World’s best classrooms are low-tech

In nations with the highest-performing students, classrooms “contain very little tech wizardry,” writes Amanda Ripley on Slate Magazine.  “Children sit at rows of desks, staring up at a teacher who stands in front of a well-worn chalkboard,” just like in U.S. classrooms in 1989 or 1959.

“In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,” says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

Kristin De Jesus, a San Diego high school student, is attending a public school in South Korea as an exchange student.

“In California, we use white boards, while in Korea they use chalkboards,” she says. “There is a dirt field outside. We have a projector, that’s about it.” Back home, teachers would hand out Mac laptops for kids to work on in class. But in Korea, the only computers are older PCs, and they remain in the computer lab, which is used only once a week for computer class.

Korean students attend school for eight or nine hours a day and then study hard at night.  “When I was in California, I barely ever studied and did pretty well in my classes,” De Jesus admits.

Finland also excels on international tests — but without long school hours or high pressure, Ripley notes. Both South Korea and Finland have one thing in common: Smart teachers. All teachers come from the top third of the class,  according to a McKinsey survey which found only 23 percent of U.S. teachers were top-third students.

On a visit to a high-performing KIPP school in Washington, D.C., Ripley counted four computers in a fifth-grade math class, “an ink-jet printer, and an overhead projector that looked to be at least 15 years old.”

Later, I asked (Lisa) Suben, who has been teaching for eight years, what the perfect classroom would look like. “If I were designing my ideal classroom, there’d be another body teaching. Or there’d be 36 hours in the day instead of 24.”

Suben praises computer-adaptive tests, which produce instant results she can use to understand how each student is doing.”It might say, ‘You know how to round to the hundreds, but you don’t know how to round to the thousands?’ That’s, for me, an aha moment.”  But Suben’s desert-island teaching tool is the overhead projector. “I wouldn’t be able to give up the overhead, because then I’d have to turn my back to the class,” she said.

KIPP DC founder Susan Schaeffler, a former teacher, says it would cost $300,000 to put an interactive white board in every classroom in the school.  “I’d rather pay Lisa Suben more to stay forever.”

About Joanne


  1. Note that both of the articles examples of successful lower-tech classrooms are very clearly influenced by other major factors: the article buries a few sentences about how Korean students spend more time in school and with tutors, and that their parents tend to be very involved and emphasize the importance of education. The article doesn’t mention that KIPP school students spend more time on education (60% more time physically in school, according to Wikipedia) and that their parents must pledge to support their child’s education.

    A successful school is a great thing, but the article strongly suggests that low-tech is the secret, when I would say that time spent and parental involvement are the things making these examples successful.

  2. No, Finland and Korea have two things in common: a homogenous population and students with a median IQ of 100 or so.

  3. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Involved, supportive parents are a key factor while others of great importance are curriculum and an effective system of discipline (ie, loving guidance). That said, internet access is a huge help as a child’s questions can be answered promptly, usually with pictures and often with animation. Another tech blessing: my 7 yr-old granddaughter learned to type and can write without the mechanics of handwriting slowing her down. She practices when she is not in the throes of creative writing.

    The evidence for time spent on schooling is mixed. I’d guess that if the non-school environment is rich, a great deal of school time is not needed.

  4. As a parent of three students, if forced to choose, I’ll take a great teacher for my kids over whiz bang technology any day. But I also have no doubt that technology, when effectively incorporated into the classroom, can vastly enhance the educational experience. Success on “international tests” cannot be our only goal. Kids need to learn Web literacy skills, to enhance both their information-gathering skills and safety, and need to learn how to collaborate and communicate their conclusions in a manner that engages modern audiences; and this is not on any assessment exam. If they don’t, they won’t be able to hold a job or function to their potential in society. How many businesses do you know of that use a chalkboard and pen and paper to communicate, or textbooks as reference tools? The problem is not technology; the problem is that budgets go to purchasing expensive technology, while nothing is spent on teaching educators how to use it and incorporate it effectively.

  5. Mark Moran, speaking as the parent of three in their 20’s, you would be amazed at how quickly they all (and their friends all) picked up these technologies even though their actual classroom experience with technology was limited to a PC lab they visited once per week, plus a home PC once they were in high school. Then they had a 1 semester class in basic office software in HS. That’s it. The thing that amazes me about learning technology is that it’s very easy, they learn it from each other or from on-line tutorials, and I just don’t think the schools have to worry about being the conveyers of that knowledge, unless the students have no computers at home.

    Learning to read and do math, basic science, rich history, good art/music instruciton, on the other hand, are not so easy to teach. I think Dave’s points about how Finland and Korea have different inputs than we do in ways other than technology is true. But I don’t think the article was saying that it’s the absence of technology that makes those countries excel in teaching their children; it’s just saying that it’s not necessary to have advanced technology in order to get good results.

    FYI, when parents were discussing what hardware and software the kids should be exposed to during their 1/2 hour per week of computer time lo these many years ago, there were factions. “They must have _____! it’s what they;ll be using in the workplace!” said one group. Of course, whatever _____ was, it’s long gone. The exact technology doesn’t even matter.

  6. Ze'ev Wurman says:

    An observation for Granny,

    While I am not denying the importance of parental support, I doubt that most parents of failing kids don’t support them. What many of those parents may not be able to provide is effective teaching supplanting and supplementing what the teacher may have missed (or messed) in the classroom. In other words, “parental support” too often seems to be a codeword for fixing what the school broke or never provided. It shifts the onus on the parents, which is, I suspect, why many teachers use it often.

    I have no problem with teachers demanding parental support with discipline or attendance, but if they require it for teaching and learning curricular content I would argue that a portion of teacher’s salary should be given to the parent.

  7. I think that the classic subjects, taught in K-12, should be done the old fashioned way – that is, the way it’s been taught for the last couple thousand years. Basic Math (Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry), English, Social Studies (Geography, World History, U.S. History, Economics), and the Arts don’t need giant computer labs and smartboards…

    Complex subjects taught at major Universities, though, are another matter entirely…

  8. georgelarson says:

    Finland Homogeneous?

    Not quite:

    From Wikipedia:

    The native language of most of the population is Finnish, which is part of the Finno-Ugric language family and is most closely related to Estonian.
    The largest minority language and the second official language is Swedish spoken by 5.6% of the population.[43] Other minority languages are Russian (0.8%),[43] Estonian (0.3%),[43] Finnish Romani and Finnish Sign Language (used as a first language by 4,000–5,000 people).[44] To the north, in Lapland, are also the Sami people, numbering around 7,000[45] and recognized as an indigenous people. About a quarter of them speak a Sami language as their mother language.[42] There are three Sami languages that are spoken in Finland: Northern Sami, Inari Sami and Skolt Sami.[46] The right of minority groups (in particular Sami, Swedish-speaking Finns and Romani people) to cherish their culture and language is protected by the constitution.[47]

  9. Math Lovers Anon…I’d suggest that for *some* complex subjects taught at universities, ie the sciences, having a well-equipped science lab is more important than having computer labs, smartboards, etc.

  10. In science, I can see high-quality video clips used to show motion, after a concept has already been studied schematically and verbally; volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, kinesthesiology, butterfly hatching etc. I believe that a certain amount of art/music appreciation/technology should be incorporated into history and audio and video are part of that; great artworks,music, the working of an early printing press, etc. Other than that kind of supplement to books and paper, I’m pretty much with math lover. Schools spend far too much time looking for a magic bullet and far too little time on effectively and efficiently teaching a soldid curriculum. Kids should be told, on a daily basis, that their effort is demanded.

  11. Speaking of whiteboards and computers…some manufacturing executives and consultants are finding that at least in some situations, it is better to get rid of the fancy computer scheduling systems and use a simple whiteboard for production control:

  12. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Ze’ev Wurman wrote, in part:
    What many of those parents may not be able to provide is effective teaching supplanting and supplementing what the teacher may have missed (or messed) in the classroom.

    I don’t believe that parents need to teach their children. That is not what I meant by support. Parents need to see that their children realize that school is important, to see that children go to bed and get up early enough to be ready and on time for school. They need provide a breakfast (if not provided at school), to take an interest in whatever the children bring home, and provide a time and place for homework.

    Recall that US schools successfully taught generations of immigrant children whose parents spoke no English, indeed who may have learned English from their school children.

    You don’t have to be rich to sit down as a family for an evening meal and discuss your day. Many children have been motivated to pay some attention in class so as to have something to say at the dinner table. The demise of the family supper in favor of microwaved snacks has hurt parental support of school And the recent move toward providing suppers in school is not an improvement if it weakens family ties, including those that support education.

  13. Ooooh… lots of significant discussions here… where to start?

    As a teacher I do expect parents to participate in the teaching process, and expect a child to come into my classroom with a solid education from home. Do I expect parents to teach their children science (my discipline)? No. But I do expect parents to provide the overwhelming majority of a student’s character education. Concepts like responsibility, honesty, respect, and effort cannot be taught in school despite what so many in the ed world believe. These must come from home, and the lack of this character education is in my opinion the biggest challenge facing our nation.

    Finland is extremely homogeneous. While it does contain ‘minority’ groups that speak other languages, the portion of its population that is made up of these groups is extremely small. From Wikipedia – 92% of people in Finland speak Finnish as their primary language. Only 80% of Americans speak English as their primary language. The US Census Bureau estimates that we have twice as many illegal immigrants as Finland has citizens. Most of Finland’s citizens are concentrated in the southern part of the nation… while the United States has multiple and culturally distinct population centers in various parts of the country.

    Finally, on the impact of technology in the classroom – our country has a fetish with technology. Seriously. Every time I see a new technology being introduced to a classroom I practically see students, parents, teachers, and administrators wanting to cuddle with it (or even more explicit acts!). All this does is dilute the attention on the sole factor that is under the school’s control that does make a difference in the classroom – the teacher.
    We have confused teaching ability with the ability to manipulate and use various teaching methods and technologies. Imagine architects being evaluated on their knowledge of architectural theory (if there is one) and the tools of the trade and not on the buildings they design. By trying to create a rubric to evaluate teachers, administrators are failing to see the forest for the trees. It is very difficult to say what makes a good teacher, but it is easy to know who is a good teacher. Do they have the respect of the students? Do the students walk out of class each day knowing more than when they went in? Those are the only two questions that matter.
    Instead, I am evaluated on my use of technology. The arrangement of chairs and presence of wall art in my classroom. How often I call or email parents to let them know how their child is doing. How many educational techniques I can display in a single lesson. How many manipulatives my students use. Whether I stay and watch football games, or supervise extracurricular activities. If I can list every single medical or personal condition that each student is diagnosed with, and the various ‘treatments’ that are prescribed. How few sick days I take each year, despite the school’s contract plainly giving a specific yearly allowance.
    None of these will help my students learn. Instead, they hamper my ability to do the best job I can.

  14. So many terrific threads!

    EB, I agree that schools should not obsess about teaching particular technologies; kids can learn them on their own, and they do change. And if there was ONE thing I would want to see us do better, it would be to teach kids how to write effectively.

    However, the concept of how to engage modern audiences, using social media, short-form communications. and multimedia is something that SHOULD be taught. The “old school” ways don’t cut it any more. I am a 48yo former corporate attorney who mastered the old school ways, and spend much of my time learning from my younger staff how to communicate today. So if schools are teaching my kids the same way they taught me, 35 years ago – and this is sadly the case in too many ways – then my kids are not being prepared for the world in which they will live.

    The content available on the Web, including primary sources, videos, interviews, etc., dwarfs what is in a textbook, particularly for history; here is an article we produced called “101 Great Sites for Social Studies Class” – to not use this as part of the curriculum is inexcusable.

    Students are also not being taught how to conduct Web research. And they are not learning it on their own, as every study on the subject has convincingly shown. In the recent ERIAL study in Illinois, not one of 600 students could explain how Google determines its results, and yet almost all of them relied heavily on the first two results. The study’s author said “the word ‘magic’ came up a lot.” We link to most of these studies in this tutorial on how to teach Web research skills:

  15. Cranberry says:

    “In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,” says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

    The best schools in this country also place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice.

    Digital gadgets enrich the technology companies.

  16. Mark, I agree that web search skills should be taught (and evaluated!). This is one aspect of technology that kids learn imperfectly, if at all, on their own. And this has to include figuring out whether and how the resources have been validated.

    Social media? not so much. I think that can be learned on the job. Like software/hardware skills, these evolve too quickly to be amenable to instruction that will hold its power for long.

  17. What high-performing countries also have in common is stable, two-parent families who place a high enough value on education that their kids start school appropriately socialized and willing to work and that they continue to demand the habits and behaviors that enable academic and life success. It’s the culture

  18. Roger Sweeny says:


    Man, do I sympathize.

    One of the things that bothers me about my union is their adamant opposition to using any measurement of “what students have learned” to evaluate teachers. So we are left with the sh*t that you mention. I don’t feel that they are representing me.

  19. palisadesk says:

    The median IQ in Finland is 97 or 98 (depending on whose data set is used), about the same as the U.S. 25% of students in Finland receive Special Education services. Finland is not homogeneous (as previously pointed out), but it is different from the U.S. in some other ways. It has a low rate of poverty, universal access to preschool (through age 6), a late start to academic education (first grade starts at age 7), no tracking of students by ability or curriculum until late in secondary school, little formal testing, and an interesting mix of prescribed skill-based curricula and exploratory learning. Finland consistently outperforms a number of countries with higher median IQs. Teacher preparation and teacher quality are factors already mentioned.