of fundamental (or sometimes called “real”) changes in pedagogy, they would be disappointed.

Or researchers, deeply believing in student-centered learning observing lessons in these teachers’ classrooms, might see such changes as mere adjustments that reinforce dominant patterns of teacher-directed lessons. Yet these researchers know that they must be alert to their own values and biases when they collect, analyze, and publish their studies. In analyzing these facets of classroom practice, attention has to be paid to the tacit biases that inhabit those who observe, describe, and analyze how lessons unfold. Where one sits (or stands), surely shapes one’s perspective.

Teachers, principals, parents, researchers, and policymakers, for example, have different organizational roles and experiences. They approach data from varied viewpoints. And they are Americans socialized to see change as progress and an unalloyed good. These differences among academics and members of district and school communities have to be made explicit in making sense of what teachers say and do.

So answering the question of whether widespread student access and teacher use of technologies has “changed daily classroom practices” depends upon who is the asker, who is the doer, and what actually occurs in the classroom.

The next post dips into who asks the questions, the role of teacher and researcher in making sense of what occurs in lessons.


[i] Diane Stark Rentner, et. al., “Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices,” 2016 (Center for Education Policy, George Washington University).

[ii] Kim Kankiewicz, “There’s No Erasing the Chalkboard,” The Atlantic, October 13, 2016 at:


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Is Your Edtech Product a Refrigerator or Washing Machine?(Julia Fisher)

Julia Fisher is Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This post appeared in EdSurge on April 12, 2017.

Education innovators love to talk about adoption curves. It’s a fancy way of looking at a pretty basic concept: the rate at which a given tool, model or approach saturates a market.

Lately, I’ve been seeing these curves crop up a lot in the conversation about personalized learning. As more school systems attempt to customize learning environments and more education advocates and funders champion personalized models, people are increasingly anxious to know: At what rate might we can expect new ideas and tools to permeate the traditional school system?

But not all adoption curves are created equal. Depending on the features of the tools and their intended users, the arc of adoption might look vastly different. One of those distinctions hinges on the degree to which a new tool or model conforms to the traditional school structure.

To understand these differences we can look to historical data on how consumers absorbed all sorts of new gadgets that hit the market throughout the 20th century. My colleague at the Christensen Institute, Horace Dediu, has researched these patterns to try to explain such trends and interrogate anomalies. Last year, he highlighted a puzzling divergence in the data on the early adoption of home appliances. In the 1930s, two delightfully convenient innovations hit the market: the refrigerator and the washing machine.

Refrigerators quickly took hold, gaining over 90 percent adoption by the late 1950s. But households crept much more slowly up the washing machine adoption curve, only getting close to market saturation in the late 1990s. Dediu hypothesizes that this had little to do with housewives’ weighing the pros and cons of being clothed or fed. Instead, he argues, the disparate adoption rates reflect the relative conformability of each innovation to the midcentury home or apartment. Most households had electrical outlets that refrigerators could plug into directly, thus leaving iceboxes in the dust. But few homes had the pipes and drain lines required to install a washing machine.

In other words, homes at the time were never designed with washing machines in mind. As a result, to take advantage of the new technology households didn’t just have to shell out money; they had to hire a plumber to configure the pipes that would pump water into and drain water out of the new contraptions.


The same might be said of the various technological innovations hitting the education market today. Most edtech companies enthusiastically claim to make teaching and learning more effective, efficient and convenient. But not all tools plug into the same interfaces, and not all schools and classrooms were built with these modern innovations in mind. Some tools are proving to be plug-compatible tools that can be inserted into traditional classrooms relatively seamlessly. For example, short cycle tutorial tools, like Khan Academy, fit tidily into many classrooms and can unobtrusively supplement traditional models on the margin. These tools tend to help classrooms achieve outcomes along traditional dimensions like boosting average test scores and providing help to learners who are struggling on a given topic.

On the other hand, other edtech products and models can’t simply plug into the traditional classroom structure or school schedule—the school instead has to fundamentally change or adapt its infrastructure in order to accommodate the tool. For example, models like Teach to One or Summit Learning’s Platform require far greater re-engineering of classrooms processes. Schools need a new set of proverbial pipes—potentially new infrastructure, new schedules, and even entirely new approaches to teaching—to adopt these innovations and to use them to their full potential.

It also bears noting that unlike the drainpipes, this reconfiguration of schools is extremely complex and often interdependent with local policies, culture, and geographic or financial limitations. It’s not surprising, then, that the past few years have seen a flourish of intermediaries, like Transcend and 2Rev, that are stepping in to work alongside schools to help them to fundamentally reengineer their pipes and plugs.

Sketching out these distinct adoption curves might feel bleak if you’re an entrepreneur building the proverbial washing machines of edtech, or a funder hoping for speedy adoption of next-generation models that disrupt traditional classrooms. But they should also lend us a healthy dose of hope and reality about what adoption looks like depending on how much reengineering customers will be expected to do in order to absorb a new tool. It should also help us to better align resources that philanthropists and policymakers are investing in moving people along edtech and personalized learning adoption curves.

Luckily, it’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that we need to pair investments in edtech tools with investments in professional development. But for the tools and models that least conform to traditional school structures, we’re also likely to need investments in fundamental reengineering—that is, not just developing teachers’ proficiency in using tools but rethinking processes like schedules, evaluations and staffing throughout an entire school building or district.

With that dose of reality we can start to predict adoption with greater precision. We can also predict when adoption might not take off. On the other hand, if we ignore the costs of conformability and hope that schools will just figure out how to use wholly new models within their existing paradigm, the promise of new innovations may fall short. It’s like trying to plug a washing machine’s hose into an electrical outlet. It doesn’t end well.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

More Comments on Personalization Continuum (Tom Hatch)

Tom Hatch is an Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. I met Tom at Stanford University when his wife, Karen Hammerness, was a graduate student and took one of my classes. Hatch had worked closely with Ted Sizer, Howard Gardner, and James Comer–leaders of whole-school reform movement in the 1980s and 1990s. He subsequently wrote thoughtfully about theories of action. I used an article he wrote in my seminars for many years (“The Difference in Theory That Matters in the Practice of School Improvement,” 1998 in American Educational Research Journal).

He posted this letter to me April 7, 2017. In it, he offers comments on the  Personalization Continuum that I had drafted, weaving together readers’ comments with his own research and experiences. 

Dear Larry

Your recent post describing the many versions of “personalization” you’ve seen in your visits to schools seems particularly relevant these days for a number of reasons:

Ironically, it’s probably worth noting that this surge in interest in personalization coincides with the closing of the national organization of the Coalition of Essential Schools – founded by Ted Sizer who put personalization on the map in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Your post prompted me to reflect on some of these developments and what I have been seeing in my own research on improvement efforts and “innovation” in several developing and developed countries.  In particular, I think your draft of what you call a “continuum” of personalization in many of the “lessons” you’ve observed nicely highlights the way that personalization often involves a mix of teacher-centered and student-centered activities. One way to expand the continuum and get at some of the complexities that you and your commentators have acknowledged might be to look at the extent to which several different educational decisions are made by teachers and/or students.  For example, many approaches to personalization talk about customizing the goals, the content, and the pace of educational activities. It seems like those approaches at your “teacher-directed” end of the spectrum adapt instruction to the needs/interests of students, but, for the most part teachers are still making the decisions about:

  • What the students should be learning (and why)
  • The materials they should use and the paths they should follow
  • The speed with which they move along those paths

At the other end, students may be making more of those decisions themselves.  In the middle, teachers and students may be sharing those decisions, teachers may make some decisions and students others, and teachers may make those decisions sometimes while students make them at others (e.g. higher performing students may be allowed/encouraged to make more of those decisions than their peers).

To make things more complicated, each decision about goals, content, and pace can be broken down into a whole series of related choices. Decisions related to content and materials, for instance, include who chooses reading materials, what to focus on in the reading, how to read it, and how material should be presented (as one of your commenters, Dylan Kane, noted).

It’s also possible to imagine a whole bunch of other decisions that we might (or might not!) want to take into account.  For example, I’m beginning to experiment with letting my graduate students choose not only when to take on particular assignments but also where (e.g. in the classroom or not; alone or with others).  I also remember passionate discussions at one meeting of educators working on designing a new school (the Celebration School, developed as part of the planned community connected to Disneyworld) about whether or not to enable students to determine the kind of lighting that best suited their “learning style.”

Adding to the complexities, as Laura Chapman pointed out in the comments, these decisions can also be made by those who develop the technologies used to support personalization.  It’s also possible, with the developments in distance and blended learning to imagine a variety of other people, including parents, taking a more direct role in these lesson-level decisions as well. (Extending the scope of personalization beyond “lessons” and courses, and making it a core concept in a reimagined system of education as in approaches like ReSchool Colorado can make it more complicated still.)

However we define the key instructional decisions, I think you’re right that the extent to which teachers or students make those decisions distinguishes many of the current approaches.  I’d be interested to know, though, how often you see personalized approaches that really give students wide latitude and extensive control over their own learning? Chris Ongaro, a graduate student here at Teachers College, is looking at student’s experiences in a variety of “personalized” courses (many of them online), and he tells me that even when students are given choices, those choices are usually extremely limited, rarely allowing students to imagine or pursue their own options.  As he said to me, students may play a role in shaping the means, but the ends are often predetermined.

While I raise these questions, following your descriptive lead, I’m trying not to place a particular value on one end of the continuum or the other.  But as we describe the role of the teacher and the student, I’m also reminded again of what Sizer often said (quoting James Comer, eminent psychologist and founder of the School Development Program):  The three most important things in schools (and school improvement) are “relationships, relationships, relationships.” For Sizer, personalization grew out of the belief that “we can’t teach students well if we do not know them well.”  That relationship both allows those in the role of teacher to recognize and respond to each student’s needs and interests, but it also opens up those in the student’s role to opportunities and challenges they may never have encountered on their own. While I often ask my students these days to explain to me why teachers are needed in schools (truth be told, I also ask them why we need “students”), it may be worth trying to capture something about the nature of the teacher-student relationships in these approaches to personalization as well.  But now your straightforward and clear continuum looks a lot more like one of those polygons and polyhedrons that you and W[ilfred] Rubens discussed…

At the end of the day, though, I see many of the same things you do: approaches to personalizing activities, classes, and courses that are often carried out in the regular school day or within typical course structures and with the expectation that “success” will mean meeting conventional graduation standards, going to college and getting a “good” job.  Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that under these circumstances, as you… put it:

…wherever these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the continuum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.


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

Have Silicon Valley Teachers Using Technology Daily Altered Their Classroom Practice? (Part 3)

Eleven percent (N=4) of the teachers answered both yes and no. These teachers made a distinction between how they taught lessons before they had new technologies and what they now do with devices and software. They referred to students having more information available than before and how essential aspects of their lessons could be done easier and faster than before were common themes. But they drew a distinction between the help that high-tech tools give them and the constancy of core practices that are part of their planning and interactions with students during a lesson. They saw both change and stability in their lessons as a result of integrating digital tools into their teaching.

Nicole Lenz-Martin teaches in the San Mateo Union High School District at Aragon High School. An 11-year veteran of teaching, she teaches Spanish level 3 through level 6 (including Advanced Placement). Elenz-Martin is also an instructional coach in the district and an instructor in the Stanford World Language Project. Here is her “yes” and “no” answer to my question.

My teaching — in terms of pedagogical strategy and philosophical beliefs about World Language instruction — has not changed because of my regular use of technology; however, the regular use of Chromebooks in my classroom has dramatically changed my access to student learning, monitoring of their proficiency development, and my ability to cover more material over the course of a school year. 

Why yes:

 My students are required to be much more engaged and participatory in their learning because of their interaction with my lessons through technology.  When covering material in class, every student can interact with the presentation on my SmartBoard to share answers, respond to polls, or ask questions (Peardeck, Nearpod, Google Forms, etc.)  This has informed my instruction immensely and has allowed me to change my lesson “on-the-fly” to ensure understanding before moving on.

 Students practice new vocabulary and/or comprehension questions with Quizlet, for example, and I can see their results and areas of challenge in real time.  It allows me to change my path of instruction if necessary, as stated above, and it also allows me to personalize the learning for each student’s level and need.  

 Students have built classroom community and have strengthened camaraderie with review games (Quizlet Live, Socrative Space Race, and Kahoot!).  Not only has light ‘gaming’ sparked excitement and interest for the students in learning the material, but it has allowed me to formatively assess each students’ understanding and learning on a daily basis.  The comfort level and “fun” among classmates has allowed them to be better risk-takers and communicators with one another, and this is critical for a language class where students really need to feel confident and safe around their classmates.    

 Students have had individual access to more authentic materials from around the world, which is of course extremely important for culture and language learning.  Their interaction with videos, texts, and audio can be documented in EdPuzzle, GoFormative, and Google Classroom.  I can see their engagement with the material in a way that I was never able to assess before, and I can respond to students both individually and as a group much more efficiently and effectively.  I can see what they are learning about a culture and I can motivate them to respond more critically to what they are seeing and comparing to their own culture….

Why not?

Certain parts of teaching can never be replaced, enhanced, or changed by technology.  The very most critical aspect of my teaching is the relationship that I create with each and every one of my students.  Without having a strong, trusting, solid, and respectful relationship with each student, he or she is lost in my classroom and will be unable to learn from my teaching.  Because I speak almost exclusively in Spanish, the oral communication in my classroom and the relationships with my students are the very cornerstones of my teaching.  Therefore: 

  • Technology has not replaced the way I speak or communicate with my students, and since I am a Spanish teacher, they are still listening and responding to me and to each other through oral communication much more than with the technology.  The amount that I expect them to speak with me and communicate with one another is the same as it has always been, even before technology access. 
  • Complex Instruction and Groupworthy tasks:  I passionately believe in the importance of “student talk” and participation for learning, especially when it comes to working with partners and small groups on a communicative and/or complex task.  Technology is almost non-existent in my classroom when students are working on an assignment that involves learning through talking with one another.  Without going into too much detail — technology hardly has changed the way I engage students in partner and groupwork….[i]  

And here is Sarah Press who has been teaching English at Hillsdale High School in the San Mateo Union High School District since 2007. Press, like Elenz-Martin, makes similar distinctions between the deeper aspects of teaching that cannot be altered by digital tools and the features of teaching that can change.

In some ways, my teaching hasn’t changed much at all. My goals are the same—to give my students opportunities to do something with the ideas I suggest to them in class, to engage with each other around those ideas and to offer lots of ways to be smart. I still have a heavy focus on literacy—sustained engagement with text and inquiry around meaning making. I continue to try to find authentic ways for students to show what they’ve learned and what they think, not just regurgitate what they’ve heard.

I also struggle with many of the same issues I always have: what to do with the huge range of skill sets in my room, how to differentiate activities and assessments to meet the needs of all learners, how to give feedback in meaningful and timely ways, how to engage all learners despite varying interests and abilities, how to create a positive socio-emotional atmosphere in my classroom so students feel comfortable taking and learning from risks.

So I think it’s important to remember that technology is just one of many tools I have available to me to try to meet those goals. That said, it’s an incredibly powerful tool, and I do see some potent ways in which technology helps me get closer to being the teacher I hope to, someday, become.

A huge one is the amount of choice I am able to offer students, about what they learn and how they learn it….

Another is the increased sense of collaboration in my room. While I have always striven to have students use each other as resources, to value each other’s expertise…I have not always been successful. Because technology allows students to simultaneously have access to a group project in a shared digital space that is co-editable…everyone can see a developing project and no can ‘mess it up.’ It’s also easier to track exactly what each student has contributed….

It’s a not insignificant note here that risk-taking becomes easier to encourage when erasing or changing work is as easy as ‘Control + Z’ or ‘Delete….’

Finally, technology is powerful because it makes it so much easier and faster to collect, distribute, and respond to data. I find myself experimenting more and more with forms of assessment when I can instantaneously collect responses from every student in my class….All this helps me adjust, clarify, and re-teach in much tighter, shorter cycles than before….[ii]

Like Elenz-Martin, Sarah Press saw both constancy and change in her lessons after adopting high-tech tools.


[i] Nicole Lenz-Martin’s email received May 8, 2016. In author’s possession. A description of the lesson I observed is at:

[ii] Sarah Press’s email received May 12, 2016. In author’s possession. A description of the lesson I observed is at:


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use