Push Schools to be Transformative


As I listen to my peers and observe the actions of school districts, my conclusion is that there are two levels of technology use in schools:  tools and integration, although these levels do not justify the expense of hardware and software in schools.

At the first level, the organization considers “technology is a tool.”  This view is of low level, one of subsistence.  Neil Postman wrote that “tool-using cultures . . . were largely invented to do two things:  to solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as the use of waterpower, windmills, and the heavy-wheeled plow.”  In schools, the equivalent operations are attendance taking, grade reporting, electronic procurement systems, and such.  When a school views technology as a tool, technology is easily on the chopping block during rough economic times — afterall it is just a tool, not essential.

At the integration level, schools “integrate technology.”  The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) describes this as “[A]n instructional program in which student outcomes are the focus and technology is woven throughout the curriculum. In this type of program, technology is emphasized on those occasions when it can be used to enable students to work with and understand a concept that might be too difficult, time-consuming, or expensive to purchase otherwise. . . .”  Looking at the statement, several elements can be identified.

  • Educational technologists focus on learning.  While many school curriculum initiatives focus on teaching, technologists look at learning, the outcome.  In short technologists define their field as “the systematic process of reaching educational goals.”  Sure it uses hardware and software, but the focus is on learning.
  • While the ISTE starts with student learning, it then weaves technology in the curriculum.  It’s still an afterthought and needs special consideration.  The behaviors I see in schools is when they put computers in teacher’s classrooms, they invoke intense professional development to show teachers how to use software, such as Microsoft Excel.  Then the teachers are supposed to determine how to use Excel in their classrooms, to “integrate” (weave is the ISTE term) it into their curriculum. So the teachers use Excel with the students once a week or once a month in the school computer lab.  The school declares that it has integrated technology.  Search for “technology integration” in Google; you’ll get over 9 million hits.

Furthermore, this notion of technology integration has been looked at independently by Clayton Christensen in his book Disruption Class:  How Disrupting Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.  In his analysis, he essentially calls technology integration “cramming computers in schools.”  “Computers have become just another activity center for children that they can use during the course of the day . . . [T]eachers use them to supplement and reinforce the existing teaching model.  As such, computers add cost while failing to revolutionize the classroom experience (p. 82).”

Earlier in the book, Christensen writes, “[Putting computers in schools] haven’t brought schools any closer to realizing the promising path of building students’ intrinsic motivation through student-centric learning.  The reason for this disappointing result is that the way schools have employed computers has been perfectly predictable, perfectly logical — and perfectly wrong (p. 73).

Schools employ a variety of learning strategies, such as “differentiation.”  Broadly, this idea is to meet the students at their individual levels with different materials and learning options.  Clearly this is a tremendous task for a classroom teacher to meet the learning of individual students.

At this level, schools use hardware and software “because kids need to know how to use technology.”  The focus is on the technology, not the learning.  Schools talk about using hardware and software, rather than the exciting learning that students can do.

It is very difficult for schools to break themselves from the integration level, because they cannot/will not change the basic structure of schools.  Sometimes this is the limitation of state laws and local policies.  They also have the legal responsibility to supervise every student for every minute of the day.  In elementary schools, the day is scheduled so the students can participate in physical education, art, music and other important educational opportunities.  While bells may not ring, the school day is structured around time.  In secondary schools, the school day is rigid, with a bell ringing every 45-50 minutes.

So, how do we get to the next level, what Christensen calls “revolution” or I call transformation?

  • Design the curriculum for student learning:  what do we want them to know and how will they demonstrate that?  Schools need a good dose of instructional design.
  • Individualize instruction through hardware and software.  Allow the students to use their personal technologies at schools.  Schools cannot afford technology for every student.  This is one of the trends that I’ve identified here in other postings.  When we individualize instruction, the day can be made flexible with time.  The student may need 15 minutes to get the math, but 90 minutes to understand grammar and writing.  This is easily accomplished at elementary schools where students are in one classroom throughout the day.
  • Teachers must know how to use hardware and software.  As I’ve seen written in “tweets” from various experts,  “You cannot be my teacher unless you understand how to use technology.”
  • Teachers then refocus their teaching to individuals or small groups that need special help.

Schools cannot move to new levels by “integrating technology.”  Students will never get enough time to be fluent with the thinking that goes along with applying technology to their learning. (Posting a picture and some text on Facebook is not technology fluency.)   Transform learning by truly personalizing learning.


  1. Jeff’s comments are as true in schools today as they were nearly thirty years ago in corporate training centers. I can only hope we continue to make progress for the sake of students who are just entering our schools’ doors for the first time today. In 1981, while serving as the Director of Educational Services for a large computer manufacturer, I encountered the following.

    One of the instructors on my team continually received poor evaluations from students (these were adult programmers and systems analysts). On the third such occasion I asked why his students commented (once again) that he paced the class too fast and didn’t stop to answer their questions. He responded that his job was to teach and their job was to learn. After I told him that his job was NOT to TEACH, but rather to assure that his students LEARNED, I fired him.

    I’ve repeated that story over the years, not to frighten or threaten anyone, but to remind them that outcomes are important for a teacher whether in the corporate world or in the school room. Our job as educators is to do everything we can to help our students learn.

    By the way, in that same job we eliminated computer labs by placing computers in all the classrooms and integrating them into the curriculum. Now 30 years later we’re doing the same thing in our schools. The difference is that we in schools struggle with both funding and equity issues that weren’t a problem in the corporate world with measured results (evaluations and profit statements). Can you imagine a company operating like a school where marketing uses the computers for 45 minutes once each week and then sales, engineering, accounting, etc. go into a lab for their 45 minute use of the computers? Corporations allocate resources in such a way as to get the most bang for the buck.

    How would that equate to our schools? What would it be like if we ONLY placed our limited resources in the highest grade levels, but actually did a GREAT job at those levels? What would be the community reaction in a K-12 district if we only funded technologies at grades 9-12? Or what if we determined that technology made the most impact on science classes, and ONLY placed it in those classrooms? Instead, we find ourselves being “fair” and “equitable” in the distribution of technology (funded with limited resources) to the point where we’re ineffective and the measured results are viewed as a failure!

    Reaching critical mass of technologies is critical to its successful and useful integration. Letting students who have the resources bring their own technologies to school has become an important strategy to stretch school budgets.

    Jeff has so many excellent comments and points in his blog post that it should generate dozens of responses. How do you feel?

    Eric Willard
    Chief Technology Officer
    CUSD 300
    300 Cleveland Avenue
    Carpentersville, IL 60110

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