Can Technology Change How Teachers Teach?(Part 2)

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

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

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

Insider vs. Outsider: Whose definition of change matters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

[iv] Ibid., p. 312

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

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


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Can Technology Change How Teachers Teach? (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Personalization Is More Than a Slogan: It Requires a Vision and New Structures (Ted Sizer)

Theodore R. Sizer was University Professor Emeritus at Brown University, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools in 1984. He and his wife Nancy Sizer served as co-principals of the Francis Parker Essential Charter School in 1998-1999.  Sizer died in 2009. The Coalition of Essential Schools will close in 2018.

This article appeared in Educational Leadership in September 1999. 


People differ. Thank goodness they do. How boring the world would be if we were all the same—clones, predictable in our progression through life. Much of the progress of humankind has come because of the restlessness of persons who have stepped beyond the predictable mold. The differences among us have provided the pepper upon which modern society depends.

Those of us who have made our careers in secondary education are daily confronted with a cacophony of difference. Yesterday’s little, dutiful William is today’s sprawling, sloppy BillyBoy. The noisy kid over there used to be a quiet cherub. The shy, intense girl over here used to be fascinated with science but today seems fascinated with nothing at all. The distracted, tough-talking kid in the corner used to be a bouncy little boy endlessly looking for attention. Hormones cause sprouting of all sorts, the sprouts changing not only how an adolescent looks, but also how that adolescent perceives himself or herself. The dutiful in October become the rude in April. The gigglers of September become the sirens of May.

So has it always been. The load is heavy on each young person to decide which mask to wear for which audience, which ideals to care about, what to believe in and whom to believe, what to aspire for, or even whether to “aspire” at all. No one wants to be a clone. We have our role models, but each of us wants to be someone special. We insist upon our difference, and it is right that we do so. Without difference, our culture and our economy would shrivel. Without citizens who feel that each has something special to offer, we would have a culture without vitality.

A Rigid System

Ironically, for a century, secondary schools in the United States have been built on the assumption that all children should, save those at the carefully defined “special” margins, be treated more or less alike.

Students are catagorized by their ages. You were born in June 1985, you are 14 now, so you are a 9th grader. If you were born in December, you are an 8th grader, still in middle school. That is, unless you are in a school district with different cut-off dates.

Grade level counts, socially and academically. There is 9th grade social studies and 10th grade history. There is honors history, but you have to be a 10th grader to get into it. Yes, a few 10th graders take AP classes along with 11th and 12th graders, exceptions that prove the rule. Age relentlessly counts. Anything special beyond that is a matter of exceptional negotiation.

If you are a 10th grader in Massachusetts, you take the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests. If you had been born but a few months earlier, you took that test last year. The MCAS is administered in a rigorously consistent way to all students of a certain grade, this in the name of fairness. Of course, one student may feel ill on examination day. Another might be intellectually adept but less able to express that power in a timed, carefully channeled testing routine than in another sort of setting. Yet another glories in the orchestrated, hushed pressure that the testing site reflects, a seriousness often lacking in class discussions. However, such differences make no dent in the testing “instrument.” One size fits all; one score makes or breaks one’s reputation.

The hold of age grading on the consciousness of the education system is ferocious. The metaphor of steps on a ladder dominates: Learning is always to be a sequential act, block building on block. One must travel up those stairs. There must be no “social promotion.”

There is, of course, logic in some of this. You cannot do well at calculus without algebra. It is unlikely that you will create a persuasive 10-page essay unless you can craft a persuasive paragraph. However, such sequencing does not always hold in every field, most obviously in the arts. And sometimes people leapfrog, seemingly serendipitously—a student “gets” a connection among characters in a play, a proof in mathematics, a sophisticated legal argument arising from a historical incident. Such a student doesn’t fit in.

The traditional high school confines itself in other ways, including pigeonholing the members of its staff. All of us have specialties. I am a teacher of mathematics. I am a counselor. I am a Dean of Students. I teach physical education and coach lacrosse. I teach art. No one of us, save the students and the librarian, is to express and be held accountable for a general education—even as a “general education” is the ultimate goal for the students. As a science teacher, I do not have to show any interest, much less competence, in the arts; indeed, I can be audibly contemptuous of them.

The school routines through which the student passes reflect this confinement. Little has much to do with anything else. Success at high school is measured by an accretion of scores in subjects taught largely in isolation from one another. A student can have a personal style or a consuming interest as long as it fits the prescribed pattern, but there is precious little room for the student who might harbor interests not reflected by a particular school’s division of faculty labor. Again, in many schools, exceptions are made. They remain exceptions, however. Unless an aggressive student or his or her parents or an influential teacher pushes for an exception, nothing happens. There is little incentive for intellectual idiosyncrasy or social idiosyncrasy.

Authentic Options

Does this sound familiar? There are explanations for each piece of the enormously complicated comprehensive high school. Ironically, one reason for the complexity is to accommodate “individual differences”—to make various curricular paths (however age graded and compartmentalized) available for students to match with their likely destinations in life. The school decides the worthy options to be available for all students and then counsels each one (usually advisors who carry loads of 100 to 300 students do this) to take what appears to be the most sensible path. Each path is carefully demarcated and usually age graded (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985).

Something for everybody is the ideal of the U.S. high school. But options are different from personalization, from taking each young person where he or she is and imaginatively using that understanding. Personalization requires knowing each young person well. If we can achieve that goal, then flexible options among programs make sense. However, options offered without knowing the students well are not authentic options at all.

We all understand this poignantly when we fall ill. If our physician does not know our condition well, how can he or she prescribe a proper treatment? By the same token, if our counselor does not know our minds and dispositions well, how can he or she prescribe a likely regimen?

Facing up to the rigidities of high school is fiercely difficult work. It is not that most educators do not know that “whole school change,” especially at the secondary level, is compellingly needed. It is because everything important in a school affects everything else that may be important. When one tries to refashion one part of a school, most other parts unravel. As a result, most reform efforts avoid that prospect and settle for tinkering, often very imaginatively, at the margins—a revised course here, an alternative program there, great gobs of professional development.

However, such tinkering never gets to the heart of the matter, especially if the goal is to know each student well and to use that knowledge in shaping and directioning that young person’s education.

Realistic Student Loads

I cannot teach students well if I do not know them well. Each of my adolescent students is in the midst of a growth spurt and the struggle for independence that characterizes every person’s route from childhood to adulthood. Each is a complex and evolving human being. Each learns in a somewhat different way; there are discrete “styles” and “intelligences,” Robert Sternberg (1997; 1999), Howard Gardner (1983; 1999), and others tell us; their research squares with our experience in classrooms.

How many young people can I know and serve well at once? Assume that I meet with my students in groups each day, this absorbing the majority of my school-time hours. How many minutes a week, either sandwiched amid regular obligations into the school day or spent after school and at home, do I need to read and comment on each student’s work and, periodically, to meet with him or her one-on-one? What would happen if I, on average, set aside 10 minutes a week for each student for this personal attention? That works out to an hour a week for every six students. If I have 120 students, that’s 20 hours. Impossible.

If I have 50 students, that’s a bit more than eight hours a week. Let’s say that I, on average, see each student and his or her work every other week. That brings the load down to between four and five hours a week, assigning an hour (in snippets of time, at school or at home) each day to “personalization.” Given my other obligations, that is a stretch, but, if I am reasonably experienced, an acceptable one.

But, I think, that is impossible! I then look at the number of students in my (typical) high school for each full-time equivalent professional staff person. It is 14:1. Given that ratio, I conclude, 50:1 for each teacher is possible, at least arithmetically. However, everyone at school is now working flat out. Something has to give. The only recourse is to simplify the school; to narrow its options; streamline its routines; and increase the number, authority, and responsibility of classroom teachers. But won’t these narrowed options

decrease the possibility of “personalization”? They will only if we do not define “personalization” as access to a set of free-standing separate programs.

A choice clearly emerges. “Personalization” can be a student’s choice among a variety of special programs, but that forces most teachers to carry loads in excess of 100 students. Or “personalization” can start with loads half that size in a school where we can accommodate adaptations to individual needs within a simple, common program.

A Hobson’s choice? Not necessarily. Paradoxically, simple, focused schools can provide more opportunities for individual students than can the more typical comprehensive high school.

Time and Scale

So I have my 50 students. I see them daily in groups, usually in classes of 15 to 25. My homeroom is largely drawn from this same group. I know these young people. They are not quick studies before me, two-dimensional characters. I hope to know their minds and dispositions well, so well that I can sense a change in mood, from engaged to disengaged, or from loneliness to joining in with friends—or whatever—when such appears to emerge.

“Knowing” young people this well results (perhaps paradoxically) in the realization that I never know them well enough: They are too complicated and changeable for that. To help me get the fuller picture, I need, at the least, the counsel of teachers who share these same kids. That means time to talk with those teachers and time to coordinate approaches to help each of the students and their families.

Impossible? It is possible if the design of the school is simple—and thus flexible—and common to all. Time for “talk about our kids” needs to be part of the schedule. If it is not, such talk will rarely happen.

The Authority to Act

All this “personalization” will come to naught if I and my colleagues who share students do not have the authority to act upon our conclusions about an individual or a group of students. Within the basic course of study (one kept sufficiently flexible to allow individual variations), we have to control our time and that of the students. Our decisions have to stick.

If we must always ask for permission or refer every change to higher authorities, there is no “personalization.” The people providing the permission are those who, in fact, know the affected students the least. Higher authorities can monitor us (that is, surely, part of their job), and they can help us when we need help (also a part of their job). However, if we cannot control our own piece of turf within our school, we cannot readily act upon judgments arising from “personalization.”

Complexity Within Simplicity

Few Americans would disagree with the proposition that each child should be exposed to the worlds of language, science, mathematics, the arts, and history. Within each discipline are a plethora of topics to study. A number of equally engaging topics cut across the disciplines. There is much to learn, far more than time to learn it. Further, we forget most of what we “cover” in school, retaining only that which we use or fragments that appeal to us. The important residue is an understanding of how a discipline works and habits in its use.

Understanding something—and being able to use it in unfamiliar situations—takes time. Engendering the habit of its use requires enough engagement with a discipline, on one’s own terms, to be so persuaded of its efficacy that its use becomes almost second nature. Beyond the rudiments, what, in particular, one studies is less important than that it sparks legitimate interest in each learner. Without such interest, most adolescent students will not engage (and do not deeply engage, even as they may appear dutiful and as they may churn out “work” that gives evidence of immediate, limited engagement but not understanding).

My task as a teacher is to cajole each learner into an essential discipline both on the terms of that discipline and on the student’s terms. I must interest the student in something that the society deeply believes is important and that the individual adolescent also senses—or can be persuaded to sense—is important. I must ram what is essential down the kid’s throat and at the same time pander to his or her immediate interests.

To be successful at this, I must settle on some crucial common knowledge—reading Romeo and Juliet, watching West Side Story, and studying mid-20th century south Asia and the late 20th century Balkans, for example—as a way of addressing human conflict. Concurrently, I must find any and all means to gather into each student’s consciousness and conscience a conflict that may deeply move that child, asking him or her to write about it, argue about it, understand it. If such a ploy works, it is an easy step, for example, to the reasons for and the design of democratic governments, including bills of rights. There are crucial connections here within history and the humanities. With different material, there are analogous ones in every domain. From the connections that I the teacher push forth and those that may energize a student can come serious learning.

Such activity takes time, more time than allotted in most high schools, where coverage is king. Grotesque coverage—Cleopatra to Clinton by April 1, three Shakespeare plays in six weeks, evolution as one of 36 chapters in an eight-pound biology textbook—is a recipe for teacher frustration, academic trivialization, and student detachment. Yes, we all “covered the material.” We passed the test at the end. But, if such were ever given, we could not pass that test 18 months from now, and we could not explain what the purpose of the time we had earlier spent together might be. For most—all save those engaged by the standardized lesson—the time would have been largely wasted.

Give me the smallest defensible number of the absolutely most critical matters, disciplines, and skills that I should teach. Give me time, autonomy, supportive colleagues, and few enough students so that I can understand each one well enough to tailor some of my teaching to him or her—and I will show you students who perform well, today and tomorrow.

A simple program allows complex learning. A simple program makes possible the adaptations in teaching that arise from authentic personalization.

It is inconvenient that students learn in different ways and that they are attached to differing enthusiasms. But, unless we face up to that inconvenience, we will not teach well.

Progress by Performance

If strict age grading flies in the face of the commonsense experience of teachers and researchers, what is to replace grade levels? The only alternative is progress by performance. It means an individual educational plan for each student, not just the “handicapped” or the “precocious.”

This approach is as difficult to accomplish as it is easy to embrace. Its practice demands that the school be clear on the shape, standards, and character of the “performance” and on the basis upon which such performance will be judged. Being clear on this is very hard and very unfamiliar work for teachers. We are more used to “U.S. History up to the Civil War” in the 10th grade or “Physics” in the 12th grade. The state frameworks or district curriculums are usually an amalgamation of “content” and “skills” to cover over a defined period of time. They rarely address—beyond necessarily constricted standardized paper-and-pencil tests—how the student expresses mastery or uses that mastery over time.

Further, few schools insist on the regular “cross grading” of papers by staff. In most schools, each teacher is assessment king in his or her classroom. “Cross grading”—the collective assessment of pieces of work by a variety of teachers, students, and parents—is very rare. So if a B does not mean the same to Ms. Schmidt as it does to Mr. Saginaw, what does a B at their school really mean? If Ms. Schmidt and Mr. Saginaw don’t take the time to tune their standards, inequitable fuzziness will be the rule.

There must be agreement on what a student puts forth for consideration of the quality of his or her “performance,” agreement that participants and outsiders constantly monitor. For obvious reasons, the students and their guardians must also understand the criteria for this performance. When “What is good enough?” is a question on the table, all sorts of issues emerge. Is what is appropriately good enough for Jose precisely the same as what is good enough for William? If not, how can the same ultimate standard be applied to different expressions of that standard (for example, Jose depending heavily on written work and William using oral and artistic devices)?

Personalization—meaning fundamental fairness arising from the differences among students—requires the expression of common, general “standards” in a variety of forms. Creating such standards is difficult work, far more difficult than saying that “high standards” are to be assessed by one “instrument” in one way and at one time. Time has to be made for it—the same sort of time that each of us prays happens among our physicians when they caucus to decide on a treatment for our disease.

Leadership to Personalize Learning

A school or school system that resolutely accepts the lively but annoying diversity among its students must break away from many deeply ingrained notions about the keeping of school, from One Best Curriculum to One Best Test to One Best Schedule. Something far more complex and more fluid must take their places. Schools must adapt to the legitimate differences among students; these adaptations will themselves be in constant flux.

Idiosyncrasy is an obvious fact: Those of us who are parents of at least two children and who thereby see daily the variety of energies and enthusiasms emerging from the same gene pool and kitchen table are keenly aware of that. But accommodating those realities within a school system designed to be universal in its routines is intellectually very demanding and politically very dangerous work.

Some will find the implications of “personalization” so unsettling as to be far-fetched. Nothing can come of it, they will say. But today something is coming of it, most usually in small schools at the edges of big systems or in autonomous small-schools-within-big-buildings. Nothing that I have suggested is not being tried somewhere. And where the trying has gone on long enough, the results are beginning to show where it counts—on what is happening to the graduates of schools that have”personalized” (Meier, 1995).

Those of us who are struggling with personalization will be the first to say that the work is as difficult as it is unfamiliar and that the trade-offs necessary to get the time to do the job well are nerve-racking. At its heart, “personalization” implies a profoundly different way of defining formal education. What is here is not the delivery of standard instructional services. Rather, it is the insistent coaxing out of each child on his or her best terms of profoundly important intellectual habits and tools for enriching a democratic society, habits and tools that provide each individual with the substance and skills to survive well in a rapidly changing culture and economy.

It can be done. It is being done, however against the traditional grain. *



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

More Cartoons on Using Technology

Yeah, I know I have been showing lots of cartoons about using technology. But I cannot help myself since I do laugh at how technologies have penetrated our (I include myself) lives. Taking a step back to laugh at ourselves as immoderate users of new technologies is, I believe, healthy. So enjoy this batch of cartoons.











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Teachers Practice MicroPolitics*

Besides managing a classroom of 20 to 30 or more students, besides teaching lessons every day, teachers also practice politics.

Arguing that superintendents and principals, in addition to their managerial and instructional roles, are political in leading districts and schools is credible because of all the stakeholders involved in districts and schools. Those stakeholders have to be mobilized, massaged, and influenced—given the value conflicts over which goals to pursue, how much money to spend, how to teach, what students should learn, and how much testing to do–all of which naturally divide voters and parents. But putting politics and teaching together? That’s a bit too much. I know this is going to be a hard sell but bear with me.

In previous posts on principals and their political role I pointed out that at the end of the 19th century big-city Republican and Democratic political machines handed out teacher, principal, and janitorial jobs to supporters. Textbook publishers bribed school board members to buy their products. School board members put their nieces on the payroll. Teachers often paid district officials to get a post in the district. They were hired year-to-year and fired if the superintendent’s in-law needed a job. Corruption was the norm.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Progressive reformers divorced party politics from the conduct of schooling. Governance reforms led school boards to dump party hacks from their ranks and recruit business leaders and civic-minded professionals to serve. Civil service regulations ended the buying and selling of school jobs.

Not only because of the Progressive movement a century ago but also because separating politics and schools became embedded in professional training of teachers, the power of that norm remains strong today. It should come as no surprise, then, that few, if any, teachers take public stands on educational reforms except through their unions and professional organizations. When they do speak out, it is as private citizens. Individual teachers are expected to implement policies that school boards, governors, state legislatures, and Congress–authorize. They are NOT expected to campaign publicly as teachers in the district to get particular policies adopted.

Now, here is the rub. None of the above means that teachers do not engage in politics. They do–inside the school–because teachers influence what students do in their classrooms, what other teachers teach, and what parents consider important. None of these micropolitics, however, crosses the line of partisanship.

Teachers, of course, do not like to talk about being “political.” Euphemisms like “working with parents,” “kissing up to superiors,” “Gathering support for the new program”—as I have heard them over the years–are favored phrases.

But it is politicking, whatever you call it. Consider that many teachers in a school faced with adopting “personalized learning” or a mandated math program, or the state’s new standardized test will enlist other teachers to support or oppose the venture. Non-political euphemisms avoid the obvious conflicts in power, influence, and values that permeate teaching and being a teacher in a school and district.

And when it comes to classrooms, teachers—expected to keep classroom order, cover curriculum, use new technologies, differentiate instruction, get students ready for tests, wipe noses and give students a shoulder to cry on–allocate their time and energy while nervously glancing at the wall clock. Potential conflicts hover over classrooms. Teachers are authorized by the state to teach content, skills, attitudes and values to reach particular outcomes. They are expected to both control and support learning. They figure out which students will be helpful and which might hinder reaching their goals. This is a political analysis that seeks to avoid conflicts.

But conflicts occur anyway. To reach their goals, teachers use their formal and informal powers to reduce tensions. So teachers work out conflicts, for example, by negotiating compromises with students over behavior and achievement. They bargain with other teachers, parents, and school administrators for more resources to help their students. In short, they do politics (see here and here)

Determining who gets what, when, and under what circumstances to achieve desired objectives is the classic formula for political behavior. And that is what teachers do everyday in managing lessons, practicing the craft of teaching, and finessing conflicts.

Remember those films that celebrate heroic teachers such as “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” and “Freedom Writers.” They show these teachers acting politically time and again. These bigger-than-life teachers mobilize their students, bargain–even fight–with school principals, and negotiate with outside organizations to acquire money and help. These film heroes know that exerting political influence inside the classroom and outside the school is crucial to their success in pushing and helping students to do their best.

Non-film teachers, however, who labor day in and day out may not use the vocabulary of politicking and may even detest the words but they also practice micropolitics every day (micropolitics and leadership). Few, however, get on the silver screen or brag about it.

So what? Why is it important to establish that teachers act politically in their lessons, classrooms, and schools?

Here is the hard sell: Micropolitics in classroom and school are essential not distasteful tasks that teachers perform. To reach the goals they want to achieve—literacy, civic engagement, job preparation, moral development–every teacher  in different ways and in different proportions, performs three basic roles: They instruct, manage, and politick. The simple recognition of political behavior as a natural part of working in places called schools would help both professionals and lay people to understand the real world that teachers inhabit every single day.


*This post is a revision of an earlier one written in 2010.


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More Comments on Personalization Continuum (Tom Hatch)

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

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

Dear Larry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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