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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Being Skeptical of Technology

Over the years, readers and students have asked me about the work I have done on school reform and especially reform-laden technologies. I answer some of them in this post. But first some background.

I began doing research and writing on teacher and student uses of technology in the early 1980s when the first personal computers appeared in classrooms. That writing turned into Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920. 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). In 2009, one chapter of Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability dealt with teacher and student uses of technologies across four school districts. The last book I wrote exploring classroom use of technology examined over 40 teachers in Silicon valley who used technology in daily lessons. In The Flight of the Butterfly and the Path of the Bullet (2018), I described those teachers who, in my opinion, had mastered the technology to the point where it was in the background, not foreground, of a lesson. 

Those writings on teaching and technology put me squarely in the bin labeled Skeptic. And comments early on were testy. Promoters of new technologies, be they vendors, practitioners or policymakers, would curtly dismiss concerns I and others raised by calling skeptics “Luddites.”

No more. Public scorn for anyone who would probe 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, now willing to listen to critics when concerns are raised about the many goals of schooling in a democracy, implementing new technologies, and insufficient research to support wholesale purchase of new devices and software. I find these changes encouraging but hardly a game-changer. 

Why? Because in my experience, there are fewer skeptics than true believers in new technologies. Perhaps because I am in the minority, the questions that I have been asked are more of a personal character seeking elaboration of why I have explored technology and school reform and what technologies I use.

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. Was introduction of new technologies another way that reformers had in moving teaching away from traditional lessons? I discovered that the answer was yes.

2. Do you personally use any electronic technologies?

At home I have desktop and laptop computers and an iPhone. The desktop I use at home; the laptop and phone when I have do research and travel. I use all of them for personal, business, 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 history and social studies and graduate classes at Stanford, did you use technologies in your instruction?

Yes, I did. I used regularly (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. As a professor I used my laptop in seminars often to make points on screens, do quick polls of students, show 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 alienation among students to traditional teaching practices. Hype is over-promising; over-promising inexorably leads to disappointment; disappointment builds cynicism. I am allergic to hype.

Second, new technologies are often experimental–alpha and beta versions–and used to find out whether they are workable, even useful on students who are compelled to be in school.. Combine hype and experimentation and that is a potentially toxic combination. Thus, hard questions must be asked of those policymakers who buy and deploy electronic devices for classroom instruction.

Third, the enormous amount of money spent on new technologies without much evidence of their effectiveness on teaching and learning means that other options such as investing in more teachers and their professional development are lost. That is not only inefficient but it is also evidence of data-free policymaking.

Given these three reasons, I remain skeptical of new technologies applied to teaching and learning in public schools.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

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-...