What Is the Teacher’s Role in the 1-to-1 Classroom?

In our recent blogs, we have talked and talked … and talked and talked about 1-to-1. Dear reader, please brace thyself as this blog will again talk and talk about 1-to-1 — but with an important twist: Rather than coming at the 1-to-1 from the technology’s perspective, we are coming at 1-to-1 from a teacher’s viewpoint — hence the blog’s title!  (Ho ho! CN’s influence on ES’s "techie psyche" is finally paying off!)

What better way to start a discussion about the role of the teacher than to draw on John Dewey, arguably one of the deepest education thinkers of the 20th century — if not all time:

  • "They [teachers] give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking … learning naturally results."  (J. Dewey, 1916)

Teachers have always followed Dewey’s advice and created tasks for their students to do — to learn by doing, so to speak. But, before computers entered the classroom, teachers were typically, along with the textbook, also the major source of information for the class. Thus teachers stood at the front the classroom and told students content. That content delivery occupied a considerable amount of a teacher’s time.

But, with the arrival of the computer and the Internet, students now have the opportunity to directly access that content, i.e., neither the teacher nor the textbook needs to mediate the students access to videos, texts, podcasts, simulations, games, etc., etc., etc. And, with the arrival of 1-to-1, all the learners in the classroom can have such access and in so doing, relieving the teacher from having to be the fount of information. And, 1-to-1 fits perfectly with the activities that teachers have always done — just more so! 1-to-1 enables the teacher to do what she/he has always done: provide "pupils with something to do," move between whole-class instruction and student-directed work, and walk around the classroom providing scaffolding, nurturing, assessing, motivating and when necessary disciplining.

Thus, the new normal of 1-to-1 doesn’t change the teacher’s role as much as enable the teacher to focus on some existing roles — the sorts of roles that truly make a difference in a learner’s life. By saving teachers from having to be the "sage on the stage," 1-to-1 provides teachers with the opportunity to truly implement a "learn by doing," experiential, inquiry-based pedagogy.

  • "The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge." Seymour Papert, 1996

On the one hand, the quote from Papert — another in that small group of great educational thinkers — echoes Dewey’s: In giving students "something to do" the teacher is invariably setting the stage for problem solving and invention — actions required to do the "something to do." But Papert’s quote also sets the stage for introducing the computer into the mix, i.e., what is the role of the computer in the 1-to-1 classroom?  

  • "Our goal in education should be to foster the ability to use the computer in everything you do …" Papert, 1997

OK, but why should teachers “foster the ability to use the computer in everything”?

  • "learning … happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity."  Papert (1991) 

Papert (1991) introduces the term "constructionism" — not constructivism — to denote the important role that computers play in learning — in a student constructing a public, manipulable artifact, e.g., a Logo program, a text document, an animation, etc.,  which in turn, reflects the mental understanding that the student is constructing.

To summarize: In a 1-to-1 classroom, the teacher no longer needs to be the sage on the stage; each student having an Internet-connected computing device has direct and immediate access to content. In a 1-to-1 classroom, the teacher can continue doing what she/he has always done:  providing tasks for students to do, typically individualized and differentiated to the needs and abilities of each learner or groups of learners, and during class, moving between whole-class instruction and student-directed work, and scaffolding, nurturing, assessing, motivating, and when necessary disciplining. 

Here comes the dilemma: On the one hand, as we have argued, teaching in a 1-to-1 classroom really isn’t that different from what a teacher typically already does. But on the other hand, a 1-to-1 classroom changes everything:  that “something to do” that teachers provide their students now needs to involve "the use of the computer" and it’s not clear — an understatement — that teachers are being prepared to provide those computer-based "somethings to do."


Inasmuch as half the U.S. students already have 1-to-1 and the other half will be at 1-to-1 in four short years, the issue of supporting K-12 teachers in dealing with 1-to-1 is clearly a most serious and pressing issue. While we just hate to leave you, dear reader, on the edge of your chair, so to speak — we will indeed do just that! Stay tuned: A blog post about preparing teachers for the 1-to-1 classroom is coming up! 

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at