Tech Transformations | Viewpoint

Putting Change on the Backs of Teachers is a Bad, Bad Idea

On a recent visit to Singapore (they have been working on transforming Nan Chiau Primary School for the past five years and visit there about four times per year), Cathie and Elliot got talking about Peter Seow, who is finishing up his PhD at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. 

Cathie: Peter’s observations in Singapore just confirm what we have seen for so many years here in the states: When schools ask teachers to create curriculum to take advantage of the technology that the principal or the superintendent just bought…

Elliot: …it’s a disaster in the making!

Cathie: I remember when I was teaching high school math, and my principal asked me to “integrate the technology into” my curriculum. I remember wondering, “Exactly what does he mean?”   

Elliot: And you had just earned a master’s degree in educational technology.

Cathie: Yes, I can just imagine what teachers who have been teaching for 20 years without technology…

Elliot: …and doing a good job…

Cathie: …must say to themselves when faced with “just integrate the technology” into your existing curriculum —

Elliot:  — they are saying **EXPLETIVE DELETED**

Cathie (rolling her eyes): Excuse me, Elliot? Where are teachers supposed to find the time to create new activities that integrate technology into their existing curriculum?

Elliot: And where are teachers supposed to learn how to create meaningful activities to exploit the affordances of the technology? 

Cathie: Some teachers will just create more time, somehow, and indeed figure out how to leverage the unique capabilities of, say, the iPad, but many teachers will rely on articles such as “11 Programs for Primary Teachers.”

Elliot: In fact, most teachers rely on other teachers for recommendations. “Word of mouth” is the way  most everyone learns stuff — and teachers are no exception. 

Cathie: Word of mouth. That certainly is a data-directed, scientifically rigorous methodology!

Elliot (quizzically): Are you being sarcastic? 

Cathie (grinning broadly): Oh no…

Elliot: Yes, I think you are being sarcastic!

Cathie: But the really bad thing is this: So a teacher takes it upon herself or himself to figure out how to design and enact good technology-based activities, and then the teacher is transferred to another grade, or subject or school…

Elliot: …or worse, leaves teaching…then there is no footprint left! Teacher-centric change is a bad, bad idea. 

Cathie: And principals, superintendents and parents wonder why technology has not had an impact on student achievement! The reality is… 

Elliot: … adding an app or even two that is used for 20 minutes a few times a week in principle can’t have an impact; that’s a supplement, an add-on.

Cathie: And supplements are just that: supplements, something extra. All the research data —

Elliot: — yes, yes…SBR…Scientifically-based research…

Cathie: Yes, all the SBR on the use of technology in the classroom has not turned up a situation where a supplement has led to significant improvement in student achievement. 

Elliot (getting wound up): INDEED, INDEED! Research such as that done by Project RED has shown that only when technology is used as an essential element in the instruction — not just as a supplement — is achievement significantly impacted. 

Cathie: And what about the classroom teacher who is trying to “integrate technology into your curriculum”? I remember how frustrated I was when using the technology. 

Elliot (triumphant): GREAT! Using technology may well increase student engagement, but as an add-on it does not lead to increased student achievement. And, adding insult to injury, we have made teachers upset and frustrated! 

Cathie: My personal experience is that dropping a cart of laptops…

Elliot: …or even a cart of shiny new iPads…

Cathie: …into a classroom is a good way of turning off teachers to the use of technology.

Elliot: Readers of this dialogue: Cathie and I have worked with teachers in literally hundreds of classrooms in the US over the past 15 years. We have seen firsthand their excitement and then their frustration.  

Cathie: Tell us YOUR story about using technology in the classroom. Tell us about your successes, tell us about your frustrations. Write to us at tellMYstory@umich.edu. if you want, we will incorporate your story into our writings in THE Journal. Deal? 

Elliot: DEAL!

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