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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Key Questions I Get Asked about Technology in Classrooms

Over the years, readers and graduate students have asked me about the work I have done on school reform and classroom technologies. I answer those questions here but first some background.

I began doing research and writing on teacher and student uses of technology in the early 1980s when personal computers appeared in classrooms. That writing turned into Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920 (1986). I then began working on a larger study of teacher and student uses of new technologies in preschool and kindergarten, high schools, and universities. That became Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms (2001). When Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability appeared in 2009, one chapter dealt with teacher and student uses of technologies across four school districts.

Those writings on teaching and technology labeled me as a skeptic. And some comments on these books were testy. Promoters of new technologies, be they vendors, practitioners or policymakers, would curtly dismiss doubts I and others raised by calling us “Luddites.”

No more. Public scorn for anyone who would probe the prevailing beliefs in the magical efficacy of computers in schools has become unfashionable.  I have found educators and non-educators who deeply believed in classroom computers as engines of learning, willing to listen to critics when concerns were raised about the many goals of schooling in a democracy, getting new devices into the hands of children, and insufficient research to support expansion of these technologies. I find these changes encouraging but hardly a game-changer.

Why? Because in my experience, there are far fewer skeptics than true believers in new technologies. Perhaps because I am in the minority, the questions that I have gotten asked over the years are personal often seeking elaboration of why I have explored technology and school reform and what technologies I use. Here are some of those questions:

1. Why did you begin writing about technology in classroom lessons? In the late-1970s, I began doing research and writing about the history of classroom instruction. In 1984, I published How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1980. In that book, I tracked the repeated (and failed) efforts of progressive reformers over a century to change classroom practice in urban, suburban, and rural classrooms from teacher-centered to student-centered lessons. In doing the archival research, seeing photos of teachers teaching, and reading accounts of how teachers taught different lessons, I saw the classroom use of different technologies from blackboards, stereopticons, and textbooks to overhead projectors, films, radio, and instructional television. The idea that reforming teaching was linked to the introduction of new technologies intrigued me. What stuck in my mind was a basic question:

Was introduction of new technologies another way that reformers had in moving teaching away from traditional lessons?

I found out through researching classrooms past and present that the answer was yes.

2. Do you personally use any electronic technologies?

At home I have a desktop and laptop computer, plus an iPhone. The desktop I use at home; the laptop when I travel, and the iPhone daily. I use all of them for personal and professional work such as this blog.

Please do not ask me how many times I check my email.

3. When you taught high school social studies and graduate seminars at Stanford University, did you use technologies in your classes?

Yes, I did. In my classroom, I developed a hybrid of teacher-centered instruction. I used (daily and weekly) both old and new technologies between the 1950s and 1980s in high school teaching. Films (16mm), film strips, overhead projectors, and videocassettes. Ditto for the two decades that I taught at Stanford. After retiring in 2001 and until 2013, I taught seminars where I used my laptop and LCD displays in seminars for examples of points to make, quick polls of students, video clips, etc. I did not, however, do PowerPoint presentations.

4. If you are (and have been) a regular user of technologies, why are you skeptical of their use in classrooms?

Like past electronic technologies, vendors and enthusiasts have hyped them to solve problems from low academic performance to motivating students tired of traditional teaching practices. Hype is over-promising; over-promising inexorably leads to disappointment; disappointment builds cynicism. I am allergic to hype. And I detest cynicism, especially when it blankets teaching in public schools.

But most of all, administrators didn’t buy hyped technologies to solve problems teachers identified and considered important to their lessons (e.g., large class sizes, wide range of student achievement in a class; lack of relevant instructional materials). Initially, school boards purchased devices to prove to taxpayers and voters that the district is keeping up with the times while wanting to get students to learn more, faster, and better. Whether these new technologies indeed produced more, faster, and better learning–well–no one knew then or knows now.

Also many early technologies were experiments–alpha and beta versions–used to find out whether they work in classrooms and help students learn. Combine hype and experimentation and the results often become a toxic combination.

Thus, when new technologies were (or are) adopted by school boards and district officials want teachers to use devices and software in classroom lessons, teachers have to ask hard questions that most district officials avoid:

*Are the new technologies essential to reaching my lesson’s objectives?

*Are the new technologies effective in achieving desired student outcomes?

The money spent on new technologies without much evidence of their efficacy in teaching students means that other options such as investing in more teachers, classroom aides, and professional development are foregone. That lack of evidence for a new technology leads to inefficient and ineffective policy making.

Given these reasons, when a new technology is announced as “the next new thing” and then applied to teaching and learning in public schools, I remain a skeptic

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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-...