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Canadian Teachers Split on Bringing ChatGPT into Elementary and High Schools (Jessica Wong)

Jessica Wong is a reporter for CBC News. This article was posted April 11, 2023.

Educators must teach students ‘when and where and how to use’ new technologies, says Burlington (Ontario) math teacher [Jamie Mitchell].

When [he] asked his students about ChatGPT this week, he wasn’t surprised when the vast majority said they already knew about or had used the artificial intelligence tool that seemingly everyone is talking about.

“It’s everywhere. It’s hard to ignore,” noted the … math teacher. “Some kids are using it because … it’s a fun laugh to get it to answer different questions. Some kids are using it for their schoolwork.”

Much of the education sector’s apprehension about students using ChatGPT to complete their assignments has thus far focused on the post-secondary level. OpenAI’s incredibly accessible bot quickly answers user prompts with human-like responses — with varying degrees of sophistication — gleaned from vast information available online. The use of the application by students in elementary and high school is ringing alarm bells for some, while others have embraced introducing the technology to their classrooms.

Arming students with information, tools

Mitchell, who’s also program leader for mathematics, computer studies and I-STEM at his school, had ChatGPT on his radar early. Upon its public release last fall, he dived in to test the chatbot and flagged his findings in an email to colleagues that he cheekily used ChatGPT itself to write. 

There can be misgivings raised about any educational tech tool — for instance, Mitchell has concerns about students using calculators for certain classes — but at this point, he believes ChatGPT to be an interesting innovation that has some limitations. And he’s demonstrated that to his students.

Last term, Mitchell input calculus problems his students were solving into the AI bot, then asked the teens to review the answers that emerged. 

“The tool made some great first steps in solving its equations, but after it got a few steps in, it started to do really wild, crazy, wrong things that the students picked up on,” he said.

Though the tool may be good enough to fool people who don’t understand calculus, Mitchell said because his students know the subject matter quite well, “it was almost impossible to fool them.”

He said if he discovered a student passing off a ChatGPT-completed assignment as their own, a conversation would be in order.

He would review appropriate uses for the bot, note how and when it shouldn’t be used and work with the student to develop a plan so the situation didn’t happen again. But he doesn’t believe banning ChatGPT would be effective.

“The push of technology to move forward is kind of relentless,” Mitchell said. “If we’re not arming students with the proper tools — to know when and where and how to use these tools — well, we’re doing them a big disservice.”

‘Where’s the motivation to learn?’

Mindy Bingham, an American author, education consultant and CEO of educational publishing company Academic Innovations, is worried that once younger students get their hands on tech like ChatGPT, they won’t gain the foundational knowledge that is key in education.

Because ChatGPT was introduced relatively recently, many educators haven’t yet heard of it, and Bingham worries tech-savvy youngsters who haven’t developed a strong base of foundational knowledge and skills will use it to complete homework. 

Coming up with an idea and being able to expand on it, problem-solving, analyzing content — “that’s what we do in elementary school … whether it’s reading, whether it’s mathematics, whether it’s writing,” she explained. 

“Critical thinking is one of the key issues here that artificial intelligence will take away.”

Digital tools should be used to support learning, not supplant it, Bingham said. She’s now tested ChatGPT thoroughly herself, and though she sees its value for adults, she’s calling for caution when introducing it to classrooms.

She thinks a ban in elementary schools makes sense, but acknowledges the difficulty of detecting AI-generated assignments at this stage.

“Just because something is here today doesn’t mean we adopt it.”

‘Not a be-all, end-all,’ warns university student

Studying both computer science and journalism, Princeton University student Edward Tian has long been fascinated by artificial intelligence, specifically how it can be used for writing. 

The 22-year-old Canadian considers the technology behind ChatGPT brilliant and exciting, but also ripe for abuse. So, over winter break, he created GPTZero, an AI-detector he hopes can provide some transparency.

More than 45,000 teachers from over 30 countries worldwide have signed up for updates about his detector, and he said he regularly hears educators saying it’s “reassuring” that he and his teammates are developing it.

GPTZero works because humans write with “sudden bursts and variation of writing style,” Tian explained, whereas machine writing tends to be fairly consistent. His tool essentially reads submitted texts and searches for that “burstiness” within them.

Also a big concern for Tian is the way AI-generated technology can be used to create misinformation — “news stories that might sound like real news, but are not,” he says. That’s why he’s working on crafting a browser extension that can flag AI-created text used in that way online.

Though Tian agrees that younger students overusing ChatGPT could erode valuable core skills like writing and critical thinking, he’s against bans, which he says students can easily bypass anyway. Instead, he encourages the responsible use of AI technology in education.

“One hundred per cent, we should explore and be exposed to the brilliant new technologies that are coming, but they’re not a be-all, end-all,” he warned fellow students. 

“They’re great at getting you started with ideas. They’re not so good at doing the job and finishing the job. They’re not so good at checking if the facts are right.


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Insider Accounts of Classrooms

Insider books and films about financial finagling (e.g., “Wall Street,”) baseball (e.g.,Michael Lewis’s Moneyball), the drug trade and police (e.g. HBO’s, “The Wire”) portray in vivid and compelling ways what it is like to be Wall Street villain Gordon Gecko or wily baseball manager Billy Beane or veteran detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon. These “insider” accounts, both fiction and non-fiction, draw the reader and viewer into the details of buying and selling bonds, building a baseball team, and daily police work. Revealing (and sometimes simplifying) complex processes is what insider accounts do.

Where, however, are the insider accounts  of classroom teaching? Not in the wonderful heroic accounts of teachers in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), “Up the Down Staircase” (1967), “Stand and Deliver“(1988), “Freedom Writers” (2007). The narrative arc of these films go from the trials of teaching in tough situations to teary endings. Readers can insert their own favorites but the genre is filled with tales of teachers nearly succumbing to student resistance only to overcome one barrier after another to reach a soaring ending that brings out handkerchiefs. No sarcasm intended since I felt goosebumps and teared up at many of these films.

My candidates for descriptions of classroom teaching that approach “insider” accounts would be the French film “The Class” (based upon a book written by a teacher who is also in the film),  “Prez”  the former cop who becomes a Baltimore (MD) middle school teacher in HBO’s “The Wire,” and Philip Jackson’s study of elementary school teaching, Life in Classrooms. Readers will have their own favorites that go beyond the heroic teacher genre and capture the ups-and-downs of daily classroom teaching  (I would appreciate knowing which accounts readers prize).

Because there are so few classroom accounts that on-the-job teachers can point to and say, “yes, that is what teaching is all about,” and so many inaccurate, over-the-top, and even sloppy representations of teaching, the classroom has become a “black box.”*

I use “black box” as a metaphor for what happens daily in classrooms that remains unknown to outsiders–except for occasional films, television, and media reports–yet seems so familiar since policymakers, researchers, parents, and taxpayers have sat at school desks for years on end. The fact is that what occurs in classrooms is largely unknown or tinged with nostalgia because memories fade and children reports of school activities are, at best, laconic, hiding more than revealing what occurs. Like that popular ad for Las Vegas tourists: What happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.

Teacher memories also fade. While many retain records of daily interactions, lessons, and materials for awhile, most do not. Sure lessons are traded on the Internet, but the traffic is a fraction of what transpires in classrooms.Moreover, those written lessons fail to capture what actually occurs. As a colleague once said, teaching is like dry ice evaporating at room temperature. So some researchers collect classroom artifacts, document interactions, and observe dynamics to restore what has evaporated and capture what happens in the “black box.”

The lack of documentation and transparency about the complex mechanics and inter-relationships that occur daily in schools and classrooms—the black box–make it tough to unpack and understand. But there have been efforts to get inside elementary and secondary classrooms through, for example, videotaped lessons. Videos of lessons  in Germany, Japan, and the United States appeared in the 1990s. In the “Measures of Teacher Effectiveness” project and similar efforts, researchers capture in real time what teachers and students do. Such real-time descriptions of classroom lessons help. But far more data converted into knowledge about what happens in classrooms during 50 minute lessons needs to be captured and analyzed by teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, and researchers in order to open the “black box” and see  the complex realities of teaching and learning. Inside teaching should be as familiar as inside baseball.

Why? Because school reformers and policymakers generally recognize–as parents have always noted–that teachers are the single most important in-school factor to students’ well-being and achievement.  So what happens in classrooms matters greatly yet so little is known publicly about the process of teaching and learning.

Another reason is that advocates for particular policies from pay-for-performance plans to No Child Left Behind (2001) rely upon correlations to see into classrooms. Consider Fordham Foundation report (2011) on declining test scores among high achievers. The report uses trends in test score data to conclude  that two of five “high flying” students fall in performance. They point to the effects of NCLB on teachers and teaching. Such associations, as one researcher pointed out, use a  “black-box approach that assumes a link between its findings and NCLB-related policies.”

For these reasons, getting reliable and valid insider knowledge of classrooms is essential.

Astute readers may have noted that I omitted one group of “insiders”: students. Their stories of what occurs in classrooms are surely “insider” remembrances. Don’t they matter? They surely do.

Subsequent posts will look at what students say about their experiences in the “black box” of the classroom.


* “Black box” does not refer to the well-publicized in-flight recorders that document cockpit communication in aircraft. Instead, I take the phrase “black box”  from systems engineering and economic production functions where inputs (e.g., money spent per pupil, facilities, teacher qualifications) go into a box called “schools” and outputs emerge (e.g., test scores, skilled and knowledgeable high school graduates, humane and community engaged adults). How inputs are converted into outputs within the “black box” is laregely unknown.


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A Glimpse into How Teachers Teach: Arranging Classroom Furniture

How teachers organize their classroom furniture gives a peek into how they teach. Look at these photos taken recently of elementary and secondary classrooms that have different furniture arrangements.

A teacher goes over a lesson on a monitor with in-person Summer program students on July 22, 2021 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)\

Trinity Elementary School kindergarten classroom in Pasco County, Florida (2021)

Lorena Vela is a physics teacher at Alexander High School in Laredo (TX); photo by Roger Uvalle. KGNS television station, April 5, 2023

“Kindergarten teacher Mrs. Amber Updegrove interacts with her students, while she and the students are wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 at Warner Arts Magnet Elementary in Nashville, Tenn, on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021.” (AP Photo/John Partipilo, File)

Johnathan Law High School English Class in Milford, Connecticut, September 6, 2019

Note the different desks arrangement in the five photos. In the first, rows of movable desks face the front of the classroom where the teacher’s desk is located. The second photo has tables for four/five elementary school students facing one another. The third photo is of a high school Physics class. The fourth photo is of a Nashville (TN) kindergarten class and the final one is of a high school English class where each student has a tablet-arm desk.

Now, take a look at photos of classrooms over the past century and a half.

By the 1950s when movable desks and chairs had replaced the traditional bolted down ones, a photo shows a typical mid-century elementary school classroom.

Note the regimented order of these classrooms over a century ago and even five decades later. True, those desks were bolted down a century ago–did you notice the small inkwell hole in each desk for students to dip their pens when doing cursive writing? Were even a teacher then so inclined to arrange small groups of students to work together–and such teachers were around–they could do it but had to overcome the furniture arrangement. But a half-century later, with movable desks, students sitting in rows were still there in many classrooms but not others.

Are the changes in how classrooms are furnished and arranged dramatically different? Yes and no.

The “yes” part is in the diverse ways teachers have arranged desks and chairs in their classrooms over decades.

The “no” part is that while different ways of organizing furniture in elementary classrooms is evident and apparent for anyone who ventures into kindergarten and first grade classrooms, there is much less differentiation in secondary classrooms. Rows of desks, tablet arm-chairs, and tables face the front of the room dominated by a teacher (often with the teacher’s desk nearby).

Do such photos of classroom furniture give observers a glimpse of how teachers teach? Yes, but only a hint. Here is my reasoning:

#Furniture arrangement is seldom mandated by a school board, superintendent, or principal (science classrooms with permanent lab tables facing the front of the room would be an exception).

Teachers decide how to use classroom space. Teachers decide how to place their classroom furniture. Consciously or not, a map of desks, chairs, and tables in a classroom expresses the teacher’s views of how best to maintain order, how to best teach, and how students best learn. And, I might add, teachers’ views of what their principals, who evaluate them, believe how a classroom should be arranged.

Thus, were an observer to enter the classroom and take a seat in the back, she would get a clue as to what degree instruction was teacher-centered and student-centered (including mixes of both).*

#When all student furniture face the teacher’s desk or teacher at the blackboard (now whiteboard or “smart board”) that is the front of the room. That is the space the teacher inhabits even when she walks around the room as students work at their desks. Most importantly, from that “front” of the room, teacher directs the flow of the lesson, gives directions to students, offers mini-lectures and conducts whole-group discussions. Thus, teacher-talk gains higher priority and legitimacy than exchanges between and among students.

#Surveillance is easier for a teacher when rows or tables are in rows. Threats to classroom order can be seen quickly and dealt with expeditiously.

#Such a configuration of classroom space limits students’ movement within a classroom to that which the teacher allows.

#If desks are arranged into a hollow square, horseshoe, or tables are scattered around the room permitting students to face one another and talk among themselves, student-centered instruction where teachers prize student talk and decision-making becomes a much stronger possibility.

Furniture arrangements, however, influence but do not determine how teachers teach. Teachers decide how they teach. Classroom rows, tables, or horseshoe configurations are no more than a hint as to what teachers believe and how they conduct their lessons.

Keep in mind  that for the early decades of this century when desks were bolted to the floor, there were still teachers imbued with getting students to participate in lessons, ingeniously and energetically overcame that obstacle and introduced student-centered practices into the classroom. Such stationery desks (see photos six and seven) may have discouraged many teachers but it did not prevent them from altering their teaching practices.

So a glimpse of classroom furniture is useful as a starting point in describing how teachers teach but it is only a small part of how teachers structure lessons and carry out activities. Far more information about what happens in the classroom and the nature of the lesson would be needed since teacher-centered instruction can, and often does, occur even when seating arrangements look student-centered (as in the second and fourth photos at the beginning of this post).

Furniture arrangements and the placement of students, then, are not random affairs. They are the result of teacher decisions stemming from their beliefs in keeping order and how students learn best in the age-graded school within which teachers work.

So when I have entered hundreds of classrooms over the years, the first thing I note and record is how desks and chairs are arranged. It offers me a clue as to what the teacher believes about teaching and learning and how the lesson might unfold.


*In using the language of “teacher-centered-” and “student-centered” instruction, I need to be clear that I do not favor one over the other. Both forms of instruction and hybrids can be effective with different students at different times in different contexts. Classroom patterns in arranging furniture offer only a hint of what teachers believe and how they teach. That visible sign is only that, not the full picture of daily lessons.


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Cartoons on Addiction to Smart Phones

Yes, I use my smart phone daily to read and send email, check texts, get the daily news, and look up things I do not know. Whoops! How could I forget? I also use the cell phone to call family and friends. Yes, I am addicted to my smart phone. However, as I go shopping, visit friends, watch family members, and bike in the neighborhood, I observe that I am surely not alone in my addiction.

This month’s cartoons are about cell phone addiction, a common malady that cuts across gender, social class, race, and ethnicity. If you see yourself in these cartoons, please laugh.

Love at first text.

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The Everlasting Search for “Magic Bullets” in School Reform

I doubt if I am the only one who gets fatigued from the frequent use of the phrase “magic bullet” in school reform. Most often the words disparagingly describe reforms that once pumped up hopes for solving serious school problems and then missed the target or created much collateral damage.

Remember “Career Education” in the 1970s; “restructuring schools” in the 1980s; “systemic school reform” in the 1990s. And don’t forget “choice” in the 1990s when John Chubb and Terry Moe pronounced it as a “panacea.” And in the past few decades, champions of “magic bullets” have touted “teacher pay-for-performance,” Reading First, Teach for America, and principals as instructional leaders.

I could go on and on but the point of very smart people believing in one “magic bullet” after another that turned out to be duds raises a few obvious questions.

1. What is the origin of the phrase?

2. Why do policymakers, practitioners, parents, and reform-driven folks hunt again and again for the next magic bullet?

3. Are “magic bullets” unique to education?

What is the origin of the phrase? If you guessed the field of medicine, you are correct. Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) used “magic bullet” to describe a chemical that “would seek out and specifically destroy invading microbes or tumor cells.” He and another researcher discovered a treatment for syphilis called Salvarsan that destroyed the bacteria causing the disease while not killing healthy cells. Ehrlich’s laboratory work helped create the fields of hematology, immunology, and chemotherapy. In 1908, Ehrlich received the Nobel Prize in medicine.

Why do policymakers, practitioners, and reform-driven folks hunt again and again for the next “magic bullet?” Ah, this is a tougher question. You cannot Google an answer since it is deeply embedded in the hopes of tax-supported public schools solving problems besetting a democracy.

For nearly two hundred years, schools have been expected, at various times, to create engaged citizens, instill moral character, sustain community values, reduce social inequities, prepare youth for the labor market, and produce independent thinkers. Since the early 20th century, determined reformers have dreamed of improving government, society, and culture through schooling the young.

Yes, achieve all of these competing purposes and, in addition, solve serious problems from poverty to slow economic growth to defending the nation, and, even reduce obesity. The constant failure to do so since speaks to the frustrated but yet undeterred reform-driven efforts to improve schools that is captured in book titles such as Tinkering toward Utopia and Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform. That is why the hunt for “magic bullets” persists.

Are “magic bullets” unique to education? There is a long and short answer.

The long answer is historical and has to do with American colonies founded nearly four centuries ago by dissenters, free thinkers, and outcasts—emigrants from despotic monarchies who yearned for freedom, liberty, and independence but also believed that too much power in the hands of a few could damage these values.

These colonists rebelled against the British monarchy in 1775 and achieved their independence after an eight-year war. Experiments in government led to a Constitution that created a federal system of governing with explicitly divided powers. A slowly evolving democratic society over the next two centuries became increasingly and steadily inclusive after Americans expunged slavery in a bloody Civil War, then a century later ended a brutal caste system, and in the last half-century fought furious battles over who should be treated as equal.

Those colonists, Founders, and subsequent generations not only fashioned a federal government with separated powers but they also believed in the perfectibility of humankind through reason, education, and law. Those beliefs fueled constant reform efforts over the past few centuries for individuals and institutions to improve themselves. Thus, government agencies, churches, medical practice, criminal justice, and, yes, public schools have been the target for reform. That’s the long answer.

The short answer is that “magic bullets” aimed at unraveling knotty problems are common across institutions.

Take medicine and the “war on cancer” announced in 1971. Since then, over $200 billion has been spent by public and private agencies to cure more than 100 diseases grouped under the word cancer. With over a half-million deaths a year and 1.5 million cases in the U.S. in 2009, cancer is the second leading cause of death just behind heart disease. Consider further than 1 out of 2 men and 1 out of 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. “Magic bullets” in prevention and treatment (new chemo drugs, radiation pellets, and surgical procedures) have been announced time and again since 1971 and still cancer persists.

Today, when educational and medical reformers use the language of reform they deny that “magic bullets” can end serious problems and diseases. They often refer to prevention and awareness. And yet, the allure of a new program, a new drug continues to entice Americans into believing that the cure is just around the corner.


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Billionaires’ Love Affair with School Reform

In 1969, when I was director of the Office of Staff Development for the Washington, D.C. schools, I applied for a grant of $10,000 from the Meyer Foundation for innovation awards to classroom teachers. I met with the Foundation officer, explained the rationale for the application (many teachers had designed classroom innovations that cost a few hundred dollars and short of digging into their own pockets, could not find the money to execute their design), and the process–teachers and administrators would reviewe applications and determine which ones deserved support.

Within a few weeks, I received a letter granting the Office of Staff Development the funds. I was exhilarated that a local foundation had seen the merit of awarding teachers’ who redesigned parts of their daily practice. For several years the Meyer Foundation funded the Teacher Innovation Fund and then stopped. End of program.

Yes, that grant was peanuts today in light of the grants that the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations have sent to big cities over the past few decades. Nonetheless, I still remember vividly the joy I felt and recall clearly the excitement and satisfaction hundreds of D.C. teachers experienced when selected for awards in the few years the program existed. Since then, as a superintendent and professor I have been fortunate to have received many grants and have, over the years, learned a great deal about how big and small foundations work, the mindset they project onto the world of education, and the dilemmas facing foundations eager to improve U.S. schooling.

First, let me deal with the prevailing beliefs that U.S. schools are in crisis—a mindset essential for foundation grant-giving. Primary among those beliefs is the myth that all U.S. schools have to be fixed.

Beginning in the late 1970s, followed by the Nation at Risk report (1983) and culminating in the No Child Left Behind law (2001) with its renewal in the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), the message that all U.S. schools are failing has become accepted truth among smart, well-intentioned policy elites including foundation officials. Even though it is clear that there are many schools in the U.S. that parents clamor to have their children attend, even though foreign students come in droves to U.S. universities often considered to be the best in the world where they attend undergraduate and graduate courses with U.S. students from supposedly failing high schools, the dominant belief remains that the entire K-12 system of schooling is broken. That belief is as commonplace as “smart” phones, television, and public utilities. It is a “truth” that goes largely unquestioned. (See one challenge of belief: Alan Krueger, reassessing schools are broken)

Ignored is the fact that there is a three-tiered system of schooling in the U.S.. The top two tiers (which over half of U.S. students attend) are considered by most parents to be either good or good enough for their children. In the third tier, however, big city and rural schools enrolling mostly poor and minority students have largely failed to educate children and youth. Surely, the three tiered system is obvious for anyone with 20/20 vision living in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and other metropolitan areas, particularly to parents in these cities who shop around for schools to send their children.

Second, what is also plain to see but is seldom mentioned by policy elites and 24/7 media is the constant conflating of urban and rural failing schools with all U.S. schools. Such a mindless mistake propagates misinformation and sustains a “crisis” mentality that continually bashes teachers and undermines trust in public schools. Large foundations, enamored by the romance of gritty urban schools, have profited and furthered the idea of a systemic “crisis” by failing to distinguish between urban low-performing schools and those many schools in the top two tiers that meet parental demands, have low dropout rates, and send over 90 percent of their graduates to college.

No, I do not want these “Billionaires” to halt their funding of programs in big cities. Charter schools, teacher pay-for-performance schemes, and turning around chronically low-performing schools are on the Gates and Walton Foundations’ agendas. Let the money continue to flow.

My allergic reaction to conflating failing urban schools with all U.S. schools stems from the simple fact that foundation leaders err from time to time in their investments and skip accountability for their grants. Occasionally, they may say”oops!” as Bill Gates did in 2009 after investing nearly $2 billion in small high schools. But beyond the occasional admission of a mistake, foundation officials are unaccountable for their errors.

“You’d be surprised. Dysfunctional family foundations are not uncommon.”

(Carole Cable, 2009)


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The Teacher-Researcher Gap between Which Classroom Changes Matter

After many years teaching high school social studies and then graduate students while I documented the history of teaching, I have struggled with a dilemma peculiar to being a researcher/practitioner. I prize teaching and respect K-12 teachers for the daily work they do. I also prize the value of researchers being objective in describing and analyzing classroom practices. Those values conflicted, however, when I researched teacher use of high-tech devices in lessons.

Over the years, I have interviewed many teachers across the country who have described their district’s buying computers, deploying them in classrooms while providing professional development. These teachers have told me that using computers, Smart Boards, and other high-tech devices have altered their teaching significantly. They listed changes they have made such as their Powerpoint presentations and students doing Internet searches in class. They told me about using email with students.Teachers using Smart Boards said they can check immediately if students understand a math or science problem through their voting on the correct answer.

I then watched many of these teachers teach. Most teachers used the high-tech devices as they described in their interviews. Yet I was puzzled by their claim that using these devices had substantially altered how they taught. Policymaker decisions to buy and deploy high-tech devices was supposed to shift dominant ways of traditional teaching to student-centered or what early 20th century school reformers called “progressive” approaches to classroom instruction.

That is not what I encountered in classrooms.

I am not the first researcher to have met teachers who claimed substantial changes in their teaching in response to district or state policies. Consider “A Revolution in One Classroom; The Case of Mrs. Oublier.”

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 but 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 each person means by “change” and who judges the worth of that change.

Change clearly meant one thing to teachers and another to researchers. Teachers had, indeed, made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons. Researchers, however, keeping in mind what policymakers intended, sought evidence of fundamental changes in teaching. In the case of Mrs. O—from memorizing math rules and getting the correct answer to focusing on conceptual understanding. Or for earlier generations of reformers, getting teachers to shift from traditional to non-traditional practices in seating arrangements, lesson activities, teacher-talk, use of projects, etc. In one instance, teachers saw substantial incremental “changes,” while researchers saw little fundamental “change.”

Whether those teachers’ incremental changes or the fundamental changes state policymakers sought led to test score gains, given the available evidence, no one yet knows.

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 teachers’ vantage point? (p.312).

Researchers, however, publish their studies and teachers like Mrs. O seldom tell their side of the story. Yet teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they have indeed altered their practices incrementally and as any practitioners (lawyers, doctors, accountants) will tell you, that is very hard to do. How to honor teachers’ incremental changes while pointing out few shifts in fundamental patterns of teaching is the dilemma with which I have wrestled in researching the history of school reform in the nation’s classrooms (e.g., teachers’ use of new technologies since the 1980s, the New Math of the 1960s, site-based decision-making in the 1970s and 1980s, remote instruction in the 2020s).

Whose accounts of incremental and fundamental changes in classroom instruction, then, matter the most?


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The Pandemic’s Virtual Learning is Now a Permanent Fixture of America’s Schools (Conor Williams)

“Conor Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Previously, Williams was the founding director of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. He began his career as a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University, and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College.”

This article appeared in The 74 on May 1, 2023.

The rocket’s engine roars to life, and moments later, it slides up, up and up and away from the launchpad. An embedded video of the flight deck shows a worried, bug-eyed face behind the helmet visor — the astronaut’s pulling some G’s. He’s gone positively green. But wait — because this is a launch in Kerbal Space Program, a rocketry video game — the color isn’t a function of his stomach. No, he’s a Kerbal, and he’s literally green. 

He’s also a star in Ben Adler’s 8th-grade science unit on gravity and kinetic energy at Oakland, California’s Downtown Charter Academy, a middle school in the city’s East Peralta neighborhood. Students are designing, building and launching rockets on Macbook Air laptops around their classroom — and trying to keep their “Kerbonauts” on track (and intact) for various space missions.

It’s clever, engaging and far more typical in 2023 than it was before the pandemic. Lessons like these mark a genuine shift in American schools. Indeed, though many campuses reopened in part during the pandemic because they concluded that children were not learning enough using digital tools during virtual learning, late pandemic schooling today is positively saturated with these devices

Americans have spent huge chunks of the past three years thinking and talking about schools in binary terms — open or closed, in-person or virtual. But with schools all but universally open and back to a normal state (however imperfect), though, these dichotomies have gotten somewhat blurrier. 

Truth is, we didn’t reopen schools back to “normal” in-person learning over the past few years … so much as we brought daily virtual learning into real-world classrooms. 

It’s the new normal in U.S. public education — and it’s complicated. I’ve visited nearly 100 public school classrooms across three states in the past six months. I don’t recall seeing a single one without a computer screen projected onto the board at the front of the room. Lessons reliably include videos from curriculum vendors and/or the internet. On several occasions, I watched early elementary schoolers hold up badges hanging from lanyards around their necks to unlock laptops to play. Written assignments and quizzes — including Adler’s on rocketry — are often conducted on laptops and submitted online. As students type, teachers frequently project online timer videos with animated graphics and sound effects. 

There’s no question that the pandemic shifted schools’ digital infrastructure. The extraordinary pressures of the past three years of crises forced significant new public investments in closing digital divides. Policymakers and schools poured emergency funding into purchasing devices like laptops, tablets, Chromebooks and internet hotspots so that all students would be able to access online lessons — so much so that supply chains couldn’t keep up. This made a real dent in longstanding digital divides, even if it didn’t wholly close them. Indeed, in January 2021, a survey of teachers still found 35% reporting that few of their English-learning students had reliable internet access. 

It’s far from clear what this means for the present and future of U.S. public education. Teachers I’ve spoken with express ambivalence about the degree to which digital technology has permeated campus. Most say that it’s created both exciting skills and pernicious challenges. 

When Downtown Charter Academy closed on March 13, 2020, it sent students home with two weeks of assigned work. As it became clear that the crisis was serious, DCA acquired digital devices and hotspots to ensure that all families could access distance learning. Within a few weeks, the school had moved its pre-pandemic schedule online. “It was 20 hours per day at first,” says Director Claudia Lee. “But it got easier.” 

But closing device and internet access gaps was just a first step. Many DCA students and families lacked the digital literacy to use and manage these new tools. This was also true across the state. A fall 2020 survey of linguistically diverse California families found that nearly one-third of participants did not understand the pandemic learning instructions they received from their children’s schools. Further, fully one-third of participants responded that they did not have email accounts they could use. 

DCA teachers say that the logistics of the transition were relatively smooth. They also confirmed that they faced many of the problems that plagued virtual learning across the country. Student engagement was a struggle, with some students attending only sporadically and others switching off their cameras under the pretense that their connection was too slow to bear the video. “We visited some homes,” says Lee, “and found some situations that were hard. Kids were trying to learn in kitchens, for example, or other places with lots of noise and distractions around. So we brought a small number of kids back to campus to log on virtually — but socially distanced.”

The school reopened for full-time in-person learning in fall 2021, but it was hardly a return to normalcy. By the end of that school year, DCA students’ academic outcomes were significantly stronger than peers in the surrounding school district, but that was only part of the story. In discussions during a daylong professional development session this January, many teachers noted that students were prone to online distractions and — worse yet — had become increasingly adept at using digital tools and resources to avoid doing their classwork themselves. Students brought these virtual learning habits back to their in-person classrooms. 

“We need to help them understand that your choices become your identity,” said one teacher who asked not to be quoted by name. “Like, ‘If you always lie, you’re gonna eventually be known as a liar. If you always cheat, you’re gonna eventually be known as a cheater.’ George Santos is a great example of why you shouldn’t make lying a habit.”

And yet, these costs have attached benefits. Teachers are wrangling with new digitally infused questions around academic integrity, yes, but that’s also because they have continued to use Google Classroom and other platforms as part of their courses. These streamline student assignments, teacher grading and subsequent data analysis — and offer the potential for more effective and timely communication with students’ families. Indeed, teachers reported that, at this stage of the pandemic, many more of their families have and can use online communication tools like email, school communication apps (for example), and video conferencing to stay linked up to what’s happening on campus. In particular, Zoom parent-teacher conferences are much easier and more equitable than the old in-person-only model. 

As such, teachers spent much of the family engagement part of the January professional development session discussing how to unlock families’ new digital literacy abilities. Members of the 8th-grade team admit to one another that they aren’t meeting their initial goal of reaching out to at least five families each week through the school’s official communication app — and brainstorm ways to reset and hold one another accountable to that expectation. The 7th-grade team agrees that they could do more to engage students’ families, and devises a process for making and sending a two-minute Friday video explaining what 7th graders will learn in the coming week. Almost everyone agrees that the school needs a meeting to help get families familiar with — and logged on to — the school’s different digital platforms. 

As for the little green Kerbals in their spaceships, Adler emails, “Across all three days, no students were caught running any other program or browsing. A notoriously disengaged student became enraptured, and even turned in good marks on the follow-up assessment.” Students scored reasonably well on a subsequent quiz, with — for example — majorities of the 8th graders correctly identifying “apoapsis” as “the highest point in an orbit,” even though the term did not appear in any of the instructional materials other than the Kerbal Space Program missions. 

So: is digital literacy a key skill (or a skill set)? Or are digital tools a crutch for students? Or some murky mixture of both? These are potent questions for this moment, as worsened teenage mental health, public launches of artificial intelligence tools and concerns about the state of the humanities are creating a national discussion about technology and education. 

I truly don’t know. But I think we’re long overdue for a collective rethinking of just what we want from education technology. As we clamber out of three years of pandemic-steeped K–12 education, it presently feels like we’re drifting to a sleepy acquiescence of any and all digital learning tools without regard for their actual purpose. It’s time for educators, policymakers and families to adopt a more intentional, active stance when making education technology choices — with an eye to avoiding unreflective reliance on these tools.

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Use of Technology in U.S. Classrooms

Over the past two decades, I have written a great deal about teacher and student access to and use of laptops, tablets, and phones in U.S. public schools. Access meant school districts purchasing computers and making them available to both teachers and students. Where in 1981, there were, on average 125 students per computer in U.S. schools, by 2000 that ratio had dropped five students per student.

And two decades later, it is nearly 1:1 across both elementary and secondary schools. The dream that educational technophiles had dreamt for decades of every teacher, every child and teenager using new devices has been largely fulfilled.

In 2023, it is fair to conclude that nearly every U.S. teacher and student from kindergarten through high school has access to at least one device at home and school across ethnicity, race, and social class (see here). So getting schools to adopt computer devices has surely been an American success story in public schools.

Teacher Helping Boy To Use Digital Tablet In Computer Class

What about usage? How often do teachers and students use these devices in schools?

I have observed classroom use of devices before the pandemic in San Francisco/San Jose and suburban districts. And I have read recent national surveys of teacher and student use of computers. The quick takeaway is that teacher and student use of digital devices is pervasive and frequent. Whether that pervasive and frequent use, however, altered how teachers taught was unclear.

High school class using devices

Kindergarten students working on an art project while classmates work remotely from home in 2020 at Lakeview Elementary School in Mahopac, NY. Frank Becerra Jr/The Journal News

My first book on teachers’ instructional use of computers in classrooms was Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001). I drew from observations I had made in Bay area schools, examined and analyzed national surveys of computer use in the nation’s classrooms, and then looked ahead to the next few decades. In a closing paragraph to that book I said:

I predict that the slow revolution in technology access and use fueled by popular support and continuing as long as there is economic prosperity, will eventually yield exactly what promoters have sought: every student, like every worker, will eventually have a personal computer. But no fundamental change in teaching practices will occur. I can imagine a time … when all students use portable computers the way they use notebooks today. The teacher would post math assignments from the text and appropriate links on her website which students would access from home. Such access [and use], however, will only marginally reshape the deeply anchored structures of the self-contained classroom, parental expectations of what teachers should be doing, time schedules, and teachers’ disciplinary training that help account for the dominant teaching practices. The teacher … would use laptops to sustain existing practices.

Those last two sentences of that 2001 quote is the main takeaway from this post. All that technological change in access and usage of electronic devices has not, in my judgment, altered dominant teaching practices.

Yes, these devices surely have become as common as paper, pens, and notebooks during lessons. Both teachers and students now depend upon laptops and tablets and similar devices. But how lessons unfold, how teachers teach would be familiar to today’s parents were they to sit in the back of their child’s classroom.

This is not a criticism of teachers.

The ready access and use that teachers and students after three decades of extensive have to laptops, tablets, and now cell phones is simply another instance of the exaggerated expectations that educational and entrepreneurial promoters traffic in when new technologies in the past have entered U.S. public schools.

The huge hype surrounding computer devices since their appearance in schools in the early 1980s definitely has resulted in giving children and youth access to these amazing instruments. And increase classroom and home usage has certainly accompanied this access. But both access and usage have not fundamentally altered how teachers teach. Teachers have, as they always have, adopted an innovation (e.g., film, radio, television) and adapted it to fit the contours of the age-graded classroom and social expectations of parents.


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Teachers as Both the Problem and Solution to Improved Schooling: The Perpetual Paradox

Has anyone noticed that much of the blame pundits shower on teachers and unions for blocking school reform and tolerating low-performing students is usually followed by perky pay-for-performance plans, revising teacher evaluations, and other solutions wholly dependent upon teachers embracing those very changes? Framing teachers as both the problem and the solution is a tough conundrum to unravel. Teachers, however, are not the only ones to grapple with the paradox of being blamed for a problem and then be expected to turn around and solve the very same problem.


Consider medical care. Patients, insurance companies, and federal officials criticize physicians and hospitals for errors in practice and ignoring the accelerating cost of providing health care. Tough questions are asked: Which hospitals are best and worst for cardiac surgery or for treating children with cystic fibrosis? Why do doctors commit many errors (illegible handwriting on prescriptions, incomplete charts, etc.)? Should doctors get paid for how often they treat patients or how well they treat them (see here)?

In an era of rising health care costs, voter reluctance to increase taxes, holding doctors publicly and personally responsible for outcomes and containing costs have spurred market driven reforms that have swept over the practice of medicine heretofore immune to such debates. For-profit hospitals and private insurers compete for customers, magazines publish rankings of best U.S. hospitals, and insurance companies link doctors’ practices to their pay. Such instances of business-inspired reforms seek improved delivery of health care to Americans.

These market-driven solutions for health care problems—let’s call them reforms–have raised serious issues of trust between doctors and patients over the degree to which private insurance companies or physicians control medical practice. Deep concerns over doctor-patient relationships and practitioner autonomy get entangled in volatile policy debates over the quality and cost of national health care thus sharply spotlighting the contradiction of more than a million medical doctors and nearly 6,000 hospitals getting singled out as being a serious problem while looking to these very same people and institutions to remedy the health care crisis.

Public school teachers

Teachers have also been framed as both the problem and solution for low-performing students, particularly the achievement gap between white and minority students. Expanding parental choice through charter schools, advocating higher pay for administrators and teachers who can show student gains in test scores, promoting more competition among schools are only a few of the packaged ideas borrowed from the business community. This shared paradox among medical and school practitioners of being bashed and then expected to solve the problems for which they are bashed is like a virus that has infected two social institutions critical to the nation’s future. No vaccine, however, exists for this virus. And it is here to stay.

So what, if anything, can be done to ease the pinch of the paradox? Keep in mind that there is no solution to the paradox but it can be better managed.

Managing the paradox

1. Were national and state leaders to openly acknowledge that blaming teachers as a group for the ills of poor schooling and then expecting those very same awful teachers to turn around and work their hearts out to remedy those ills is simply goofy. Over 3.5 million teachers do the daily work of teaching; they teach reading, wipe noses, find lost backpacks, write recommendations, and grade tests. No online courses, charter schools, vouchers, home schooling, or any other star-crossed idea that entrepreneurial reformers design will replace them. So blaming and shaming teachers into working harder is no recipe for improved student learning. Surely, like any group of professionals, teachers have to be prodded and they have to be supported. Prodding they get a lot of; support is where these so-called leaders fall down badly.

2. De-escalating the virulent rhetoric about unions and incompetent teachers would be a reasonable first step. Lowering the noise level from 24/7 cable, the Internet, and talk radio is as hard to do as it is to get bipartisan support among Republicans and Democrats over raising the federal debt ceiling in a polarized political climate. Respect for teachers, never high in the U.S. to begin with, has unraveled even further with constant bashing. But hard as it is to ratchet down the noise level, it is not impossible. Calling out pundits and uninformed critics publicly will surely add to the cacophony but is an essential first step.

3. Move away from critics’ obsessive concentration on unions and the small number of incompetent teachers. Some readers may recall the ado over New York City’s “rubber room” where teachers accused of misconduct or with no school assignment whiled away the day reading newspapers, doing crosswords, and talking with one another. Far better, in my judgment, is a renewed focus on the structures that keep even mediocre teachers from improving. Such structures as classroom evaluation procedures, hit-and-miss professional development, daily load of students to teach, number of courses taught, and the age-graded school—all influence how teachers teach and what happens in classrooms.

None of these structural changes in of themselves, of course, can end the conundrum of blaming teachers for untoward student outcomes and then depending on them to fix the problem. But at the very least, focusing on these structures rather than blaming teachers would take a might important step toward a deeper understanding of the paradox of teachers as both the problem and solution to school improvement.


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