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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: A Few Thoughts About Classroom Technology Then and Now

Two decades ago, research I had done on schools and classrooms in Silicon Valley during the 1990s was published as Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms.  In 2018, The Flight of a Butterfly or Path of a Bullet, another book researching 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers who had integrated technology appeared. Since then, I have visited many classrooms where teachers used electronic devices seamlessly in lessons until the pandemic hit. Then remote instruction became the primary medium of teaching and learning.

What similarities and differences do I see between the two periods of intense activity in getting hardware and software into schools and classrooms?

The similarities are easy to list.

*At both times, policy elites including donors and computer companies urged districts and schools to get desktops and laptops into classroom teachers’ and students’ hands.

The hype then and now promised that students would learn more, faster, and better; that classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized–the word today is “personalized”; and that graduates would enter the high-tech workplace fully prepared from day one.

*Teacher and student access to the new technologies expanded.

For example, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Silicon Valley companies and philanthropists gave desktops and laptops to schools while districts also purchased loads of personal computers. The influx of machines was often distributed within schools to computer labs and media centers (formerly libraries) with most teachers having at least one in their classroom and a couple for students in academic classes. Some software, mostly adaptations of business applications, were given to schools and also purchased. Students had far more access to desktops in labs and classrooms a few times a week, depending upon availability and the lesson content, than ever before.

Nearly twenty years later, that expansion of access student access to digital devices and software is nearly ubiquitous. Most labs have disappeared in lieu of classroom carts holding 25-30 laptops or tablets. Many districts now have a device available for each student. As access has increased, so has teacher and student use in lessons.

What about differences?

Goals for using digital tools have changed.

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve, reformers thought. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to accelerate the improvement of U.S. schools and to thereby strengthen the economy.

The preschools and high schools that I visited and observed in action in 1998-1999 (including schools across the country) pursued these goals. The evidence I found, however, that increased access and use of these technological tools had, indeed, achieved those goals was missing. Student academic achievement had not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) had not materialized. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school did not necessarily step into better-paying, entry-level jobs.

But in the past decade, those initial goals in the 1990s generating the expansion of access to digital tools have since shifted. Seeking higher academic achievement through using digital tools is no longer a goal. Instead, new devices and software now have the potential for engagement (educators assume that engagement leads directly to higher academic achievement) through “personalized learning.” Moreover, the technology and software are essential since students take state tests online (and during the pandemic were a necessity). And the continuing dream of graduating students marching into high-tech jobs, well, that goal has persisted.

*Combined similarities and differences across time.

The Path of a Butterfly describes and analyzes the observations I made and interviews I conducted in 2016 of 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons. I found both similarities and differences with the earlier study I did and prior historical research on how teachers taught in the 20th century.

These Silicon Valley teachers that I observed in 2016 were hard working and used digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were now in the background, not foreground–as were the previous generation of teachers using devices in computer labs and media centers.

The lessons these 41 teachers taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in how they managed administrative details quietly and effortlessly in taking attendance and communicating with students, colleagues, and parents. They saved time and were more efficient using these digital tools than the earlier generation of teachers. For their lessons, they used these tools to create playlists for students, pursue problem-based units, and assess student learning during the actual lesson and afterwards as well. All of this work was quietly integrated into the flow of the lesson. I could see that students were intimately familiar with the devices and how the teacher wove the content of the lesson effortlessly into the different activities. They surely differed from their comrades who I had observed two decades earlier.

But I also noted no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of their lessons such as setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, and assessing student understanding. The format of lessons appeared similar to the earlier generation I observed 20 years ago and experienced peers a half- and full century ago whose classrooms I had studied through archival research.

These contemporary lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Sure, the content of lessons had changed–students working with DNA in a biology lesson differed from biology classes I had observed earlier. But the sequence of activities and what students did over the course of a lesson resembled what I had seen many times earlier. Again, stability and change in teaching emerged clearly for me as did the pervasive use of digital tools.

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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-...