Archive for March 14th, 2012


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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