Give me 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt.

I was reading this earlier today…

Two schools in the Washington DC area are taking a completely opposite approach to technology in the classroom. One, the Flint Hill School in Oakton, has classrooms filled with latest electronics, and equips all its students with Macbook Air laptops. In the other, the Washington Waldorf School, classrooms look about the same they might have looked at the turn of last century, where pens, notebooks, and a chalk-wielding teacher in front of a blackboard still play the starring roles.

…and it got me to want to blog.  Not about the little article, really, but about the subject of educational technology in general.

My purpose in writing this post isn’t to valorize one model over the other (though I have a marked personal preference for the Washington Waldorf model).  I’m sure that both schools are scrumdidiliumptiously wonderful places for students to learn.  What I want to try to articulate is a series of thoughts about the role of technology in education.  This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit in the last year or so… enough that I feel like taking a stab at setting down some thoughts in writing, anyway.

First, the obvious.  People really like to talk about technology in education.   Just look at the journals:  Technological Horizons in EducationJournal of Educational Technology and Society, Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, etc. etc..  Educational Technology Review.  Etc. etc. etc.  When’s the next conference on Educational Technology?  EDUCAUSE is going on right now.   ISTE is next month, as is ICEITGaETC is in November.

Technological fluency (or at least passing a class in educational technology, which isn’t the same thing) is a requirement for most teacher certification programs — as if to say that a teacher cannot be competent at his or her job unless he or she knows Glogster from Twitter, a PDF from an e-Book, Voicethread from Prezi, or a BBS from a Blog.

And let us be frank: if education is to prepare a student for living a flourishing life within his or her society, then that education should probably include — inter alia — the development of an understanding of and an appreciation for the technology that helps create and maintain the society’s infrastructure and economic success.

Yet I have heard, on multiple occasions, people offering lavish praise to their best teachers in something of the following form:

“The best class I can imagine is a log with Mr. (insert name) on one end, and me on the other.”

I haven’t just heard this once or twice… I’ve heard it almost verbatim well over half a dozen times from different people about different teachers at different levels of education.  It’s a lovely thought, and one of the things that is most lovely about it is that the focus in such an imagined scenario is exactly where it should be: on the interaction between the teacher’s mind and the student’s mind.

Teachers are not a necessary part of all education; much can be accomplished in isolation (although even reading a book is a sort of conversation with the author).  But teachers are (or can be) valuable, and to the extent that they have a role to play in learning, it’s an inherently interpersonal one.  I’m not saying you have to like your students, or care for them; you don’t.  (I generally do, but one need not.)  Nor am I saying you need to be empathic and give them hugs.  But you do need to acknowledge them as people, and create a conversation of learning if you want to be a successful teacher of anything.

Technology can make this task much easier in a lot of different ways.  A chalkboard allows a teacher to schematize his or her thoughts on the fly, to put an idea up where it persists long after the echo of his or her voice has faded into the classroom carpet.  A video projector allows the teacher to, with a little planning, instantly display complicated graphs, maps, movies, and important points in much the same way.  Grading software frees up teacher time to focus on teaching.  Turnitin allows the policing of academic integrity in a quick, relatively painless way and also gives the teacher insight into some of the writing process.  Clickers can get you instantaneous classroom response that isn’t colored by the social pressure that goes along with shows of hands.

But a classroom without clickers, or without a smartboard, isn’t going to be inherently inferior to one loaded with all the latest gadgets, because it’s not the gadgets that do the teaching: it’s the teacher.  And the teacher should use whatever technology he or she thinks will improve what he or she is up to vis-a-vis the students — no more, and no less.  Whether a piece of technology will be useful and fruitful is primarily a question of how a particular bit of technology relates to that teacher’s methods, personality, and style.

This is the big problem with technology mandates (e.g., “All teachers will use software platform X in their classes…”): not all technology “fits” every teacher’s individual style.  All too often, technology is treated a lot like curriculum is: as a way to standardize teaching and education to such a degree that the teacher becomes just a generic component of some set of committee-approved best practices.

I would love to listen to a lecture by Aristotle, or Avicenna, or Anselm, or even Neitzsche.  But it would be stupid for me to require that they use Powerpoint.

I worry about the razzle-dazzle of technology when it comes to teaching; I worry about it a lot.  I worry that it gets used for the sake of using it, and not to make things better.  I worry that students learn to become dependent on it in ways that undermines their ability to develop the very capacities that  teachers are charged with cultivating.   There is understanding to be had in doing things the old fashioned way, understanding that cannot be obtained if we allow our capacities to atrophy from disuse.

Teenagers are consistently impressed by the fact that, given a minute or so, I can multiply two three-digit numbers together in my head without using pen and paper.  They think it’s a sort of magic.  This is not an impressive skill, but rather a very basic one that one gets after doing enough pen-and-paper-algorithms.  Seeing the structure of the algorithm a thousand times lets you start to understand exactly why it works.  And once you understand why it works, you don’t need to use the algorithm any more.  You can just break it down in your head. But it’s not something you develop if you have used calculators all your life.

I worry that students are allowed to use technological tools to produce elaborate projects that shine and impress, but which have extraordinary little substantive content in them.  Students are often charged with things like creating powerpoint presentations, with huge chunks of the grade depending on the use of pictures, sounds, and video.  (Here’s an example of a rubric that gives 6 our of 27 points for aesthetic design, and here’s one that gives 50%.)

I worry that living in a digital world is, at base, incompatible with living in a world of medium-sized physical objects, and that we’re elevating a pseudo-Cartesian view of the self as a disembodied intellect to a station that far exceeds its warrant.  We might be thinking things, but that’s certainly not all we are.

I saw one of my students writing a paper out by hand once.  Without ever having seen anything she had produced, I knew that her writing would be better than average.   You have to think more about what you’re writing when you’re putting ink on a page than you do when every mistake is just a backspace or an update from oblivion.

I like technology.  I have lots of (hardly original) ideas on how to use it in teaching.  But when I hear education professionals talk about it, more often than not I yearn for what seems to me at times to be the perfect classroom: a handful of students, 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt.


  1. Diana Senechal says:

    Superb piece, Michael. Thank you for this.

  2. There are some classes where technology makes a HUGE difference:

    – a composition class, where the tech helps students reduce the time needed to make revisions
    – a science class – the data probes reduce the time needed to complete a lab, and allow aggregation of data across multiple classes – which leads to data that is more reliable
    – a math class – in upper level math classes (high school), graphing calculators can lead to major improvements in student understanding

    Other classes, eh.

    The trouble is, tech is expensive, and departments not getting the money for the tech start complaining about how their area is slighted. So, often, “to be fair”, all departments get the same amount of money.

    What a waste.

    • “a math class – in upper level math classes (high school), graphing calculators can lead to major improvements in student understanding”

      meh – this is mixed at best, I believe. Calculators are great for tedious things like matrix multiplication, or looking up the area under the normal curve for a given z-score (much quicker, more precise, and easier to use than regular old tables), but in terms of calculator use facilitating student understanding of what the area under the normal curve actually means – well, I’ve haven’t seen it yet, despite having taught gen ed stats for several semesters. The students that didn’t understand the concept before the calculators were dragged out were just as clueless afterwards, and, if anything, the introduction of a calculator served to reinforce the notion of math as something mysterious and magical, not unlike a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

      Nor do I think this is restricted to gen ed stats students. I’ve also seen calculus students (who are presumably thinking of studying math, or at least one of the hard sciences) who can graph this curve and that on the graphing calculator, but the moment you take that crutch away and have them try and sketch a graph by hand, they just fall apart. So I wonder: can it really be said that a student “understands” this aspect of calculus if he is unable to sketch even relatively simple curves by hand? The skeptic in me doubts it.

      • Obi-Wandreas says:

        I agree totally. Graphing calculators are lousy pieces of equipment. Their functions are needlessly difficult, and the screen is tiny with a lousy resolution. The result is that any graphs displayed on them are a jagged mess on a numberless scale, impossible to clearly read. If you want to use technology for graphs, an iPad or a proper desktop computer would actually be able to display a smooth line or curve over a readable grid.

        Overall, I prefer the use of calculators only to eliminate tediousness in longer problems where the point is the larger concept. I will not mourn the demise of log tables or trig tables. But the bottom line is that students are here to learn math, not play with toys.

  3. Ponderosa says:

    Michael, the lords of Silicon Valley, who now have digital evidence of your heresy, will make you pay!

  4. As ever: “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment (in school policy, numerous local policy regimes or a competitive market in education services) can answer.

    I suspect that politically-connected suppliers of hardware, software, and inservice training often convince elected officials and district administrators to mandate adoption of instructional and record-keeping technology.

  5. I found a report a while back, graded by one of my teachers from before the days of PowerPoint. The primary focus of her criticism was of the artwork and illustration in the report. In that case the art wasn’t even that bad – but the teacher cared more about art than she did about the substance. She also liked to nitpick, and if that meant that she had to go after issues not central to the assignment, such was her style. We may be talking about a newer technology, but to the extent that some teachers focus on the wrong elements when grading this is not a new issue..

    “…I would love to listen to a lecture by Aristotle, or Avicenna, or Anselm, or even Neitzsche. But it would be stupid for me to require that they use Powerpoint….”

    No, certainly, you would want them to be able to choose between PowerPoint and Keynote. 😉

    “…Students are often charged with things like creating powerpoint presentations, with huge chunks of the grade depending on the use of pictures, sounds, and video….”

    If the use of PowerPoint is peripheral to the assignment, it should be peripheral to the grade. If it’s central to the assignment or if the primary purpose of the assignment is learning the effective use of PowerPoint, we should expect that the portion of the grade relating to the effective be higher.

    “…I worry that students are allowed to use technological tools to produce elaborate projects that shine and impress, but which have extraordinary little substantive content in them….”

    So you weren’t impressed with the Facebook IPO? 😉

    “…I saw one of my students writing a paper out by hand once. Without ever having seen anything she had produced, I knew that her writing would be better than average. You have to think more about what you’re writing when you’re putting ink on a page than you do when every mistake is just a backspace or an update from oblivion….”

    That’s an interesting assumption, but having started school in an era in which all papers were written out longhand, I have to say that writing things out by hand is not a guarantee of quality. I will grant that some rare, remarkable people do amazing work in longhand, even of a first draft. But many others scrawl something out and, due to the work involved of rewriting and revising, call it a day. For those of us for whom writing by hand is a cramped, painful experience – and no greater pleasure for the reader – the word processor benefits everybody.

    It’s fair to observe that everybody involved in this exchange is typing.

  6. Some knuckleheads in edworld think that by USING technology students will magically be able to PRODUCE technology when they grow up.

    When I was in ed school I remember people saying that if we teach kids to recognize patterns they will be able to write pattern recognition software when they’re adults.

    One dingbat student, for his masters project, taught a math lesson (to real 3rd graders and it was videotaped — technology!) which consisted of teaching kids that “green hat, blue hat, red hat” is different from “red hat, green hat, blue hat”. This so-called lesson was combined with “literature”, that is to say, he read a story to the class about a hat salesman who carries his inventory on his head.

    Presumably, this lesson killed three birds with one stone because the kids learned math, literature, and computer-science concurrently. It was a big hit with the brass at the ed school.

    When I was a teacher the only “attaboy” that I got was due to the fact that kids were using graphing calculators and that I was teaching them technology in addition to physics. I never asked the students to use calculators, much less graphing ones, but without calculators many students couldn’t divide by one.

  7. Penny Burger says:

    ” Whether a piece of technology will be useful and fruitful is primarily a question of how a particular bit of technology relates to that teacher’s methods, personality, and style.”

    I would add to this thought that we should consider how the technology relates to the student’s methods, personality and style.

    Therefore, your comment:

    “You have to think more about what you’re writing when you’re putting ink on a page than you do when every mistake is just a backspace or an update from oblivion.”

    ,,,I would disagree with. Being able to type rather than writing longhand has been a godsend to me. My handwriting is horrid, mainly because my hand cannot keep up with my thoughts. I am better able to consider, reflect, revise and edit a word processed page.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Fair enough, though it could be argued that “keeping up with your thoughts” isn’t the best way to go about writing.

    • Does no one assign the 10″ in-class essay now? It was a staple of my HS and college English/History/French classes. A question or quote (source, author, significance) was written on the board (chalk!) and the class would be expected to produce a one-page, longhand response. They were all graded on content, grammar, spelling and style. No drafts, period and the same applied to the 2-3 page out-of-class essays. This was the early 60s and we had been taught how to write in 1-8.

      For the big research papers, the topic had to be approved by the teacher, as was the outline and the initial bibliography but no drafts were required. I believe that some students discussed their draft with the teacher, but it was an individual thing for students who had questions. This was true of both English and history and I checked with a family member who assigned term papers in all of his honors/AP histories and his were more of the same. Mine was a small-town school that sent very few kids to college and his was a larger school serving several small towns. I don’t think kids are being properly taught in ES-MS, so they arrive in HS incapable of real HS work.

  8. Great piece.

    As a science teacher who initially bought fully into the use of technology, I have developed many reservations. I teach chemistry which is a fairly abstract subject in that we are always dealing with “invisible” things. I was convinced that all the wonderful animations and flash tools would be a great way for students to visualize the abstract. It does work, but I have found that it does the hard work for the students in that they now do not have to go into the abstract world of their imagination to understand a concept. I can’t help but feel that this is robbing the students of what is really the heart of science.

    • Thanks Michael for another great blog post. Parker – as a fellow science teacher (although middle school), your comment is thought provoking. The animations that I can find on the internet have been instrumental in helping students understand complex concepts and the invisible as you state, but they are not stand alone at all. Animations, lecture, labs – I do all of this and I still have several students who refuse to participate in becoming educated.

      I don’t have the budget for those data probes that someone else commented on, but I’m not sure that I would like them all that much at the middle school level. I like the more hands-on approach of using thermometers and pH kits, etc. – we then also talk about the physics and chemistry behind the instruments. To me, data probes and calculators are devices of convenience that should be used after basic skills are mastered – I know that’s a bit archaic of me.

      • Sean Mays says:

        No data probe conveys the notion of speed as centimeters per second like a spark tape! Oh, those wonderful dots; getting futher apart each interval … s= (1/2)at^2 – so THAT’s how a parabolic shape comes out of data … sorry; no probe will build that intuition. Plus, dynamic carts are visual, kinesthetic and auditory once they crash on the floor. You’re probably working multiple levels of the Bloom’s Taxonomy too. Something for everybody.

        • I teach physics and I use technology as a tool to gather data. No magic boxes, just collecting data. My students still have to figure it out. The great thing about this data, is it allows us to change experimental parameters now, and see what happens. We can measure those “invisible” things, electric fields, magnetic fields.
          And we also experiment the ‘old fashioned way’ without technology. And they are required to write everything down.
          It all boils down to how you use it, as a tool or as a substitute teacher.

  9. The reason people like to talk about technology in education is because education’s been marvelously recalcitrant to the adoption of technology.

    Regardless of the technology, and there have been a bunch preceding the development of computers, the education sector has looked at them, to the extent funding was available, played with them and then whatever technology was being auditioned for prime time fell into the education ocean to disappear without a trace. Yet without exception technology’s had a profound impact on every other area of human endeavor to which it’s been applied improving the human condition to such an extent that it requires a real effort of will to even begin to appreciate those changes. But in education? Nada.

    That’s why, in a world in which men walking on the moon is decades in the past, Aristotle, Avicenna, Anselm and even Neitzsche could walk into a classroom and, language considerations aside, having taken a moment to marvel at the technology of chalk and chalk board, would have been able to go to work fully as productively and probably rather more capably then most of those doing the job today.

    So it’s a mystery why education, among it seems, all areas of human endeavor has been insulated from the rapid pace of technological change and the resulting benefits.

    People love a mystery since the solving of a mystery is an indication that you’re smarter then everyone who’s failed to solve the mystery. Sort of a species-wide gold star on the forehead for being such a clever, little human being.

    But solving the mystery of how to bring the benefits of technology to eduction ignores the reverse side of the mirror – why has education been so obdurate with regards to the utilization of technology?

    It could just be that the technology necessary to achieve the productivity-enhancing benefits of technology wasn’t available. Practical powered flight had to await the development of the internal combustion engine even though efforts to develop powered flight had been going on for a long time before the Wright brothers managed the trick so maybe it’s just that all the various technologies that have been hopefully applied to improving the quality and productivity of education were simply inadequate to the task. Perhaps there’s just some characteristic of human nature that requires age-divided groups of children, starting roughly at age five, to be seated in rows and columns while an adult alternates between lecturing, assigning work and testing leaving essentially no role for the productivity-enhancing benefits of technology.

    Somehow that seems unlikely but it does help bring into focus the actual benefit of technology – productivity increases.

    Those productivity increases work, stripped of all complicating side issues, by reducing the number of man-hours necessary to perform a task.

    In the agricultural sector that’s meant that what used to require 80% of the population as little as a hundred and fifty years ago now requires 1.5% of the population and even that number’s clearly destined to shrink. That enormous productivity improvement’s impacted virtually every area of the human experience in which human labor is used to produce something of commercial value except education. In education the opposite effect has occurred – more people, at greater expense, getting less done. The contrast has been visible for quite a long time, evidence the efforts to incorporate bunches of technological advances into education, and with always the same result. Failure.

    So the reason people like to talk about the use of technology in education is because there’s just so little of it. “Why” is a question that strikes at the foundations of public education which is probably why it’s a question that’s so rarely asked.

  10. Lightly Seasoned says:

    The handwriting point isn’t really defensible. I have students who like to write things out and others who want to type everything — writing ability/talent isn’t reflected in their process.

    I was on the phone with the Sadlier rep this past week, and she was going all out to sell me the all online version of their vocab series because it was so much more sophisticated, blah blah blah. and the other version wasn’t being produced anymore. I had to talk her into the leftover books. We have two carts of 4-year-old laptops for our entire English department. Online curriculum is NOT going to work for us.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I didn’t say that the writing was going to be good. I just said that it was going to be above average.

      Students who handwrite their essays in the quad aren’t cutting and pasting crap from wikipedia together with crap from other sources and then working it over to paraphrase. They are actually writing.

      That’s enough to put you in the above-average category.

      Student population matters for my analysis, of course. Keep in mind that I’m not a high school teacher; as a grad student, I teach undergrads at a fairly good university. I wouldn’t assume that some random high school student who was handwriting was going to be above average, because they might be a tragic mess of illiteracy.

      But at the college level, at a place like UCLA, if a student is handwriting their paper then it’s indicative of a certain degree of intellectual engagement, of a certain level of thinking that goes far beyond what a lot of students put into their writing.

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        I wasn’t thinking of my remedial/LD kiddos — their writing is a hot mess regardless of mode of composition. I was thinking of my top, very much above-average students. Granted, I’ve only had a few end up at UCLA, but that’s more of a geography issue.

        I don’t find it makes much difference in my own composition — I can think either way.

  11. greeneyeshade says:

    The reference to PowerPoint reminded me of a post of Joanne’s, so old it may have been from her Merc column instead of this blog (I’m not sure). It was about a kid or kids who did a PowerPoint on the internal combustion engine. The product was beautiful, but the physics were all wrong.