Does Integrating Computers into Lessons Mean That Teaching Has Changed? by Larry Cuban

For many years the rhetoric and substance of national reports written by bands of technologists eager to see electronic devices work their wonder on children and adults in schools have baffled me. In these national reports issued periodically by U.S. government sponsored agencies (e.g., Office of Technology Assessment, the National Education Technology Plan) or privately-funded groups (e.g., ISTE or the International Society for Technology in Education, CEO Forum on Education and Technology), I noted two things.

First, on the critical issue of getting new technologies integrated into regular school and classroom routines, advocates differed. Some spoke about integrating technology to advance the content of lessons in reading, math, social studies, science, math, art, music, and other subjects. Others championed learning skills such as critical thinking, analysis, creativity, and inquiry barely mentioning content. I did not find that conflict puzzling since the issue of content vs. skills–is (and has been since late-19th century educational Progressives banged the drum for learning life skills and creativity) a perennial dilemma among curriculum designers, subject-matter specialists, academics, and teachers.

Second, many of these reports used the language of fundamental change such as “transformation” while scorning any incremental or short-term teacher-crafted practical efforts that worked within the system as it is. Anything smacking of incrementalism seemed foul to those ideologues seeking only “revolutionary” changes in schools. Where my puzzlement grew in these well-funded reports written by smart folks came from figuring out how the perennial dilemma of content vs. skills got entangled with fundamental vs. incremental change.

Then I read Judi Harris’s 2005 editorial in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.  I don’t know Professor Harris personally but her work at the University of Texas (Austin) and William and Mary in integrating technology into schools positions her as someone in the community of technology educators to listen to carefully.

In her editorial, Harris tries to explain “why many–if not most–large-scale technology integration efforts are perceived to have failed.” Recall Seymour Papert’s LOGO in the 1980s, Apple Classroom of Tomorrow in the 1990s, and schools that abandoned 1:1 laptops in the past few years. She offers two reasons: technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism.

Borrowing Seymour Papert’s coined word, “technocentric,” Harris points to the blinders that eager policymakers, administrators, and teachers wore (and continue to wear) in embracing the next new gadget.

Technocentrists, she says, seek “educational uses for particular technologies.” Instead, “educators must focus upon how best to assist students’ learning.” Many teachers and principals have said repeatedly to the point of the words being cliched: “integrating technology is not about technology, it is about learning.” Yet those who buy and deploy new technologies–note that most teachers are seldom involved in such decisions–continue to seek “educational uses”  for the electronic devices. Thus, technocentrism rules.

Harris’s second reason is “pedagogical dogmatism.” Among academics, particularly, and many educators there is a decided tilt toward progressive pedagogy, now called in its various incarnations, constructivism. As an example she quotes Christopher Moersch, author of  LoTi (Levels of Technology Implementation), a popular tool used to measure classroom use of technology. The designer expresses an unvarnished preference for one kind of teaching:

“As a teacher progresses from one level to the next, a series of changes … is observed. The instructional focus shifts from being teacher-centered to being learner-centered…. Traditional verbal activities are gradually replaced by authentic hands-on-inquiry related to a problem….”

Harris find the same bias toward constructivist teaching in other commonly used tools, even in the 739-page major work called Education and Technology: An Encyclopedia.

Why, she asks, should K-12 teachers’ roles change to integrate technology effectively? Certainly, the technologies themselves do not require such a fundamental change. Evidence of technology use in Europe, Asia, and the Americas  (see herehere, and here; also JECR PDF) have pointed out how powerful devices end up being used to support teacher-centered instruction.

These two reasons, technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism, Harris argues, explain why for decades, enthusiastic policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have confused technology integration (involving  the perennial conflict of content vs. skills) with technology as an instrument for pedagogical reform (moving from teacher-centered to learner-centered instruction).  The editorial ends with her calling for a separation of the goals of technology integration from the goals of transforming teaching and learning. That call went out in 2005. Few eager advocates for more classroom tablets or more individually tailored online lessons, however, have since heeded the call.

Consider, for example, the recent push for “personalized” instruction customized to individual students (see School of One,  herehere and here). However labeled, “personalized” instruction using tablets and software are clothed in the language of “student-centered” instruction and project-based learning that Progressives a century ago and current advocates of “constructivist” teaching and learning would recognize in a nano-second. Students working online with an individually tailored math lesson is a mere step away from the customized lessons that Programmed Learning and Computer-Assisted Instruction gurus sold to districts between the 1950s and 1980s as individualized instruction (see herehere, and here).  In other words, the pedagogical dogmatism that Harris had noted in 2005 has hardly slowed down.

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