Technology and Another Myth for Teachers

March 14, 2012

There’s another teacher with a classroom opposite my classroom. Same subject. Different levels of experience.

One of us plans every lesson on a PC, often downloading resources. One of us uses an interactive whiteboard every lesson. One of us always has a Kindle at hand in the classroom. One of us is planning to buy a Raspberry Pi at the first opportunity, and really wishes he had a Visualiser in his classroom.

One of us refused to have an interactive whiteboard when they were first introduced to the school, (or even a projector). One of us believes that using Powerpoint slides or moving images in the lesson is pandering to the kids and on a par with just showing cartoons.

Can you guess where this is going?

I’m the first of these two teachers. I like technology. I am sometimes wary of its capacity to go wrong when you most need it, but on the whole I find it useful. I mention this because of a few recent discussions on Twitter. At the start of the year someone called me a “neophobe”. More recently, I was on the receiving end of remarks about being a dinosaur, and believing in a flat earth when discussing technology in education.

Now the attitude that provokes this sort of comment is obviously not one of hostility to technology, or rejection of new teaching tools. I am not even as sceptical as Tom Bennett who recently wrote this blogpost about the dispensability of the interactive whiteboard:  What I have done to provoke the reaction is simply to deny that technology has changed the nature of teaching, and to doubt that it will do so imminently. Technology helps me to do the same thing teachers have always done: teach. It has not transformed the classroom; it has simply reduced some types of effort.

For pity's sake.

Now this is anathema to the progressive ideology of the high priests of educational technology. To them, progress is inevitable (an idea I touched on here) and new technology, by virtue of being new, must be progress. Technological innovation is a natural force wiping away all tradition.To doubt its effectiveness is to doubt the forward march of progress and that is to doubt their entire belief-system.  To expect technology to be proven to be effective is blasphemy. To question the need for change is heresy. As one enthusiast claimed “…innovation is crucial to pedagogy and therefore can be done just for the sake of it!”. Everything can and will change, and sooner rather than later. One blogger wrote a list of “21 Things That Will Become Obsolete in Education by 2020” which included such things as desks, paperback books and paper.

To observe that the faith in the inevitability and immediacy of change is groundless is to point out the obvious.  What I wish to address here is the fanciful narrative that often appears behind it. To believe that new educational technology must always be good and critics and sceptics will always be proven wrong, then it is also necessary to believe that educational technology has always been good in the past and sceptics and critics have always been proved wrong in the past. This leads to a conviction that educational technology has consistently progressed and has always been resisted by educational Luddites (a belief that often merges with the equally spurious myth of traditional and modern teaching techniques described here). A good example can be found here in a blogpost where “elearninglaura” speculates about the introduction of paper and pen to the classroom:

It must have been the most tremendous shift: students could accumulate a bank of their own written work and it no longer had to be carried entirely in their memories. Rote learning and the ability to recall facts was the backbone of a traditional education.  Can you imagine being a fly on the wall in the staff room of the day, when Masters would bemoan the flagrant waste of valuable paper, the new plague of inkstains and the erosion of standards?

The following, more developed version of this myth can be found in many, many places on the internet:

The More Things Change…

“Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems. They depend upon their slates which are more expensive. What will they do when their slate is dropped and it breaks? They will be unable to write!” Teachers Conference, 1703

“Students today depend upon paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?”

Principals Association, 1815 “Students today depend too much upon ink. They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil!” National Association of Teachers, 1907

“Students today depend upon store bought ink. They don’t know how to make their own. When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement. This is a sad commentary on modern education.”

The Rural American Teacher, 1929

“Students today depend upon these expensive fountain pens. They can no longer write with a straight pen and nib (not to mention sharpening their own quills). We parents must not allow them to wallow in such luxury to the detriment of learning how to cope in the real business world, which is not so extravagant.”

PTA Gazette, 1941

“Ball point pens will be the ruin of education in our country. Students use these devices and then throw them away. The American virtues of thrift and frugality are being discarded. Business and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.” Federal Teacher, 1950

“Students today depend too much on hand-held calculators.” ?????????, 1985

Obviously the quotations are fake; if the similarities and style didn’t give this away, then none of the references can actually be found. The earliest version I can find of any of them comes from The College Mathematics Journal (1988). The desire to substantiate the fantasy of irrestible and infallible progress has resulted in a widely distributed forgery.

Update (27/4/2011): The excellent Quote Investigator blog has now researched this and traced it back a further 10 years to a 1978 publication where they were apparently intended as a joke and concluded:

In addition, QI has searched several massive full-text databases for evidence of these words before 1978, and QI was unable to locate any previous citations in the time periods indicated.

Yeah, someone really said it.

The reality of the history of educational technology is almost the exact opposite of this picture of consistent and irresistible progress. An excellent review of teaching technology can be found here. The list is open to interpretation, but it does not imply a process of continual revolution, more a mix of gimmicks that lasted no time at all, and more successful inventions that lasted decades but without changing the basic nature of teaching. Ultimately, some things work, and some things don’t. Some innovations are pointless; others are not really innovations at all. It is easy to find current innovations that are doing something that has been done before. The best commentator on educational technology, Larry Cuban, wrote a blogpost describing how the same basic tool (a control that allows students to answer questions by pressing buttons) 50 years apart. Dylan Willam, the unrelenting advocate of mini-whiteboards was quite willing to describe his apparently new educational tool in this way:

It’s the return of the slate. Two hundred years ago, the best teachers were getting every child to write their answers on slates.

But if history does not support the techno-zealot’s case, does it support the sceptic? Have there been predictions in the past that technology would transform education beyond all recognition that turned out to be overblown? Are the claims made now likely to be true simply because they have never been made before? I leave this question open to contributions from the floor, and will perhaps return to it after I have done further research. However, one outstanding example exists of an overblown claim about the transformative power of educational technology. Back in 1913 Thomas Edison reacted to the development of the motion picture in a newspaper interview:

“What is your estimation of the future educational value of pictures ?” I asked.

“Books.” declared the inventor with decision, ” will soon be obsolete in the public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye.  It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.

“We have been working for some time on the school pictures.  We have been studying and reproducing the life of the fly. mosquito, silk weaving moth, brown moth, gypsy moth, butterflies, scale and various other  insects,  as well  as chemical crystallization. It proves conclusively the worth of motion pictures in chemistry, physics and other branches of study, making the scientific truths, difficult to understand from text books, plain and clear to children”.

Smith (1913)

It is not scepticism about the transformative power of educational technology that has been wrong in the past, but unquestioning faith in it.

Thanks to two tweeters @Arsinhy and @Sdfahey for their help with some of the background research for this post.


Smith, Frederick James, (1913) The New York Dramatic Mirror, The Evolution of the Motion Picture: VI – Looking into the Future with Thomas A. Edison July 9, Page 24, Column 3, New York.

The College Mathematics Journal (1988),“The More Things Change”,  The College Mathematics Journal Vol. 19, No. 3, May, 1988, p222

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  1. Whoo I got a credit.

    • I love my whiteboard. I use it to project powerpoint presentations and I used it as a wiimote whiteboard. What I do and what I use depends on the context of the task. In other words, think of the task, not the tools. If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. But only a fool would refuse to use screws because, dammit, nails were good enough before.

  2. I love my interactive white board.

    I like that if i have a cover lesson the cover work can be emailed to me and I just stick it on the board rather than reading it out 3 times or having to copy it onto a chalk board

    I like that if I have a sore throat or I think the kids are sick of the sound of my voice I can put on a video or animation that will explain a concept better than I could.

    I like the cute quizzes you can use that can provide focus and improve enthusiasm.

    I like the fact that sharing resources with colleagues is a breeze.

    I love that kids can create stuff in their own time that can be shown back to a class- they love that

    Its a long way from when I started teaching.

    But currently you still need a teacher, textbook, exercise book and pen in my opinion.

    I would go along with Old Andrew for the most part here- and his narrative is wonderful as as usual.

    BUT I have a suspicion the iPad/Android Tablet MAY be a true revolution.

    This could actually change the dynamic and structure of education in my view.

    Some of the interactive software being developed could dramatically reduce the role of the teacher.

    It can certainly mean the death sentence for the physical textbook and exercise book- it can all be stored on the tablet.

    But further than that….

    Kids can be taught virtual lessons, have artificial virtual Q&A sessions, virtual experiments, video clips, web forum discussions, mini tests, mini assignments etc all done on a portable, web connected, colour device.

    Students may not need to leave the house, let alone require my services….

    P45 please!

  3. 1. I learnt to teach with a blackboard and a Banda reproduction machine.
    2. When I returned to teaching nearly 30 years later classrooms had white boards and some had interactive white boards.
    3. I am in no way a technophobe – I write 3 blogs, have my own laptop, use my whiteboard, the visualiser (when I can get it off my colleagues) have 6 class notebooks and use them and most exciting of all, am shortly going to get 6 class ip*ds and one for me.
    4. Here is my but! I can teach when all technology fails, when the server is down, when the projector bulb goes and there is no money for a replacement, during a powercut. I can get on with my job. I know this is not so for everyone. Many of my class of 7 & 8 year olds do not have access to technology at home, through poverty in the main. The tools of paper, pencil, pen, crayon and books are essential for all of us, and I hope will remain so for a very long time.

  4. um….i had meant to ask…. what on earth is a visualiser?

    • It’s a scanner than instantly puts things on the screen. Useful for showing pupil’s work to the whole class or teaching with just one copy of the textbook.

      • Ahhhh… thank you!

        • They’re not just a scanner but a webcam on a stick, so they can do video as well – great for demonstrating detailed practical tasks to a whole class, like how to read a ruler. (I am not being paid for this btw. More’s the pity.)

          • I’ll bow to your greater knowledge. As I said, I don’t have one.

  5. I remember starting school and using a slate to write on. I was musing that it looked a bit like my iPad. I think the technology is great. I am not sentimental about paper, books, ink, pencils or reciting poetry from memory (though a good spirit stencil was a sensual joy).
    What concerns me is that reading and writing has been replaced by cut and paste, self-marking multiple choice and the video of the movie.
    I don’t think much reading is going on in the modern classroom and there is even less writing. It is great to have immediate access to information but I wonder if students know what the answer means.

  6. Great post, as usual. I think in reality many techno-zealots are just advocates for dumbing down simply using technology to justify their position. As a teacher trying to keep computer science alive in schools it’s a curiosity of my position that I am almost always on the opposite side to the techno-zealots.

    Since I am actually trying to teach how modern technology works rather than merely be a user of it I require students to have a solid grasp of maths, physics and programming; all difficult topics requiring students to have substantial retained knowledge rather than just access to information via the web. Despite the fact I have a degree in computer science and enthusiastically teach kids to program using the latest developer technology I often find myself accused of being behind the [educational] times. Its is amazing how many teachers seem to feel that understanding the technology that drives their lives is beneath them. You cannot underestimate the extent to which the ICT education lobby (largely populated by individuals lacking any technical knowledge) has driven dumbing down.

    Referring to your previous post about “criticising the education secretary” I have to say that in my view the fact that Gove has recognized that ICT is the epitome of a dumbed down, knowledge free subject is massively to his credit – even if it did take the intervention of Eric Schmidt (Chairman of Google) to bring the situation to his attention. I look forward to the promised replacement of ICT with “rigorous computer science” (DfE – 11th Jan 2012).

    Finally can I recommend you follow @CompAtSch an organisation dedicated to replacing worthless ICT lessons with a modern science.

  7. Firstly I would say that although I have disagreed with OA at various times over the last few years I tend to find that more recently I tend to agree with his views on just about all things educational, and it is strting to worry me.

    On technology I would say that as someone who had a career in technology from 1980 to 1996 when I entered the teaching game and one who uses technology for much of the day, I believe it helps me teach but I am unsure as to the extent to which it helps kids learn. I believe that learning is a remarkably simple exercise, described very adequately by Dunkin and Biddle when they talked of the learning transaction (long before I cam into teaching). Much of what I have done and read from 1996 until now makes me think that much of the paraphernalia that surrounds the learner is there for the benefit of the teacher, and not the learner and this for me is especially the case for technology.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think that technology has provided previously unimagined access to information which is presented to learners in an amazing variety of ways. Technology brings realism into the classroom so that the learner can perceive things that they could only conceive in the past. I could ramble for ages about the potential benefits of technology in the classroom and as tool to aid diagnostic interventions by teachers especially when used sparingly and thoughtfully.

    I could also ramble for ages about the ways in which technology is increasingly used to simply add layers to the onion in ways that just make the learning process more confusing for the learner.

    What I find difficult to fathom however is whether I find myself in the same position as professionals/scholars may have found themselves in since people began to think, and I have reached the point where the stuff that I was learning 40 years ago just won’t let me form up the ideas that are needed for the next 40 years. Maybe the technology evangelists are correct and the paraphernalia that I see as problem is actually solution to the problems my generation helped create.

    I understand that much of the following is misattributed to Petronius therefore I don’t feel to bad for tweaking it…..

    “Under the banner of reflective practice we tried to show that we were continually changing aspects of the learning transaction, making in more convoluted and complex.

    I was to learn later in life that we tend to give the impression that we are improving the teaching and learning processes by surrounding them with increasing amounts of paraphernalia; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while often producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

    bt0558 (2012)”

    As for Alex’s comment about ICT, I would wholeheartedly disagree. I think there is a market for Computer Science and another for ICT and the two rarely overlap in my view. ICT as time spent updating skills and knowledge in things technology is in my view extremely valuable but should not be confused with Computer Science. It’s a bit like PE and Sports Studies for me.

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