Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Can Technology Change How Teachers Teach? (Part 2)

Summing up results from the Silicon Valley teachers across nine schools in five districts who responded to my questions, nearly two-thirds of the teachers I interviewed and observed said that digital tools had changed how they teach with frequent mention of saving time in doing familiar tasks and being able to individualize their work with students.

The rest of the teachers had either said no because they had been using high-tech devices for years before I observed them or on substantive grounds as some stressed the deeper, persistent features of teaching that they must perform regardless of what technologies are used in lessons. Even those who said “no” also acknowledged the efficiencies that these high-tech devices brought to their lessons. These teachers saw both change in their use of digital tools daily and stability in the essential features of planning and executing a lesson. Rather than only black-and-white, they saw gray.

Does this mean that most of these elementary and secondary school teachers identified as “best cases” of integrating technology in Silicon Valley have actually altered how they teach because of using new technologies? Almost two-thirds certainly believed so. Yet a full answer to the question requires looking at their perspectives and the views of others.

Insider vs. Outsider: Whose definition of change matters?

As a researcher I observed and interviewed each teacher. I was an outsider identified as a retired Stanford professor. The teachers were insiders telling me, an outsider, their stories.

Because I had not done prior observations of these teachers before they began using these electronic devices I could not confirm whether these teachers had actually changed or not changed from how they had taught previously. From all indications these teachers believed strongly that they had modified their daily practices due to the regular use of digital tools. I believe them.

However, as a researcher who has studied archived written and printed evidence of teaching practices between the 1890s and the present and an outsider to these schools and classrooms, I bring a different perspective to these observations and interviews. I have accumulated well-documented descriptions of the dominant trends that have typified teaching over the past century. I can, for example, compare what I see in these lessons in 2016 in Silicon Valley to the historical continuum of varied teaching practices from teacher- to student-centered stretching back a century. In addition, I have conceptually defined different kinds of school and classroom change ( e.g., incremental and fundamental) distinctions that most reformers, policymakers, and others, including teachers seldom make. Such knowledge I have acquired over decades, however, produces an internal conflict in me. [i]

What does a researcher make of the teacher, for example, who says with passionate confidence that he has shifted his teaching English to eighth graders from teacher-directed activities to student-centered ones; he cites as evidence of the change the different materials and frequent use of digital tools that he uses in daily lessons, ones that the researcher has observed. Yet during the lesson, the researcher sees those very same materials and practices being used in ways that strengthen the teacher-centered activities and under-cut the student-centeredness that the teacher seeks. Neither the teacher or researcher is lying. Each has constructed an authentic, plausible and credible story. I do not imply that such constructions are untrue; only that “plausible” and “credible” are not the same as true stories.. So who do you believe? [ii]

I am not the first (nor last) researcher to have met teachers who described substantial changes in their lessons in response to district or state policies. Consider “A Revolution in One Classroom; The Case of Mrs. Oublier.”[iii]

In the mid-1980s, California policymakers adopted a new elementary math curriculum intended to have students acquire a deep understanding of math concepts rather than memorizing rules and seeking the “right” answer. The state provided staff development to help elementary teachers implement the new curriculum. Then, researchers started observing teachers using the new math curriculum.

One researcher observed third grade teacher Mrs. Oublier (a pseudonym and hereafter Mrs. O) to see to what degree Mrs. O had embraced the innovative math teaching the state sought. Widely respected in her school as a first-rate math teacher, Mrs. O told the researcher that she had “revolutionized” her teaching. She was delighted with the new math text, used manipulatives to teach concepts, organized students desks into clusters of four and five, and had student participate in discussions. Yet the researcher saw her use paper straws, beans, and paper clips for traditional classroom tasks. She used small groups, not for students to collaborate in solving math problems, but to call on individuals to give answers to text questions. She used hand clapping and choral chants—as the text and others suggested—in traditional ways to get correct answers. To the researcher, she had grafted innovative practices onto traditional ways of math teaching and, in doing so, had missed the heart and soul of the state curriculum.

How can Mrs. O and teachers I have interviewed tell researchers that they had changed their teaching yet classroom observations of these very same teachers revealed familiar patterns of teaching? The answer depends on what kind of “change” the teacher seeks and who judges—the insider or outsider– the substance of the change and its direction.

Change clearly meant one thing to Mrs. O and another to the researcher. Many teachers, like Mrs. O, had made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons as a result of integrating computer devices into their lessons. Researchers, however, keeping in mind what policymakers and reform designers intended, nay sought, looked for fundamental changes in the how those math lessons were taught.

So whose judgment about change matters most? “ Should researchers “consider changes in teachers’ work from the perspective of new policies…. [or intentions of policymakers]? Or should they be considered from the teacher’s vantage point?”[iv]

Researchers, however, publish their studies and teachers like Mrs. O and the gracious teachers who let me observe their lessons and answer my questions seldom get to tell their side of the story to an audience outside their family and school.

Teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they are genuine insider accounts that explain how and why they have altered their practices. As two veteran researchers of teaching and teachers said:

We need to listen closely to teachers … and to the stories of their lives in and out of classrooms. We also need to tell our own stories as we live our own collaborative researcher/teacher lives. Our own work then becomes one of learning to tell and live a new mutually constructed account of inquiry in teaching and learning. What emerges from this mutual relationship are new stories of teachers and learners as curriculum makers, stories that hold new possibilities for both researchers and teachers and for those who read their stories.[v]

Yet researchers are more than scribes. They cannot take what teachers say as unvarnished truth and dismiss what is known of the history of teaching as less compelling or immaterial. The answers teachers give to researcher questions are constructed from their insider view. With a historical perspective on past ways that teachers have taught, I have constructed an outsider’s view of what teachers do daily in their lessons with computer devices. Both points of view have to come into play to make sense—to get at the truth as best as I can–of both the teachers’ answers to my questions and what I observed in classrooms.[vi]

As a former high school history teacher between the 1950s and 1970s and a university researcher since 1981, I have tried to manage this dilemma of giving value to teacher stories about classroom change while honoring what I, as a researcher, have learned about teaching, past and present.

This is the dilemma that I negotiate in answering the central question in the book I am writing: Have teachers altered their practice as a result of using new technologies regularly?

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[i] Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); Cuban. Hugging the Middle (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

[ii] Interview with John DiCosmo and answers to my questions on whether use of technology has changed his teaching.

As a digital native, I have always used computers in my lessons but each year my teaching changes a little more to put students in the center of the lessons. I have used technology to engage my middle schoolers from the first day I stepped into the classroom, but I am increasingly ‘flipping’ lessons to support student access to materials to differentiate my instruction….

Email from John DiCosmo, October 16, 2016. In author’s possession.

For differences in stories told to researchers, see: D.C. Philips, “Telling the truth about Stories,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 1997, 13(1), pp. 101-109.

[iii] David Cohen, “A Revolution in One Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1990, 12(3), pp. 311-329.

[iv] Ibid., p. 312

[v]Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin, “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry,” Educational Researcher, 1990, 19(5), pp.2-14. Quote is on p. 12.

[vi]D.C. Philips, “Telling the Truth about Stories,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 1997, 13(1), pp. 101-109.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...