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February 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 5

Big Tech, Little Change?

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Technology doesn't change much in schools unless educators can push past convention.

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For four years, I led a new urban public charter secondary school that was founded with a 1:1 Chromebook program. With a career in public education and a master's degree in technology and innovation, I had high expectations about how this new program would change teaching and learning for the students and faculty in the school. So I was disappointed, and humbled, to find that technology in itself—even the most up-to-date, high-speed-Internet-enabled kind—changes very little in a school.
If I'd paid more attention to education history, I wouldn't have been surprised. Throughout the last century, attempts to change the fundamentals of how classrooms work have foundered on the seemingly immovable rocks of traditional practice. Yes, there are aspects of that tradition that technology can improve incrementally. But to make a real difference, technology has to be accompanied by changes to the very big rocks of the traditional roles of teachers and curriculum. And that takes a lot of work and time.

The History of Nothing Much

My school isn't alone in finding tradition difficult to challenge. A few years ago, I visited a wealthy suburban district that was implementing a program in which every 9th grader received an iPad to use throughout high school. The district carefully planned the rollout and teacher training. But when I visited, I noticed the iPads were mostly used in the hallway during students' free periods (though not as much as the iPhones they brought from home). I was hard-pressed to find a teacher who was actually using the iPads at all in the classroom.
When I did observe one, in a 9th grade honors social studies class, the students were reading photocopied textbook pages about the Five Pillars of Islam and filling in comprehension questions on their tablets. They also had to use their devices to find an online image and move it into the electronic worksheet. The teacher acknowledged that the iPads hadn't transformed students' learning, although he noted that they were learning how to use the iPads better.
Why did this school—and many others like it—have such a difficult time integrating technology into their classrooms in meaningful ways?

You Say You Want a Revolution?

Techno-optimists who look at wired classrooms and proclaim "revolution" underestimate the counter-revolutionary power of educational convention. Tyack and Cuban (1995) surveyed a century of pre-Internet school reform efforts and identified a series of attempts to "use time, space, and numbers of students as flexible resources and to diversify uniform class periods, same-sized rooms, and standard class sizes" (p. 87). That sounds a lot like the personalized learning predicted by today's futurists! Why is it so difficult to change schools?
One reason is complexity. Clayton Christensen and his co-authors in Disrupting Class (2008) identify four "interdependences" of our school system: temporal, lateral, physical, and hierarchical. School is structured to go in a certain order (grade by grade), with certain subjects related to other subjects, with classrooms of certain shapes and sizes, and with specific relationships between teacher, principal, the district or charter-management organization, and state and federal law. Never mind the added complexity of dealing with many young human beings at once, each with unique needs.
Teachers also lack the time and space to experiment with innovation. Every minute matters in a school. You don't get do-overs. Schools don't have research labs for teachers to try out innovations. Instead, teachers turn to what they know best: the way they were taught and the way the people around them are teaching. Pfeffer and Sutton (2000) call this "social proof":
When people are unsure about how they, or their organizations, should act, they automatically imitate what others do. … People also behave in ways consistent with their past actions because it is more efficient. They don't have to collect new information and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action. (pp. 73–74)
Pfeffer and Sutton also note the stress factor:
People are especially likely to freeze on past knowledge when (1) they feel pressure from deadlines, the need to make a decision, or other time pressures; (2) they are fatigued, thus lacking energy to process new information; (3) they are in any other condition that makes it difficult to process information, like feeling physical discomfort or fear. (p. 88)
This describes teachers so well—the omnipresent time pressures and fatigue and the fear of what could go wrong, both in classroom disasters and in the lives of children. Expediency rules the lives of educators so greatly that little room is left for innovation.
Finally, it is hard to make significant change in classrooms because schools tend to have conservative cultures (Evans, 2001). People who choose to spend their adult lives in classrooms usually had good experience in classrooms as children; school worked for them as it was, so they see little reason to change it. Schools also tend to be risk-averse, so educators stick to what they know. Students can carry around school-issued iPads, but they still have to spend their time listening to the teacher or paraphrasing the textbook.

The Little Things

And yet the difficulty of big change doesn't mean that small changes aren't worth making—or that small changes won't eventually lead to bigger shifts.
Our shift to Chromebooks meant, for example, a swift end to the jumble of paper in students' backpacks that used to clutter their—and their parents'—lives and create confusion. Just as adults use electronic tools to keep themselves organized, the students could use Chromebooks to organize their assignments and schedules. Students tend not to lose their Chromebooks, which means that they always have the materials they need. The dog never eats the homework when it's on the Chromebook.
These advantages don't affect what Tyack and Cuban (1995) call "the familiar grammar of schooling," however. Teachers still assign and collect work and decide on and distribute instructional materials. But technology can make those familiar pathways run a lot more smoothly.
That familiar grammar—how school looks, the basic setup—can also, through technology, be far more responsive to student needs. Grammar itself is one example. Our English teachers used NoRedInk, an online platform that helps with student grammar practice. What this program facilitates is still the familiar exercise of correcting sentences, but, through an opening survey, NoRedInk identifies both topics of interest and areas of weakness for each student. The technology then generates samples for them to read and work through, so that one student may be correcting sentence fragments about Taylor Swift while another fixes subject-verb agreement in sentences about soccer. A teacher would have a difficult time making a personalized grammar worksheet for each of her 25 students, but a computer program can—and it can correct them instantly, providing immediate feedback.
As I've suggested, personalizing instruction in a deep sense is hard. But personalizing practice in small ways that fit how schools are already organized can improve some activities that schools already do. Another example: Rather than assigning math problems to review in class the next day, educators can assign online practice using TenMarks and other programs that provide immediate corrections, additional practice, and tips when students struggle. With such programs, teachers can also see, before class, the common areas of challenge and design lessons accordingly.
Over summer breaks, we assigned our students math and reading practice, with individual pathways facilitated through a variety of online programs (including differentiated reading assignments geared toward each student's level). We were able to easily check their activity online throughout the summer and contact parents when children weren't working. Research has shown that over summer, students can lose 25–30 percent of the past year's gains in reading and math skills (Atteberry & McEachin, 2016), but our students, compared to national norms, grew by five percentile points in math and two percentile points in reading from June to September (according to NWEA's Measures of Academic Progress). This wouldn't have been possible without the Chromebooks and personalized practice platforms.

Redefining the Problem

Grammar practice, homework, summer work—these are all important, and improving them was significant. But they aren't the core of teaching and learning—the interaction of curriculum, teacher, and students. It's this core that has remained so familiar, and so difficult to budge, for the last century.
And so I realized we had a lot of work to do for our school's new technology to really make an impact on teaching and learning. Our first step, in the school's second year, was to redefine the problem. It wasn't about trying to "help students learn with technology." It was about figuring out how technology could enable significant changes to the role of the teacher—and to curriculum.
We created new models of what a "class" was, for specific learning purposes, and with clearly different actions for teachers. For example, in core academic classes, the learning need we identified was that our middle school students were struggling with literacy and math. In intensive or "support" English and math classes, we created station-rotation models. Students spent parts of class periods on personalized, online practice programs and parts of class periods in small groups with teachers.
The technology aspect of these changes didn't feel revolutionary, but it was important. The crucial part was that the high engagement with online programs (no surprise: adolescents like screens!) meant that the teacher could work closely with six or eight students separately for 20 or 30 minutes. When technology frees teachers to work intensively with a third of their class for a large chunk of time, teachers have both the opportunity and the responsibility to do things differently than they would working with a large group of students. This enabling of small-group instruction at the middle school level, with a cost-effective use of personnel (no big reductions in class size or changes to the master schedule necessary!), was something that actually changed our instructional core.
This small-group model was a big change. Moment-to-moment classroom management and multitasking were gone (or done by an aide in a particularly challenging class); the teacher's main classroom job was now careful excavation of student thinking. Curriculum changed to focus on careful planning of standards-aligned guided practice for the small-group sessions. Neither the planning work nor the in-class instruction involved teacher interaction with technology. Neither would have been possible without the technology.
Our other classrooms, even the best, looked much like other classrooms have for decades. In most places, our 1:1 technology was not enough to overcome the interdependent elements of school as it has always been. Teachers continued to provide the resources and the instruction, basically within traditional (and state-mandated) subject areas and using traditional delivery modes. Students continued to learn the same things as previous students had, and they still showed their learning in basically the same ways.
However, there was one other way that we truly changed our instructional core—and technology was central to this change as well. We created an elective class for all grades that unbound student learning from what the teacher knew, what the curriculum dictated, or what the rest of the students needed. In this "Student-Led Inquiry" elective, students chose what they wanted to learn using online resources. The curriculum was merely a set of benchmarks, from proposal to final project, to help students structure and stay on track with their learning. The teacher was a true facilitator, advising and nudging students and preventing impossible or ridiculous projects, but not particularly "teaching" anything. Her job was more to guide them in their curiosity.
Both the teachers and the students loved the experience. Students studied a wide variety of subjects, including architecture, ukulele, and languages such as Korean, Hebrew, and German. More broadly, they learned how to learn—deciding what they cared about, planning their learning, and identifying online resources that would help. That is, of course, what much of their learning for the rest of their lives will look like.
We started these big shifts after our first year of seeing how little change happened otherwise. But once we made them, they quickly became part of the culture of the school, because they fit the way today's students best learn.
It's easier to see the small ways that technology can help our schools—with organization, communication, and processes—and they should be appreciated. But technology won't significantly change a school—or education in general—without leaders doing the work to implement other, harder changes to the way we think about teaching, what students should learn, and how we organize the classrooms where that teaching and learning happens. If we do want significant change, we must rethink these structures, and do the harder work to change them.

Atteberry, A., & McEachin, A. (2016). "School's out: Summer learning loss across grade levels and school contexts in the United States today." In K. Alexander, S., Pitcock, & M. Boulay (Eds). Summer learning and summer learning loss, pp. 35–54. New York: Teachers College Press.

Christensen, C., Johnson, C. W., Horn, M. B. (2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Evans, R. (2001). The human side of school change: Reform, resistance, and the real-life problems of innovation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. I. (2000). The knowing-doing gap: How smart companies turn knowledge into action. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Simon Rodberg is a strategy consultant and leader coach who teaches educational leadership at American University. He was the founding principal of DC International School (DCI), a public charter school in Washington, D.C., as well as an assistant principal, district official, and teacher in D.C. and Massachusetts. DCI was among the top performers in the city, earning "best middle school" and "best high school" in the Washington City Paper poll and other accolades. His writing has appeared in Educational LeadershipHarvard Business ReviewPrincipal LeadershipPrincipal magazine, and The New York Times.

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