TT #13 – Student Centered Instruction and Technology

It is not often that Traditionalist Teacher gets frightened, but it happened this summer. No, TT was not taking a break on the beach, reading a thriller. Nor did the hair-raising experience take place in a movie theater with 3-D glasses and surround sound to build the tension. The vehicle that made TT’s flesh crawl was an article on the Education Week website.

For those who are not familiar with it, Education Week is – as the name implies – a weekly newspaper aimed at professional educators. Notice that Traditionalist Teacher said “educators” not “teachers”. In thirty-plus years in the trenches, TT has never seen a copy of Education Week in a teachers’ classroom. Nor is it to be found in the teachers’ lounge or in many secondary school libraries. It is not referred to when teachers talk about teaching.

With a basic annual subscription rate of $89.94 for print + digital and $74.94 for all digital, probably the only person who gets Education Week in your school is the principal. Your superintendent and his/her staff get it. So too does, TT imagines, every school of education in the country. Consultants write articles for it and use it to obtain bookings for conventions and professional development days.

Basically, if you are involved in education but do not have the responsibility to actually teach, you probably read Education Week.

At any rate, Traditionalist Teacher’s main goal is not to revile this journal, but to use it as an illustration of the set of ideas that may well be going through the heads of the administrators to whom you and I answer. It was a glimpse of that world that frightened TT so badly.

The specific article carried an unthreatening title, “Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach”. [1]

The first paragraph was innocuous enough, simply relating the statistic that public schools provide roughly one computer for every five students. It goes on to point out that many students also use their own devices in class.

Fair enough. Traditionalist Teacher is no technophobe. TT remembers the days when an illustration needed to be drawn on the blackboard, reproduced onto an overhead transparency, or passed from hand to hand during class. Presentation software like PowerPoint has markedly improved instruction in TT’s classroom. Computerized grade books are easier for the teacher and offer more immediate and complete information to students and parents. It is much easier to produce or revise classroom materials through the use of a word processor than it was in the days of typewriter and mimeograph.

The first real punch comes in the second and third paragraphs:

But a mountain of evidence indicates that teachers have been painfully slow to transform the ways they teach, despite that massive influx of new technology into their classrooms. The student-centered, hands-on, personalized instruction envisioned by ed-tech proponents remains the exception to the rule.

“The introduction of computers into schools was supposed to improve academic achievement and alter how teachers taught,” said Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban. “Neither has occurred.”

There was a phrase to threaten any traditionalist teacher to the core, “student-centered, hands-on, personalized instruction”. Those who have read this blog before will have perhaps picked up the idea that TT is no fan of the phrase “student-centered instruction”. (Those who are new to this page might want to take a look at previous postings, especially numbers four and five.)

In Traditionalist Teacher’s never-to-be-humble opinion, the term student-centered is designed to prejudice the hearer/reader into a particular point of view. If you ask the average parent or community member if instruction should be student- or teacher-centered, most (and probably all) of them will say student-centered. What they are thinking is that the instruction should be designed to meet the needs of the student, not the teacher. If that were the definition, TT would agree.

However, that is not what the educationists mean when they use that term. If I may further quote from the same article:

In the digital age, the ISTE [International Society for Technology in Education] standards say, teachers should be expected, among other strategies, to “engage students in exploring real-world issues and solving authentic problems using digital tools and resources.” They should also “develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to become active participants in setting their own educational goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress.”

If you please, re-read the last part of that quotation, starting with the word “enable” and let it sink in, because that is what the educationists mean when they say “student-centered instruction”.

This view fits beautifully into the Dewey-ite philosophy that truth is subjective, and that each student discovers his or her truth for him/herself. It envisions a world in which students are knowledge sponges in a quest for enlightenment, and that teachers have all-too-often acted to thwart students’ learning by imposing time-tables and standards upon them. When they speak the phrase “teacher-centered” they are envisioning soul-destroying cells of rigid dogmatism in which the teacher drones on, not knowing or caring if the students are learning.

If that accurately described traditionalist classrooms, then we should all resign.

That is not Traditionalist Teacher’s classroom. TT uses questioning well, and searches for ways to tie the historical subject matter to students’ daily lives. TT’s students are respected, pick their own seats, and are given almost unlimited time to turn in late work with little or no penalty. TT’s students are as engaged as students in other classes in the school. Many of TT’s students express the idea that they enjoy the class – and not just to TT’s face, but to administrators as well.

However, none of that makes any difference if Traditionalist Teacher is being observed and spends a half-hour in direct instruction – which is what TT’s district calls lecture, a teaching technique so reviled that it dare not speak its name.

Like most teachers in the US today, Traditionalist Teacher works in a school system that gives lip service to this concept, especially when evaluating teachers – but actually fails to follow it when it comes to administrative decision making. TT has yet to see a school system in which students actually set “their own education goals” or “manage their own learning”. For many, perhaps most, of TT’s students, their education goal is to grab a diploma and get out of the school, and their idea of managing their own learning is to do as little of it as possible. Yes, it’s cynical, and I wish it weren’t true, but it is. (And to any “progressives” who may be reading, it is true in your classroom, too. Go ahead, test it – if you dare – and ask you students if they would rather be in your classroom or at the beach.) Additionally, TT is also skeptical about the ability of students who have assessed “their own progress” to pass the standardized exams imposed upon us by the apostles of the Common Core.

But Traditionalist Teacher digresses. This blog is not about any one classroom, but about a set of practices.

What, the reader might ask, does the article say about traditional teachers and their use of technology? Again, to quote:

Indeed, a host of national and regional surveys suggest that teachers are far more likely to use technology to make their own jobs easier and to supplement traditional instructional strategies than to put students in control of their own learning.

GUILTY! What a selfish bunch we are! We are trying to be more efficient and we are actually using technology to augment strategies that have worked for us in the past instead of embracing the Brave New World of educational technology.

Traditionalist Teacher intends to go on doing exactly that – believing that an accurate presentation of fact is superior to a student’s uninformed (or semi-informed) opinion.

To ask another rhetorical question, what does the Brave New World of student-centered education look like? The article takes us there, as well:

That pretty much describes Robyn L. Howton’s Advanced Placement English class at the 1,100-student Mount Pleasant High School, a neighborhood comprehensive high school with just-above-average state test scores, located on the outskirts of Wilmington.

On a warm May morning, 26 Mount Pleasant 11th graders were scattered around Ms. Howton’s room, sitting in groups of three or four. They were midway through a project-based unit on social-justice movements. Their goal: Produce independent research papers on topics of their choice, then collaboratively develop a multimedia presentation of their findings with classmates researching the same issue.

And what project within this educational nirvana is spotlighted? Are we looking at concepts of social-justice as reflected in classic literature – like, maybe, the depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice? Perhaps we are looking at a classic theme in a more modern source, like the triumph of hope over adversity in Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. No, this coterie of students is feeding its sense of being oppressed through the study of, “injustices in the U.S. criminal-justice system”, chosen by one of the group’s members because, “my own family has problems with the law, so I understand part of it.”

Why ever would we want to bring up such commonplace commentators on the human condition as Shakespeare and King when we have in our midst an authority equal to that of a junior in an AP class in a suburban high school?

Why, indeed.

[1] http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/06/11/why-ed-tech-is-not-transforming-how.html?qs=Why+Ed+TEch+is+not+Transforming+Teaching

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7 comments on “TT #13 – Student Centered Instruction and Technology
  1. I am trying to start a formal, influential blog and I want to make sure it is professional. Since I have little to no blogging experience, I am trying to save some time by asking you..

    • Ed says:

      I am afraid that I am not the person to ask. I am not a professional blogger. I am merely a long-time teacher who has some ideas that may be able to help other teachers.

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    • Ed says:

      Thank you. What encouraged you to respond to this particular post? I would enjoy hearing more about your reactions and whether your experienced reinforce or challenge the points that I have made here.

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