Student Compliance and Buy-In to a Class: Comments from Readers

A month ago, a post I wrote on different kinds of secondary school students in classes I and colleagues have taught stirred an exchange between a number of readers. Mike Goldstein suggested I post the back-and-forth between Michael Merry, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands), and me. Here it is. I also appended Mike Goldstein’s comment since he offers his views of charter school teachers  who wrestle with different roles to play in teaching compliant but disengaged students.

Michael S. Merry January 4, 2015 at 7:54 am

I think this is a fairly accurate description of three different student “types” and I recognize them from my own experience. And while I won’t pretend to have observed nearly as many classrooms as you, Larry, I’ve observed well above the average, having spent several years training student teachers and observing/critiquing their practices, but also (of course) having attended years of school myself (with more than my share of dull teachers), and finally, watching the experiences of my three kids in school, one of whom has now graduated. And while it is never “cool” to criticize teachers – indeed, one is branded a right-winger if you don’t unreservedly support teachers – one also has to say, I think, that in order to make sense of student engagement, it is alarming that only a small fraction of the engaged students (nevermind the tiny percentage of ALL students) could be categorised as being inspired by the teacher. You write that teachers are dependent on their students for their compliance and buy-in. Well, that’s true, and I’ve certainly taught the same way with two separate groups of students only to find that 1 group is seemingly more engaged than the other. The student mix does count for something. On the other hand, it is an open secret that a teacher’s knowledge, skill & enthusiasm in bringing a subject alive is crucial to student engagement. I would like to see – if you are inclined – a discussion on the reasons for so much uninspiring teaching. We might include the usual suspects (e.g., teacher training programs, school leadership, a test-driven climate, poverty, student mobility, etc.). Having this conversation does not mean that we scapegoat teachers. But if the issue before us is student engagement, I think it is completely fair to ask about the role of the teacher in this equation.

 

larry cuban January 4, 2015 at 6:39 pm

Thanks for the comments, Michael.These are fair points, in my opinion, that you raise about the teacher’s responsibilities for “inspiring” students. My hunch is that so little occurs–I agree with your observation–for the very reasons you offer: the outer environment for public school teaching has become increasingly toxic, the school workplace has become increasingly regulated,teacher preparation institutions too much out-of-touch with these conditions, etc. etc. These are powerful influences on teachers daily lessons, in my opinion. Insofar, as engaged teaching and the different groups of students who simply comply, buy-in, or become inspired, I have no measure that is reliable to characterize how much or how little engaged teaching occurs. Surely, the teacher is part of the equation, as you say, because teachers are dependent on students as surely as doctors are dependent upon patients, therapists on clients. But other factors–the chemistry of relationships among students,teacher expertise, and many others come into play making general statements about the teacher’s part nearly impossible to defend. What do you think?

 

Michael S. Merry January 5, 2015 at 7:15 am

All of this is true, as it concerns non-ideal conditions in which teachers work – and these of course are not uniquely American problems. Further, the factors that you also name, Larry, which change the chemistry of any particular class, certainly have an impact on teacher effectiveness and student engagement. But now to touch upon another open secret, certainly to those who have watched year after year the folks who are drawn to the teaching profession, and that is this. While there are marvelous and resourceful and dynamic teachers in every cohort, in every school, and in every teacher training program, the painful fact remains that far too many uninspiring individuals – who, perhaps, are more compliant with the non-ideal conditions, finding it easier to yield to them – are drawn to teaching in the first place. Without minimizing any of the critique about schools, their inequitable structures, and the copious challenges that teachers face, it seems to me that we cannot deny this as being a significant part of the problem as it concerns lack of student engagement. This is not a “teacher slamming” moment so much as a lament. I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed? I honestly don’t know because there is always a demand for teachers, and students spend a lot of money getting their training, and hence there is a lot of pressure to simply give out licenses provided all the boxes can be ticked and all formal qualifications are met.

larry cuban January 5, 2015 at 10:37 am

Thanks for the follow-up comment, Michael. You say: “I think that even if we were to improve – by whatever means – the conditions in which teachers teach, and optimize classrooms, we would still find far too many lackluster teachers and consequently far too little student engagement. How can this be changed?” I believe that you hold teachers to a higher bar than lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. your comments about “lackluster” teachers is not about ineffectiveness or mediocrity but insufficiently inspiring to gain student engagement. My research and direct experience with doctors, for example, show that many doctors have low levels of communication skills, offer little empathy, and have restricted listening capacity yet they are competent, make diagnoses, and know what they are doing in recommending treatments. My point is that in every profession I know,”lackluster” is commonplace–the bell-shaped curve, so to speak.It is teachers with expertise in subject matter, classroom moxie, and communication skills that are needed in every classroom. Whether they inspire students is a dividend, not a requirement.

Michael S. Merry January 5, 2015 at 11:39 am

I agree, Larry, that I hold teachers to a higher standard, and that may be unfair. But while teachers can be competent yet uninspiring (like lawyers, doctors, etc.), only teachers spend thousands of hours with children and are in such a position to have so much (or so little) influence. Doctors and lawyers, conversely, can be uninspiring, but still provide you with solid medical or legal advice. (That doesn’t mean they always will, of course.) And, one is rarely with a doctor or lawyer for very long! But to reiterate, mine is a lament, and the problem of low student engagement – and its relation to uninspiring teachers – probably has no cure. Sigh.

 

larry cuban January 5, 2015 at 3:01 pm

Thanks for raising the issue of teachers inspiring students, Michael. The back-and-forth with you, I found helpful in my thinking.

 

Mike G commented on Student Compliance and Buy-In to a Class February 5, 2015

 

I found the back and forth exchange in the comments between you (Larry) and Michael M quite provocative. Might be worth pulling it out as its own blog post. I think it goes somehow to the core of our educational debate.

Are teachers essentially to be like “personal trainers” in that they should precisely expect many clients who, like your compliant-but-not-that-interested student, will try to wriggle out of exercise? And that to become a personal trainer is to sign up for a job where you try to “flip” as many of us exercise laggards (I am one) as you can?

Or is the teacher job more akin to the doctor, who most typically will explain to you that you should exercise more, but does not expect to hound you, to really drive that behavior change?

In the handful of charters that are high-performing, I think teachers knowing sign up for the “personal trainer” gig — and that explains the 75 hour week. The school is up front about it. The teacher knows what he/she is choosing. 55 hours of being a regular teacher and 20 additional hours of “trying to flip reluctant students.” Then after 4 years or so, they go on to something else. The implied cost of this amount of labor at scale would be huge.

 

 

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The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice: The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 3)

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Parts 1 and 2 of this series made the case that when it comes to putting technology into classrooms, political reasons trump evidence from research and experience time and again. The lack of evidence supporting policymakers putting new devices and software into classrooms (e.g., produce gains in student test scores, transform teacher-centered into student-centered classrooms, and prepare children for entry-level jobs) is an open secret. Because public schools are political institutions reliant upon taxpayers and voters, beliefs–a.k.a. political ideology–have far more clout than evidence-based studies when  purchasing new technologies. And these beliefs (e.g., technology modernizes schooling, increases confidence of stakeholders in public schools, and saves time and money in testing) dominate policymaker thinking now.

While it would be forthcoming of top public and private decision-makers to stop using a fig leaf of evidence to hide the nakedness of their arguments, the official  reasons for deploying new technologies remain in play.  Part 3 removes the fig leaf in turning to technologies for young children. That is why the above photos launch this post.

The main point is that the push to arm kindergartners with iPads, put laptops into little hands, and place earphones on tiny heads has no basis in hard evidence. Few, if any studies, have dealt with toddlers or kindergartners. It is the political reasons noted above that school boards, superintendents, state and federal officials hide behind when they spend public dollars to equip four- and five year-olds with new technologies that will be obsolete in a few years. So in the rush to deploy devices into little hands, important questions go unasked.

Does the combination of screen time at home (e.g., television, smart phones, tablets, etc.) and then at school help or harm young children grow and learn?

To what degree do classroom screens isolate young children from one another in the name of personalized learning and thereby reduce collaborative activities?

What exactly do children learn (both intended and unintended) from clicking keys when viewing software for 15 or 20 minutes a day (or longer)?

How does the introduction of tablets or laptops alter the relationship between teachers and young children?

Asking such questions should be part of any public discussion when considering new devices for young children. They are not now asked. School boards and superintendents continue to trip over one another in equipping young children with devices that will soon be obsolete

When I answer parents emails or respond to journalist questions about new purchases of brand-new hardware and software for little kids, I ask the parents and journalists what reasons do school boards and superintendents give to the community. Since evidence is paltry on academic achievement, few policymakers ever say “research studies show….” What they do say, according to parents, journalists, and from what I have gathered in the media, is that these tablets, smart boards, laptops engage the children. Young children are enraptured when finger-swiping a screen, overjoyed with dancing colors and unexpected sounds–it is like a spanking new toy.

Two thoughts come to mind when I hear top decision-makers say”engagement” is the reason for  young children using these devices. First, four- and five year-olds can get “engaged” with popsicle sticks and cardboard cylinders from toilet paper rolls. It doesn’t take much to “engage” (or distract) a young child.

Second, the concept of “engagement” becomes a stand-in for student achievement. Policymakers assume that a child engaged in an activity is learning what was intended and when assessment rolls around will demonstrate that learning. The fact is that engagement may be a necessary condition but it is insufficient to show that the child has, indeed, learned what was intended. In short, there is a novelty effect that accompanies new technological devices  and, yes, as readers know well, the novelty wears off in time. Thus the linkage between engagement and achievement is hardly iron-clad. Yet top decision-makers assume, without evidence, that the two are locked together.

So policymakers have manufactured yet another reason–student engagement–for persuading parents and taxpayers why they use scarce education dollars for soon-to-be-obsolete technologies.

And beyond the noisy hype and the ever-hungry news cycle, what happens in these classrooms  equipped with new devices?

Except for those schools where young children are sent to computer labs, I have been in many classrooms where the majority of young children do not yet have row- after-row of devices. Usually there are a few machines in the classrooms. Most early childhood teachers allocate limited time for children to rotate through different activities such as a reading corner, art station, blocks, sandbox, and math center, and a center equipped with computers.Yet as preschool and kindergarten have become academic boot camps for first grade in the past decade and hype for having kindergartners use iPads increases, I do worry.

Especially, I worry about those Rocketship-like schools  where children sit in cubicles–see first photo–tapping away at keyboards for two or more hours daily located in mostly low-income neighborhoods where parents seldom ask the above questions.

When it comes to policymakers deciding on placing new hardware or software in classrooms serving small children, after thirty years of computer use in schools, evidence-based decisions are missing-in-action. The real reasons for such purchases have far more to do with beliefs and ideology than data-driven decisions.

 

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The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice–The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 2)

In  the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the phrase “scientifically based research” is mentioned 110 times. Not a typo. Evidence-based practice, a variation of the NCLB phrase, and data-driven decision-making are popular among policymakers, administrators, and researchers. What is common to all of these phrases is the idea that systematic inquiry into a question or problem–either through evaluation or research (or both) will yield solid data useful to educators in making and implementing policy.

Yet the historical record is rich in evidence that research and evaluation findings have played a subordinate role in making educational policy. Often, policy choices were (and are) political decisions. This is not a criticism of politics or even ideology in schooling but a recognition that tax-supported public schools are political institutions where stakeholders with competing values vie for resources.

There was no research or evaluation, for example, that found establishing public schools in the early 19th century was better than educating youth through private academies. No studies persuaded late-19th century decision-makers to import privately-funded kindergartens into public schools. Ditto for introducing desktop computers into schools a century later.

So it is hardly surprising, then, that many others, including myself, have been skeptical of the popular idea that what policymakers and teachers should do is pursue unrelentingly evidence-based policy-making and data-driven instruction. The strong belief persists among educators that when policy and practice are anchored in scientifically researched findings, then and only then, rational and effective policymaking and classroom teaching can occur.

As Part 1 indicated, that has hardly been the case when it comes to monies spent on charter schools and classroom technologies then and now. Why is that?

Political and practical reasons, not research and evaluation, often guide policy decisions–or as two scholars put it: “evidence-based decision-making is sometimes framed as an antidote for ideology-driven decision-making [when] people make decisions precisely by drawing on what might be considered ideology … as a fundamental part of the decision-making process.”

Politically smart state and local policymakers believe–here is where ideology enters the picture–that buying new tablets loaded with software, deploying them to K-12 classrooms, and watching how the devices engage both teachers and students will work; it is considered “best practice” because, well, “we believe in it.” The theory is that student engagement with the device and software will dramatically alter classroom instruction and lead to improved  achievement. The problem, of course (you no doubt have guessed where I am going with this) — is that evidence of this electronic innovation transforming teaching and achievement growth is not only sparse but also unpersuasive even when some studies show a small “effect size.”

When the research pantry is nearly empty and evidence for raising student test scores or transforming teaching is sparse, how do  policymakers and administrators justify buying new devices and software?

Here are three reasons that I see spurring decision-makers to allocate scarce dollars for new technologies.

First, keeping up with the rest of the changing world. Call it “modernization” or recasting schools as less like museums and more like fast-paced companies using technology in daily work. No more jokes about educators being technological slow-pokes. Use of new technologies is considered modern, being with-it, even an unadulterated “good” that all children and youth in age-graded schools should embrace.

Second, because new technologies are highly valued in the culture, school boards and their superintendents feel strong pressures to keep up with other sectors–both public and private–undergoing technological changes. If those leaders do not act, they fear that taxpayers and voters will lose confidence in public schools. And public confidence is like money in the bank since tax-supported public schools are politically and fiscally dependent on the good will of taxpayers.

And there is a less obvious third reason for school leaders to purchase new technologies: increase efficiency in testing and scoring results. Schools have to have computers because eventually U.S. students will be taking state tests online. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s recent fiasco with iPads was triggered by demands to implement the standardized testing required by adoption of the Common Core standards.  Just as the move from quill pens to pencils to computer-adaptive-testing required no research studies but were done on grounds of cost-saving efficiency, so it was when the LAUSD School Board and Superintendent authorized buying iPads.

Note that the three reasons I offer are political–not in any negative sense–but ones that are practical and realistic in the world that policymakers inhabit. Research findings to support the promises that school leaders make for the “good” that high-tech purchases will achieve, are simply not there. And that pattern of pursuing innovations without much evidence or data to support the decisions that school boards and superintendents make is plain to see.

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The Lack of Evidence-Based Practice: The Case of Classroom Technology (Part 1)

When it comes to policymakers calling for data-based decisions and evidence-based practice, the purchase and use of tablets, laptops, interactive whiteboards and academic software miss that call miserably. The fact is that no substantial basis in research findings or existing data on the academic effectiveness of classroom technology warrant the boom-town spread of classroom devices. If so, how come so much money is being spent?

In a New York Times‘ op-ed piece Susan Pinker lays out a once-over-lightly sad story of how technology for low-income children here and abroad has failed. The op-ed format, however, falls short in presenting the full array of evidence of either minimal effect,  no-effect, or even negative effect of technology upon student academic achievement.

Since 2010, laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards, smart phones, and a cornucopia of software have become ubiquitous. Yet has academic achievement improved as a consequence? Has teaching and learning changed? Has use of devices in schools led to better jobs? These are the basic questions that school boards, policymakers, and administrators ask.

The answers to these questions are “no,” “no,” and “probably not.”

Test scores, the current gold standard policymakers use to determine academic achievement, show little evidence that using new hardware and software have improved students’ performance on tests.[i]

The evidence of transforming traditional teaching practices is equally underwhelming. Nearly all teachers now use these devices. Lessons using interactive whiteboards or carts filled with laptops or tablets are common across elementary and secondary schools. How teachers use laptops or tablets, however, vary from unimaginative to creative, from daily to occasional to non-use.[ii]

These powerful computers have yet to alter traditional ways of teaching that have marked classrooms for years. Laptops, desktops, tablets, and interactive whiteboards continue to support the dominant teacher-centered approach to instruction rather than promoting the hoped-for student-centered approach. Teachers have expanded their teaching repertoire to incorporate new software and hardware to do what they have been doing all along. No surprise there since for decades, teachers have mixed old and new practices in their lessons. New technologies have found a niche in most classrooms but their impact is much smaller than what was initially promised. In effect, new hardware and software have strengthened, not altered, prevailing teaching approaches.[iii]

Finally, the question of computer use in schools prepares students for jobs. Whether using soon-to-be-obsolete hardware and software helps students gain  jobs in a knowledge-based labor market is “probably not.” Most applicants for private sector entry-level jobs–except for software engineers and programmers–learn new hardware and software in a matter of days, not months or years. Few studies of high school graduates getting jobs requiring computer skills even exist.[iv]

Given these answers, why do district policymakers, administrators, and business leaders beat the drum for more and better devices and software in schools? Part 2 answers that question.

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[i] Jason Ravitz, et al., “Cautionary Tales about Correlations between Student Computer Use and Academic Achievement, “ April 2002, paper presented at annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans; Larry Cuban, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013), pp. 43-45.

 

[ii] Mark Windschitl and Kurt Sahl, “Tracing Teachers’ Use of Technology in a Laptop Computer School,” American Educational Research Journal, 2002, vol. 39(1), pp. 165-205; Larry Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).

 

[iii] Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009); Larry Cuban, Inside the Black Box, pp. 155-171.

[iv] Anyone familiar with the level of hardware and software used in schools over the past thirty years has seen extraordinary changes in software programs and hardware miniaturization. What software students in the 9th grade in 1985 were using was gone and forgotten five years later; ditto for 2010 and now. Preparing students for jobs in a labor market prizing information usage and rapid communication means constant changes in what software and hardware students will use in schools, a condition that districts find themselves a few steps behind every year. Thus built-in obsolesence of machines and software make it difficult to plan on current students being prepared for jobs. Current interest in teaching all students to learn to code recognizes the constant turnover in technological equipment and skills. See, for example, Nick Wingfield, “Fostering New Tech Talent in Schools,” New York Times, September 30, 2012.

 

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Children and High-Tech Addiction: A Look Beyond the U.S.

Recent surveys have established that children spend up to three hours a day looking at media (cell phones, desktop and laptop computers, television, etc.) not counting screen time in school. Except for the Alliance for Childhood and pediatricians, few, if any, civic leaders, business groups, and educational policymakers have questioned the ubiquity of 1:1 laptops,tablets, Kindles, and smart phones in schools. For those who rail at Moms talking on cell phones while toddlers scream for attention, for those who point fingers at colleagues being hooked on gadgets or addicted to cell phones, why have these critics not complained about giving each child an iPad, considering the hours of screen time viewed daily outside of school? For those who fear that young, easy-to-mold brains get rewired as these devices get daily classroom use, few  concerned citizens protest at school board meetings or even write letters to the editor.

If re-wiring the brain and addiction to high-tech gadgets have become rhetorical overkill–even hype–and the word “dependency” may be more appropriate as technology continues to shape our daily habits for both good and ill, then perhaps it is time to ask publicly whether the school should be a willing, even eager, partner in deepening children’s dependency on gadgets with screens.

A peek at Asian nations shows another strategy of dealing with high-tech addiction (or call it the less inflammatory “dependency”) among children.

 India has joined South Korea, China, Taiwan and Singapore in using dedicated technology addiction clinics to confront what many Asian-Pacific cultures consider to be a growing public health problem.

Doctors at the Bangalore clinic, run by the National Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences (Nimhans), told The Indian Express that, typically, the patients being referred are children whose parents are concerned either by a sharp academic decline or their child withdrawing from family interactions.

 “Parents lament that their son or daughter is spending far too much time on the smartphone, or posting numerous photos on Facebook, or complaining of anxiety, loneliness and boredom when denied use of the device,” Dr. Manoj Kumar Sharma, one of the doctors running the Nimhans clinic, told the paper.

 The symptoms and nature of this perceived addiction vary from case to case but hinge around a perceived excessive engagement with a user’s smartphone, the Internet or social networking sites that comes at the expense of their mental well-being. Persistent checking of instant messaging apps and frequent changing of status updates – as well as the notorious uploading of ‘selfies’ – are linked in addiction cases to insomnia, depression and social withdrawal. ‘

 As these kind of treatment centers are yet to reach many Western countries, the act of admitting a child to a clinic for spending too much time on Facebook or playing with their smartphone may sound excessive….

 Schools concerned about the popularity of texting, selfies and multi-player online games have also been seeking help from the clinic. Some have asked for Nimhans staff to train their student counselors, or hold awareness camps and screening and rehabilitation programs for addicted students.

Or consider Singapore.

In Singapore, 87% of a population of 5.4 million own smartphones. By contrast, the US has a smartphone prevalence of 65% – which is considered low by the Asia-Pacific standard. Citizens of Singapore are also more indulgent users of social media, spending an average of 38 minutes per session on Facebook – about twice as long as the average American session.

Singapore has been the site of some of the world’s most pro-active technology addiction campaigns. A major ‘cyber wellness’ education program targeting preschool children is about to be launched, and the ‘Put it on friend mode’ campaign from Nanyang Technological University – which encouraged smartphone users to put their phones away while with loved ones – apparently drew major support.

Medical News Today asked Dr. Adrian Wang, a psychiatrist at the Gleneagles Medical Centre in Singapore, why he believes social media use has twice the impact in that country compared with the US. He considers the problem to be largely one of access to technology from an increasingly young age….

‘Many Singaporean kids – from as young as 7 or 8 – already have access to a smartphone or device,’ he says. ‘The habit grows from there. By their teens, most kids are pretty tech-savvy, and a combination of peer influence (everybody’s on Facebook or Whatsapp) and ease of access (cheap mobile devices) means everyone’s glued to their smartphone at some point of the day.’

Not only Indian and Singaporean health practitioners and middle-class parents are concerned about excessive use of devices outside of school. Many U.S. parents share that concern about children getting hooked on high-tech devices out of school. Still that concern has yet to prompt fear or even anger directed at school leaders who buy hardware, deploy devices to classrooms, and cheerlead for more and better software.

 

 

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From Policy to Practice: Chains or Pasta

Metaphors are shortcuts for understanding complicated concepts: Time is money. The mind is a computer. Each metaphor powerfully illuminates and enriches an idea. Which metaphors come to mind when districts try to put reforms into classroom practice to increase student learning? The common (and inaccurate) metaphor is a chain with many links. A more apt one would be spaghetti.

In the U.S. Army’s command-and-control structures, generals believe that their decisions can steer what infantry platoons do in the field. Yet the metaphor of the “fog of war” and a history of misunderstanding orders at the company and platoon levels during battles suggest that even in command-and-control structures,decisions moving down the chain of authority may turn out far differently than intended. Novels and memoirs from War and Peace to Jarhead, films from The Longest Day to Platoon, and officer and enlisted men reports make that point.

School district organizational charts resemble military organizations with structures showing authority flowing downward from the board of education to teachers. Here also, the belief that policymakers can frame problems, adopt solutions, and steer classroom practice prevails. Yet school districts are hardly command-and-control operations since new policies get interpreted and re-interpreted by different actors at each link of the supposed chain of authority as they proceed downward into classrooms.

Consider former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, He got the state legislature to eliminate the elected school board and give him control of the schools in 2002. He appointed lawyer Joel Klein Chancellor and through that school official commanded the school district. The Mayor said: “there is a direct link from the teacher’s desk in the classroom, right to the mayor’s desk in City Hall.” For political rhetoric, it is a great one-liner but , truth be told, school decision-making in New York City, Fargo, North Dakota, and Los Altos, California doesn’t work that way.

The supposed command-and-control chain of authority from a mayor or a school board to classroom have many links (mayor=superintendent=district office=principals=teachers=students), but influence doesn’t always flow downward from the top. Sometimes it flows from the bottom up. Sometimes, teachers get rid of principals; sometimes principals do the opposite of what district administrators seek; sometimes students don’t do homework. Moreover, other important factors such as incidence of family poverty, race and ethnicity of enrollments, size of district, and history of reform in the city gum up the chain metaphor. Finally, in far too many instances, policymakers’ assumptions about the desired reform are simply mistaken.

And it is in classrooms where teachers make decisions about what the policy is and which parts, if any, get implemented. What was intended by policymakers may well turn out to be something quite different. The metaphor of a linked chain for putting educational policies into practice is inapt. A better image than links in a chain is policy-to-practice pasta. Consider the following two examples.

Mrs. O., a veteran California second grade teacher in the late-1980s had embraced a new math curriculum aimed at replacing students’ rote memorization with mathematical understanding. A researcher observed Mrs. O teach and interviewed her many times. She saw herself as a success story, a teacher who had revolutionized her mathematics teaching. But classroom observations revealed that her practices were really old wine in new bottles. Yes, Mrs. O was now dividing students into groups–an innovation–but the groups memorized rules taken from the new text. In short, Mrs. O’s blended traditional and innovative practices to create lessons that transformed the state policy directive into something quite different from what policymakers had intended.

Interactive whiteboards. Replacing traditional classroom chalkboards, TV monitors, and DVDs, these wall-mounted electronic devices connect a desktop computer and projector to a whiteboard where teachers can click keys to show videos, visit websites immediately, and call upon other sources of information. A stylus permits teachers and students to write on the whiteboard to do math problems, point out aspects of lava flows from erupting volcanoes, and allow teachers to record their lessons as digital video files for students to review at a later time.

Promoters have hailed interactive white boards as a technology that will transform teaching and learning.

A reporter described Spanish teacher Crystal Corn’s high school class in Cumming, Georgia:

“[Corn’s students] … use a stylus at the whiteboard to match pictures and vocabulary words, they use it to visit Web sites that feature news from Spanish-speaking countries, and they even made a music video and played it in class on the whiteboard. This school year, Corn plans to use the interactive whiteboard to hold videoconferences with classes in other countries.”

Sounds terrific. But over the past three years, I have observed nearly 20 classrooms using whiteboards in four different districts. I saw versions of Mrs. O again and again. Consider the half-dozen high school math teachers that I observed using whiteboards daily. Nearly every one began the lesson with a “brain teaser,” reviewed homework problems, had students use the stylus on the whiteboard to show how they solved particularly difficult ones, introduced new material, asked if students had any questions, then assigned new problems for homework. In short, these math teachers in different cities used traditional math lessons with an innovative high-tech device. Yet those teachers spoke rapturously about how whiteboards had enhanced their teaching. Hello, Mrs. O.

So what if the policy-to-practice continuum is best captured by the image of spaghetti than iron-welded links in a chain? The answer is again found in the four questions I have asked many times about whether the policy was fully implemented and whether teaching practices had changed. The catch is, of course, that I do not know if Mrs. O and the whiteboard examples capture typical teaching practices when it comes to implementing curricular and high-tech policy decisions. We won’t know until more systematic classroom observations occur. School policymakers facing their own “fog of war” can only guess how teachers teach daily.

Yet teachers make daily policy decisions in their classrooms. When teachers work collaboratively within schools and districts, when policymakers work closely with teachers to make decisions that touch classrooms, when teachers run their own schools as in Minnesota, links-in-a-chain and pasta metaphors are inappropriate.

More apt may be metaphors of organizational collaboration such as a team white-water rafting or a relay team running hurdles. But those metaphors are seldom used to capture the policy-to-practice road into classrooms. Pity.

 

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Confessions of a Skeptic of Computers in Schools (Part 2)

Exactly five years ago I wrote Part 1 of why I was a skeptic on computer use in schools.For this post I look back at that confession and update it to where I  am now in 2015.

A quarter-century ago, I wrote Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920. In that book I described and analyzed the history of machines deployed in classrooms (film, radio, instructional television, and the newly arrived desktop computer) to help teachers teach more, faster, and better. Then I did something foolish in the final chapter. I predicted future uses of the computer in classrooms from my vantage point in 1985.

Of course, I was not alone in making predictions. Seymour Papert dove into the same empty pool that I did a year before my venture into prophesying:

“There won’t be schools in the future …. I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum—all of that.” (Popular Computing, October 1984, p. 11)

Based upon my research in schools and experience as a teacher and superintendent, however, I was far more skeptical about the penetration and use of computers than Papert. Here was my crystal ball look in to the future of computers in schools:

“I predict that … in elementary schools where favorable conditions exist, teacher use will increase but seldom exceed more than 10 percent of weekly instructional time [roughly 3 hours a week]. Pulling out students for a 30-to-45-minute period in a computer lab will, I suspect, gain increasing popularity in these schools…. In secondary schools, the dominant pattern of use will be to schedule students into [labs] and one or more elective classes where a score of desk-top computers sit…. In no event would I expect general student use of computers in secondary schools to exceed 5 percent of the weekly time set aside for instruction. I predict no great breakthrough in teacher use patterns at either level of schooling” (p. 99).

As events unfolded in the next quarter-century, my prediction flat-lined. Access to computers–desktops, laptops, hand-held devices, and interactive white boards–soared. In writing Oversold and Underused; Computers in Classrooms in 2001, I did find higher percentages of students and teachers using computers in preschools, secondary schools, and universities that ruined my 1985 prediction.

Since then hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers across the country have received  white boards and 1:1 laptops. In researching classrooms since 2001, again, I have found higher use by teachers and students in both elementary and secondary classrooms. More teachers—my guess is over 30 percent across different districts—use machines for instruction (I include the whole panoply of available high-tech devices) regularly, that is, at least once or more a week. Another 30-40 percent use computers occasionally, that is, at least once or more a month. The remainder of teachers—still a significant minority—hardly ever, if at all–use machines for instruction. This continues to puzzle researchers and policymakers since they know that nearly all teachers have high-tech devices at home.

So my 1985 prediction on teacher and student use of computers for classroom instruction was inaccurate and died a quiet death. Compassionate readers seldom remind me that I flopped in peeking into the future. The facts are clear that students and teachers use high-tech devices for instruction far more than I had foreseen.

Moreover, a quarter-century ago I ended Oversold and Underused by urging a moratorium on buying more computers. Whoa, was that a loser of a recommendation! Worse yet, I even repeated the call for a moratorium on deploying computers in schools—for largely the same reasons—in 2001. Of course, these calls were ignored then as they would be now.

One final confession. I stated clearly in Teachers and Machines and subsequent writings that the uses of new technologies for classroom instruction would seldom satisfy those advocates of more instructional use in schools because teacher use would tend toward the traditional,  blending both teacher- and student-centered approaches but still be called unimaginative—not all teachers, by any means—but enough to be a central tendency of classroom practice. Both of these predictions have turned out to be accurate, yes, accurate….so far.

Let’s say that if this were baseball, I would be batting .500, a number which sounds so much better than 50 percent wrong in crystal ball gazing.

I confess to my errors in foreseeing the future for no other reason than to remind readers, both champions and skeptics of computers in schools, that memorable predictions are rare. Except for the one I made in 2010 about computers in schools in 2020. Then again with 50 percent wrong in the past…..

  1. Larry:
    Don’t feel bad. Predicting that computers will result in transformative change in education is like predicting that we would have flying cars by now. They have changed the lives of students far more outside of school where teachers don’t control their use. To the extent that they let students leave school altogether and study at home, they can make a difference. Kids schooled at home who can proceed at their own pace using computerized learning software are much better off than those in school who are either bored or frustrated much of the time. One reason for little transformative change can be traced to staff development efforts that just show teachers how the computer works rather than showing them how to teach different. Any prediction that keeps public education in the industrial age is where I put my money. Changing organizations where the workers have masters degrees is more than the available change agents have up their sleeves.

    I just posted my summary of Daniel Pink’s new book on motivation (Drive). Check it out at DrDougGreen.Com
    Best
    Douglas W. Green, EdD

  2. Teaching is a relational, human profession. The Gutenberg Press didn’t take away the need for teachers (or even the use of lecture). The telegraph and “instant access to information,” didn’t take away the teacher as an authority, either.

    I still scoff when I hear someone tell me that my job will be outsourced or tech-sourced (partly because I know that, if nothing else, society needs warehouses to hold kids will grown-ups work – no amount of tech-sourcing can or will change that).

    I am not against computers in school. I use a 1:1 ratio in my class and it’s worked well (or so I believe) but I am a skeptic about the transformative power of any medium. The social, political, economic and cultural forces are all greater than any grand prediction from technocrats and cyberphiles.

    Incidentally, I admit that my thinking on technology in schools has been largely influenced by reading your work.

  3. It is interesting to read your reflection on Teachers and Machines, as my class at William & Mary is reading this book now. As a high school teacher, I see the situations you describe here. Teacher use as traditional and unimaginative…

    One of the problems I see in K-12 education is that imaginative uses are actively discouraged by district-based technology policies that restrict access and make it nearly impossible to create change. The heavy workload and other duties assigned to teachers make finding the energy to enact change while the establishment works against you a burden that most teachers are unwilling to bear.

    • I often hear the access issue cited as a barrier to a the creative use of technology. While we are only an example of 1, we have open access but there’s no flood of creative adoption. We DO have overwhelmed teachers.

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