A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Systemic Reform: Perspectives on Personalizing Education - September 1994

Realizing the Promise of Technology: The Need for Systemic Education Reform*

Jane L. David

The Unfulfilled Promise of the 1980s

Technology** holds great potential for revolutionizing education. This claim has been widely heard since microcomputers first appeared well over a decade ago. Since then, technology's exponentially increasing power, decreasing costs, portability, and connectivity have surpassed the wildest dreams of the early 1980s. Yet inside classrooms across the country, there is little evidence that any kind of revolution has occurred, and remarkably little evidence of technology.

The primary reason technology has failed to live up to its promise lies in the fact that it has been viewed as an answer to the wrong question. Decisions about technology purchases and uses are typically driven by the question of how to improve the effectiveness of what schools are already doing--not how to transform what schools do. Consequently, choices about instructional hardware and software are based on whether they are likely to increase standardized test scores. Choices about administrative technology are made to facilitate existing financial and recordkeeping systems. Moreover, as has been typical with innovations of the past, scant attention has been paid to preparing teachers and administrators to use new technology well and even less to their preferences about hardware and software. Instead, the acquisition of technology has been viewed as an end in itself, and the more "teacher-proof" the better.

Systems designed specifically to increase standardized tests scores on basic skills--and do recordkeeping as well--have grabbed the largest share of the market. The focus on raising test scores as justification for investing in technology and the corresponding lack of investment in educating teachers and administrators about technology--and effective ways of learning--makes school districts easy targets for marketing claims by hardware and software vendors. Vendors who can demonstrate "alignment" with existing curricula and tests are more likely to make large sales than those who push technology as a tool to transform teaching and learning. Educator and policymaker bewilderment about technology simply adds to the appeal of individualized, self-paced systems that require little, if any, teacher involvement. Moreover, the laboratory setting usually required for such systems ensures that teachers will remain uninvolved.

Imagine how different schools might look today if, instead of increasing the efficiency of current practice, the main goal for purchasing and using hardware and software had been to transform teaching and learning. The education reform agenda of the 1990s offers this opportunity. This new agenda is driven by a very different conception of what students should know and be able to do, how people learn, and, correspondingly, how schools and school systems should be organized.

Why the 1990s Are Different

The systemic reform agenda of the 1990s no longer aims to improve what schools are already doing. National and state policymakers, including governors as well as education and business leaders, now imagine a restructured education system that qualitatively increases the performance of all students. The language of this reform communicates a very different image of teaching and learning from the traditional one in which teachers "deliver" knowledge and assign seatwork. The new image captures a much more dynamic view of schooling in which teachers guide students through individual and collaborative activities that encourage inquiry and the construction of knowledge. Table 1 depicts some of the major ways in which educators (as well as students and the community) are being asked to change their beliefs about instruction. This conception of teaching and learning is much more compatible with the early visions of technology's promise.

There is an equally dramatic and analogous shift in the conception of how organizations change and the appropriate role of policy in that process. Previous waves of reform have amply demonstrated the futility of mandating challenging curriculum without changing the rest of the system in ways that support teachers. Policies to transform teaching and learning must transform the organization of schools and school systems as well. This new view of parallel organizational and instructional transformation shifts the role of policymaker, like that of the teacher, from telling others what to do to leading and supporting others to continually learn and improve. Policy changes from a tool to prescribe and control behavior to a tool to empower people and facilitate change with appropriate checks and balances.

This goal of systemic change--recreating an education system in which all students can reach much more challenging performance standards--puts the potential of technology in a very different light. The question is no longer how to use technology to do the same thing better. Now the question is how to use technology to change practice to reach new goals--as a catalyst for change and as a tool in creating, implementing, managing, and communicating a new conception of teaching and learning and a system that supports it. The olds goals as assessed by standardized achievement tests do not fall by the wayside. In fact, there is evidence that "basic skills" as defined by these tests are learned at least as well if not better through the kinds of more intellectually challenging experiences (Knapp, Shields, & Turnbull, 1992).

                                    Table 1.
Shifts in Teacher Beliefs and Practices About:          Instruction         -->     Construction
  Classroom activity            Teacher centered    -->     Learner centered                               Didactic                    Interactive  Teacher role                  Fact teller         -->     Collaborator                               Always expert               Sometimes learner  Student role                  Listener	          -->     Collaborator                               Always learner              Sometimes expert  Instructional goals           Facts               -->     Relationships                               Memorization                Inquiry and                                                           Invention  Concept of knowledge          Accumulation of     -->     Transformation                               facts                       of facts  Demonstration of success      Quantity of         -->     Quality of                               memorized facts             understanding  Assessment                    Norm-referenced	          Criterion-                               Multiple-choice     -->     referenced                               instruments                 Portfolios and                                                           performances 

Source: Dwyer & Ringstaff (1992)

Numerous examples of how technology can be used to transform teaching and learning exist across a wide variety of students and settings. These examples demonstrate that, under certain conditions, technology can stimulate and facilitate the introduction of project-based activities, student and teacher collaboration, and cross-disciplinary work. These experiences also document a range of outcomes that extend well beyond skill-based multiple choice items. See, for example, Pogrow (1990); Stearns et al (1991); Tierney et al (1992); Zorfass et al (1991).

Each of these efforts demonstrates that technology can be the vehicle for significantly changing what happens in classrooms and greatly expanding how and what students learn. For example, Tierney et al (1992) reports that high school students, after four years of exposure to computers as tools for exploration, "became independent and collaborative problem-solvers, communicators, record-keepers, and learners with the computers." (p. 11)

Although these interventions differ in technology applications, subject matter, student characteristics, and numerous other factors, they share three significant factors. First, they are based on the premise that understanding and problem solving require activities that engage students in constructing knowledge. Second, they incorporate intensive support for teachers' professional development. And, third, they involve only a small number of classrooms or schools.

In fact, the success of these projects has less to do with technology and more to do with the philosophy of learning and conception of professional development that they embody. Project staff provide ongoing assistance, facilitation, and professional development to teachers in support of transforming their practice. These knowledgable people are available on site and on line to guide, cajole, answer questions, as well as to offer specific training, development, and support. These support staff are learning alongside teachers what it takes to create inquiry-based learning environments. This is a far cry from the traditional workshop/training model of professional development. It is much closer to the kinds of learning opportunities teachers are asked to create for students.

The very reasons for the success of these small interventions are the reasons they have not been possible on a large scale. First, their goals and assumptions about teaching and learning are at best out of sync and at worst in direct conflict with school, district, and state goals for student learning. Second, they require a huge investment--some of which goes into technology but much of which goes into the people and the time to support major changes in practice.

Creating these kinds of new practices is difficult in the best of circumstances. In an inhospitable environment, they are impossible. In the current system, such interventions run counter to a multitude of existing policies and attitudes including the curriculum, what is tested and how, the ways teachers are evaluated, the expectations of students, parents and administrators, the school calendar and schedule, course requirements, and so on. The list is quite long. Like an interlocking jigsaw puzzle, trying to change the piece in the center--where students and teachers interact-- without changing all the layers of surrounding pieces is ultimately futile. With tremendous effort the shape of the piece can be changed, but over time the pressure from the other pieces of the system will force it to conform. Significant changes in teaching and learning require significant changes in the entire system.

* I am indebted to the participants in the 1992 Christa McAuliffe Institute Summer Conference, sponsored by the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, who took time from their busy schedules to answer my questions.

**I use "technology" to encompass the whole range of new technologies from multi-media production to personal computing and telecommunications.

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