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Wrong Focus: Teacher-Centered Classrooms and Technology

There is a buzz around me these days about how EdTech is failing to live up to its promise fueled primarily by the In Classrooms of Future, Stagnant Scores.

What is surprising to most when they share this piece with me or ask me my opinion about the failures of EdTech is my response. For the most part, I agree that it is failing but that failure has more to do with us than with the technology.

Why?

  1. We continue to focus on the value of EdTech by what the teachers do with it NOT what the students do with it.
  2. We continue to focus on the value of EdTech by what happens to high stakes, standardized test scores.

Focus
Teacher-Centered Classrooms/Technology

When the focus of technology is on the teacher and teaching not learners and learning, it is easy to see EdTech as a failure:  a waste of time, money, and resources. For many of us, we’ve argued for a move away from teacher-centered only to find a movement and investment in EdTech that is the antithesis of such a movement.  We’ve simply added teacher-centered technology to teacher-centered classrooms.

Is it any wonder we find ourselves unable to fulfill the promise we’ve preached about EdTech?

Simply walk into many classrooms (or talk to some that are wanting to change their classrooms) and you will see.

Look at the front of the classroom from the students’ perspective. What do they see? In schools where it is feasible, they see a tech rich experience for the teacher: a computing device, an IWB, a projection device pointing at the front. Perhaps we see a teacher with an iPad, an iPod, or a doc camera. Regardless, we see a very tech rich experience for the teacher – a teacher-centered technology environment.

Now flip it. What do educators see when looking at students?

Paper. Pencils. Print texts. Notebooks. Pens.

What an absolute disconnect!

The expectation is that the teachers have the latest and greatest technology for teaching. Yet, there is little concern about what the students have in their hands for learning. This is one of the fundamental disconnects we experience when it comes to educational technology, when it comes to 21st Century teaching and learning, when it comes to student engagement and empowerment.

We sit back and narrowly think from the perspective of what teachers want – never mind what students want and need.

And then, we have the audacity to judge technology on its success and failures on student learning.

Really?

I simply do not understand when we will come to the realization that more and more technology in the hands of teachers will NOT translate into fundamentally different learning.

Is it more exciting for the teachers? Sure. Does it provide a spark in the classroom? Yes, temporarily.

But, it still comes down to the fact that if you are not…

  • moving initiatives towards greater access and use of technology by the students and
  • focusing on enhancing and transforming pedagogy and learning…

…than technology is far less likely to have a significant impact organizationally.

But…

…You have to have it in the teachers hands before the students.
I don’t buy into this nor do I see it as necessary. But many do, so fine. The key is having a plan that moves beyond the teachers or you’ll continue to wallow in a rich experience for them and a spectator experience for students.

…If we are teaching better with the technology, the students are learning better.
Let’s be clear. Teaching and learning are not synonymous with one another. In fact, perhaps our teacher focused use of technology is the problem. The wasted time redoing lessons with new technology to teach a lesson: IWB lessons that were previously PowerPoint lessons that were overhead lessons before that that we simply worksheets or a lecture originally.

And what we see is little to no return on investment because we aren’t transforming anything other than our own self-efficacy.

I’d rather see teachers improving their ability to create contexts for powerful discussion, engage students with diverse approaches, facilitate project-based learning, etc. I’d rather see teachers open the doors to the kids getting their hands dirty with technology. I’d rather see teachers focusing on transformative aspects of the classroom than minor upgrades.

Tech for Tech Sake

Let me give you an example. I recently spoke to a teacher while on a site visit. This teacher excitedly explained to me how this program converted simple review questions and made them interactive with an IWB. She showed how you could display the question onto the IWB for the class to read, they would raise their hands when they felt they had the correct answer, and one student could go up to the board and click on his/her choice. The program would then give feedback on the answer.

I asked, “what if you didn’t have the IWB? What would happen?”

She paused and then said that the question would be shared with the class and they would work in groups of three to develop potential answers. Then, the groups would share their perspective and discuss/debate the potential of each answers.

Between the two, which one is better? The answer remains clear to me.

I don’t blame her nor other teachers like her. They’ve been sold a lot of hype. I actually blame leadership for the lack of courage.

In fact, I’m not sure when it comes to EdTech, you need all this technology to teach better. Where its purpose is strongest is in the hands of students as they create their path and connections. It isn’t when they watch from the seats this high-tech, fun flashy devices and hardware.

I’m just not convinced we are looking at this with logical, rational eyes. But maybe I’m wrong.

Maybe behind the facade of student-centered, constructivist classroom rooted in engagement lies are true fundamental belief: at the heart of all of this is a highly teacher-centered environment that has long been rooted with teachers first and students second.

And I’m just not sure that we can continue to call upon technology as a means of transforming education with that as our core. 

(Image: Focus, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from toolstop’s photostream)

  1. Ginger Lewman10-15-2011

    Absolutely! I’ve long been a pariah, advocating for more computers over IWB’s. When given a chance, I’d much rather talk PBL than about a tool, even though the LifePractice flavor of PBL has tech fingerprints all over and through it. I never bought in to the idea that a large pretty booth at ISTE meant “expert educators here.”

    And you hit the core problem: we continue to measure the success of EdTech by standardized test scores. This disconnect is so appalling I can’t even … Gah!
    Thanks for another dose of courage.

    • ryanbretag10-16-2011

      Your focus is where I wish more of us would be and that is where leadership needs to step out. It is hard. For some and perhaps many, it isn’t comfortable to have learning conversations. Lately, I’ve been wondering if educators feel insulted.

      Odd, but that feeling of “I know what I’m doing so get me what I need”. I don’t know but our conversations have become defensive and possessive, which seems a by-product of a profession under fire.

  2. Rodd Lucier10-15-2011

    You’re asking some important questions Ryan. I ardently belive that it is when we ditch binders, pecil and paper, that relevance returns to the student experience. I really think that collaborative note-taking and the sharing of collective resources is the first step towards changing things for the better.

    • ryanbretag10-16-2011

      I’m right there, too. Sadly, I’m starting to see how engrained the teacher-centered classrooms and teacher-centered technologies is now – so much so that when things like collective resources, collaborative note-taking, community-based guides (ex. AP study guides) are put in, students grow frustrated.

      There is a culture becoming more and more accepting of the teacher in front.

  3. Andy10-15-2011

    Great thoughts here, thanks for sharing. I’ve been frustrated recently by the difficulty of getting student centered edtech approved like student blogging for example.

    • ryanbretag10-16-2011

      I’m right there with you, Andy. I find blogging to be an ideal piece for schools to adopt on a systemic level: one blog per student where each student houses their writing, reflecting, and publishing. Tags are used for interdisciplinary connections.

      But, I’m seeing too much isolated classrooms using it where a student has a blog just for that class. This is a symptom of two things:

      1. Teacher-Centered
      2. Lack of leadership

      Keep pushing! These are important discussions that we simply can’t afford to avoid.

  4. Ann Martin10-16-2011

    I am going to share this with other teachers at our “IT luncheon chat.” I think it may lead us out of our present stagnation and maybe … maybe … give our IT guys the idea that blogs are not the spawn of the devil and don’t have to be BLOCKED at school!

    • ryanbretag10-16-2011

      Great, Ann! Please let me know how it goes.

      It makes me sad to hear IT guys have such a say in what is blocked. The first step towards any success in EdTech is when the administration removes the control and power of IT.

      IT is there to make the learning and teaching goals happen. They are not there to dictate and govern. Learning and teaching should drive technology. Sadly, too many times it is IT driving learning and teaching which is a recipe for failure, IMHO.

      • Ann Martin10-17-2011

        OK, here’s the report … not a good one! I had made copies of your blog post for all who attended, but we really didn’t get to look at it much because we promptly crashed into a wall with the blog question. Our IT guy, who is, I think it is fair to say, paranoid about what our students are exposed to, says he can only block ALL or NO blogs. Once he has blocked them all, he can open up individual ones at faculty request. I suggested that we try the other option, and maybe block any blogs we find obnoxious. He said we should go to the head with any such suggestions, but the head really knows nothing of these matters and defers to him. HE obviously wasn’t going to do it. Then I tried the idea of blocking blogs for students but leaving them open for all staff (not great, but better than what we have now). His reaction was clearly “I don’t trust faculty to do that,” although he struggled to find some other way to put it. It was hard to have a fruitful discussion at that point! We suggested looking into what other schools do, and he replied, “Even if other schools do it, it could still be wrong.” So THAT probably won’t work, either! He has no idea how far into the dark ages he is. The horse he’s trying to keep in the stable is probably in TImbuktoo by now. Any ideas? I WILL tackle the head, but he is very manipulable. First I will gather a bunch of faculty who really want to open up the possibilities.

  5. Andrew Schwab10-16-2011

    Right on! I totally agree the focus of edtech needs to be on the students and we definitely have a lack of vision, leadership when it comes to technology in the classroom. IWBs are like LCD projectors are like overheads are like chalk boards It’s the same paradigm. For years we focused our limited technology dollars on making sure teaches had the best technology available. The challenge is the paradigm shift that comes with empowering students with internet connected devices. Most teachers are not ready for that. While I have seen IWBs sit unused in many classrooms, at least those don’t alter the classroom dynamics between student and teacher much. We’re going 1:1 iPads in our high school and the teachers that have shifted paradigms are having a lot more success than the teachers that are trying to enforce the same constraints on students as when they all had to look to the front of the room to get their information. It’s a sea change and it will take leadership and vision to make it happen. Thanks for writing the post. I now have something to share with my Administrators to start the discussion about what edtech should really look like in a clasroom.

    • ryanbretag10-16-2011

      Your breakdown of the classrooms that are doing well and those struggling a bit is why 1:1 is such a difficult move for schools. Personally, 1:1 is the right move and schools/districts should be progressing towards it ASAP. However, it takes courage by the leadership team to build the foundation that creates more of the former classrooms than the latter.

      Sadly, the latter is far too common because we think everything will take care of itself if we just go 1:1.

      Please let me know how your 1:1 program evolves with iPads. I’ll be very interested in the successes and opportunities that emerge, and how success is framed.

  6. Brian Crosby10-16-2011

    The worst part of this story is what is happening in our schools where this switch had started to happen. My classroom was beginning to match your description above of that student centered classroom, and now I am admonished and harassed into doing only a teacher driven explicit instruction only model. Worse yet I am hearing this story from my colleagues that I’ve worked with across the country that were having great success … the move is to programmed learning at any cost, no matter how it narrows the curriculum. It IS our “Occupy Wall Street” issue. It is the corporate model and the few of us pushing the other way are being buried with hardly a whimper (and my “union” won’t back us up either).
    Learning isn’t very messy any more.
    Brian

    • ryanbretag10-16-2011

      Your words scare and frustrate me, but mostly make me sad. Sad because I fear it simply is our reality despite many knowing it is the wrong focus.

      I’m watching the Replacements right now. The coach was just asked “what do you need during the second half to overcome all of these problems”. The coach answered “heart… a whole lot of heart”.

      We stand at a place in time in education where heart and courage are needed from leaders who will stand up, get knocked down, and claw their way back up until we are on a path that makes sense for learning and teaching.

      • Lisa Parisi10-16-2011

        I would like to see administrators willing to get knocked down. The problems are so high up (read Federal Government) and money is so tight that administrators are willing to do anything to get the money. Kids don’t matter. In fact, I just had a data meeting (we sit and look at results of all our testing data from Sept.). I was told coming in that we are looking at numbers, not kids. One kid who I felt really needs extra support isn’t getting it because his numbers don’t qualify. My testing shows he needs support but that’s not the test that counts. Sigh. All about money. Rti gets us money.

        • ryanbretag10-16-2011

          This is the exact reason why I get angry when people call RTT and formerly NCLB as state mandates. Yes, technically they are but the reality is that the tying of funds to compliance puts so many people in lose-lose situations.

          It is difficult to stand against the wrongs plaguing education when it means essentially turning our backs on funding. It requires the community to fully understand why the funding is dirty and at the expense of the best interest for children.

          In an economy like the one in the US and throughout the world, this is easier said than done. But those partnerships and community education are beyond critical if we are going to start standing up locally. And, if pockets begin to stand up locally, models are created for others.

          I just don’t know.

    • Lisa Parisi10-16-2011

      Brian is right. Even in my successful school district, the move is toward a more teacher directed program, ensuring that every teacher is successful (read this sarcastically). All money was taken from our technology budget, so repairs on 10 year old laptops are non-existent. As for the IWBs, every room in my building has them. Most teachers use them as white boards. No changes. In my room, I hardly ever use it but the kids create projects on it. Parents want to know why other teachers aren’t teaching the way I do. But teachers are stuck. They are being told to run the teacher directed programs. I just don’t listen that much. Tenure does some things for me. ;)

      • Brian Crosby10-16-2011

        You have a much stronger union than I do (ours is really an “association”) and our legislature passed a law that castrates tenure mostly.

      • ryanbretag10-16-2011

        Efforts to teacher proof education are notorious for failing, yet here we are again pushing just that in many, many schools. Of course, very few will say this is what is happening but it is just that whether by choice or by federal pressure tied to money (your second comment).

        I know the IWB experience. It is sad to see but I’ll be honest – I wish I wouldn’t have used the IWB example. I frankly am tired of the is it or isn’t bad (as I’m sure you are, too). Again, that puts the focus in the wrong place. As you said, there are more important issues that will inevitably address the IWB discussion and you hit on an important one: parental expectations.

        I mentioned to Rod above how students are also resisting the learner-centered classrooms including statements supported by parents that “those classrooms are ones where the teachers don’t teach”. And, this is said as a negative ;-)

  7. C Byron10-30-2012

    I’m at a school where each kid has a laptop. Yesterday there was a lineup at the photocopier. Why?

    • ryanbretag11-04-2012

      @CByron Oh my… why is a great question. Is anyone asking this?

  8. Just happened on this discussion through a Twitter link. I’ve been doing presentations for several years now with the topic, “Who’s telling the computer chat to do?” This seems to me the crucial question to ask anytime a student is at a keyboard. Are they in control, are they creating content, or coding the program, or analyzing data, or are they waiting for the computer to tell them that their answer was “correct”? If the kids are in charge, there’s at least the opportunity for learning. If they’re feeding in answers that get judged by the program or the programmer, they’re just using glorified flash cards.

    This conundrum also brings up the myth of the digital native. Just because students may know how to use a piece of equipment as the manufacturer wanted them to, to choose or consume products from the vendor, that doesn’t make them digitally powerful. It simply makes them good consumers. Most students will need support and instruction to understand what they need to know to take control of their devices, and to learn those skills. Birth year doesn’t magically create the ability to teach that content, experience does.

  9. Kim Flintoff11-05-2012

    I too have concerns about how “student-centredness” is defined and enacted in many classrooms – and I think you’re correct that in many classes what we really see is camouflaged teacher-centrism. I was a trainer in student-centred practice for some years and saw many variants along the continuum. What I think is overlooked in your discussion is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for students and teachers to meet face-to-face (especially in higher ed settings) so the engagement with and through technology becomes a real concern. How do we use the technology to foster engagement, collaboration, networked learning, self-directed, peer-directed and independent learning, critically aware, liberational learning, generative activity – teachers must be able to embrace strategies that identify the parameters of learning (curriculum, legislature, etc) and facilitate student-centred practice within those bounds…. that necessitates building a student body that has a genuine voice within the learnign environment… it necessitates flexible, adaptive, generative approaches to interaction… it must accommodate differences and preferences… teachers need to focus on what is required to learn rather than what they know about a subject – in an information saturated world subject knowledge counts for far less than the nuanced understanding of formative interactions… teachers must be focussed on students and their pathway… its that simple… the techology will only be useful if these epistemological shifts occur…

  10. Beth Knittle03-10-2013

    Ryan, your post could not have better timing. I have been struggling to conveying a similar message. I have participated in many discussions about moving toward a 1:1 learning environment and most discussions are on what it means for teachers, how are teachers going to adapt their lessons? When it comes to discussing students often the topic switches to rules and restrictions. Really it is about what students will do with the technology not the teacher. At worst a teacher can keep doing exactly what they normally do. Just don’t tell the students to put the devices away. Student’s will have access to content, organizational, collaboration, communication, and creation tools. As teacher’s allow students to realize their potential, to be more self-directed learners, to take owner ship of their work I believe classroom activities will change. After all learning takes place with-in the learner and can not be done to them.

    • Beth Knittle03-10-2013

      I should have stated – rediscovering your post – could not have come at a better time.

  11. Richard A. Smith03-12-2013

    The question of the effectiveness of technology as a key determinate in raising student academic achievement levels has been moot, at least since 1983, when Richard E. Clark published his now famous article, “Reconsidering Research on Learning From Media” ((for the abstract see, http://www.uky.edu/~gmswan3/609/Clark_1983.pdf). The bottom line is that the effective from instruction comes basically from the design of the instruction provided, not from the medium delivering it. Clark’s finding was not new when he published it. He merely shut the door on the subject in a dramatic fashion. But every time a new medium appears, it comes with a set of education groupies who insist that this new medium surely teaches better than all the previous media. Yet, each time the story is the same; when evaluations take place, the finding is, “no significant difference” between the previous media used and the new medium introduced. Take Miguel’s advice. Come up with an overall plan that research indicates will improve instruction; then select electronic media to support that plan in a cost-effective manner (that “cost-effective” part is my add-on).

  12. Cary Harrod04-16-2013

    “You have to have it in the teachers hands before the students.”

    I love this post but your quote above has kind of haunted me for a few weeks now. While I know what you’re saying…get outta their way and let them use the technology, I have come to understand that nothing could be farther from the truth. The truth is, learning is going to be vastly, enormously different…and the only way for teachers to get it…really get it, is for them to be that learner themselves. You simply cannot understand the power of blogging unless you’ve done it yourself. You cannot truly understand networked learning if you’re not a networked learner yourself. You cannot understand the deep, rich learning that occurs when collaborating with someone else across the world until you do it yourself. And all of those things require that you know how to select the best tool to meet your goal. If we’re talking about using tools to truly transform learning, then we’re talking about global collaboration, deep reflection through blogging, networked learning…not simply having all students create a glog about their favorite hero. If you look at TPACK, it illustrates beautifully the symbiotic relationship between content, pedagogy and technology. It is essential for a teacher to be masterful in all three areas. Just a few of my random thoughts as I try to wrap my brain around my growing understanding of what it means to learn.

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