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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 8|No 9|June|1999




the Shallow

The Dangers of Ignoring History and the Research
on Change in Schools

by Jamie McKenzie

(About the Author)

Even though we have been trying to change schools for a very long time, many of the leaders of the recent drive to network classrooms appear unaware of that history. They show by their actions, their promises and their strategies that they have little understanding of the failures and mishaps that accompanied many earlier school change efforts. They appear unaware of educational research that outlines the elements of successful innovations. They seem headed for shallow waters as they emphasize the purchase and installation of equipment while underfunding organizational development and ignoring the lessons of the past.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


George Santayana

Article Contents

A History of Virtual Change?

Even though the Federal Government has funded hundreds of innovations during the past three or more decades, these innovative projects have often proven difficult to replicate, extend, transplant or prolong.
Virtual change is innovation that fails to take root. We may see much activity and much spinning of wheels, but the spinning of wheels may not take our students very far. The innovation may not translate into a substantial shift in daily classroom practice. Students may not learn more or act more competently.
We must not confuse the presence of "sound and fury" - cables, monitors or Internet "drops" - with real change. We must not assume that dozens of hours on the Internet will enhance student literacy, improve inferential reasoning or replace older information technologies such as books. We cannot expect that laptops will transform students into better writers simply by virtue of possession. Real change requires much more than the purchase of good equipment.

Research Example One - Michael Fullan

As perhaps the leading thinker about school change in this decade, Michael Fullan has created a substantial body of writing and research that should guide any school or district asking how to bring new technologies into classrooms successfully.
In The New Meaning of Educational Change (1992), Fullan examines the reform efforts of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in order to understand why so many initiatives failed to improve the lives of children and teachers.
Fullan emphasizes the difference between change and progress. Because not all change is for the good, he argues that we should be requiring that the innovation we are considering will actually enhance student performance or well being. In all too many cases, he shows that innovations were chosen for doubtful reasons in the past.
But even good ideas can flounder and innovations founder, according to Fullan, when implementation plans ignore school realities. High on his list of realities would be the factors combining to frustrate or derail most change efforts.
“How can it be that so much school reform has taken place over the last century yet schooling appears pretty much the same as it's always been?”

Larry Cuban

While it is beyond the scope of this article to summarize all of Fullan's findings and suggestions, a few examples should suffice to whet project leaders' appetites for a thorough reading of his work.
1) Fullan: The daily press (the need to take care of moment to moment classroom pressures) is a mammoth obstacle to be overcome if an innovation is ever going to take root.
Teachers are often constrained from thinking about new ways of organizing learning in their classrooms by the need to handle day to day issues, surprises, crises and challenges (Fullan's summary of research by both Huberman and Crandall, pp. 33-34). This daily press creates the following impacts:
  • enforces a short term perspective and an emphasis upon coping
  • isolates teachers from dialogue with colleagues
  • exhausts them - leaving little left for special efforts and sprints
  • limits opportunities for reflection
  • makes them dependent upon what they already know and prone to following routines

Wherever schools are networking or launching major reform efforts such as standards based curriculum drives, teachers lament that there is never enough time, yet planners often ignore the entire issue of the daily press as if good teachers will simply shrug it off.

So what? Buying lots of equipment without addressing the daily press is a dangerous strategy. Making robust use of networked computers requires many demanding changes from teachers that they are unlikely to welcome or embrace unless the district has provided some relief from the daily press.

2) Fullan: Those who ignore the social and cultural realities of schools while launching and implementing projects are not likely to make much progress.

Fullan emphasizes the need for addressing the subjective meaning of change (how it feels to participants) as well as the objective meaning of change (the key elements that may contribute to what Fullan terms "a change in practice.")
He sees three themes regarding subjective realities arising out of the literature . . .
  • "the typical situation of teachers is fixity."
  • "there is little room for change" and "when change is imposed from outside, it is bitterly resented."
  • "there is a strong tendency for people to adjust to the 'near occasion' of change by changing as little as possible." (pp. 35-36)

Fullan states the objective reality of change involves all three of the following dimensions working in concert:

  • materials and/or equipment
  • teaching and/or learning strategies
  • belief systems (p. 37)

Too much focus on one dimension without due attention to the others is a recipe for failure.

“Many proposals for change strike them (teachers) as frivolous - they do not address issues of boundedness, psychic rewards, time scheduling, student disruption, interpersonal support and so forth”


Lorrie (1975, p. 235, quoted by Fullan)

So what? Many schools have spent their entire technology budget on hardware and infrastructure. The most successful implementations will devote major funding to professional development designed to help staff modify their teaching strategies, learning strategies and belief systems.

3) Fullan: Some designs and strategies have worked for change much more effectively than others and we now possess the basis for wise choices.

From the history of school change efforts, Fullan extracts powerful lessons and design principles that should inform the planning of those who would network schools. In succeeding chapters, he lays out four simplified stages for the change process . . .

Initiation ----> Implementation ------> Continuation -----> Outcome
page 48
In Chapter Four, Fullan outlines the characteristics of effective change efforts within and across each of these stages, illustrating the complexity of actually changing classroom practice in a lasting manner. He demonstrates the importance of addressing the following issues before and then continually after launch:
  • relevance (practicality + need)
  • readiness (capacity + need)
  • resources (availability)

He also explores the interplay of need, clarity, complexity and quality as they intersect with various local characteristics.

So what? Every district technology plan should explicitly address the change process in a balanced manner and lay out an approach that is solidly anchored in what we know about effective strategies.

4) Fullan: Planning must be incredibly flexible and responsive to the actual experience, changing along with discoveries and surprises (of which there will be many).

In Chapter Five, Fullan outlines themes related to the actual process of change and shows how that process must become more organic and dynamic:
  • vision building
  • evolutionary planning
  • monitoring/problem-coping
  • initiative-taking and empowerment
  • staff development/resource assistance
  • restructuring

      p. 82

In Chapter Six, Fullan shows that many school reform efforts fail because the participants lack an understanding of change. He offers ten assumptions about change that should be well understood by participants and leaders alike.

So what? The most impressive returns on hardware investments will be won by those districts that define the venture as a change in the school's culture for learning rather than the mere equipping of classrooms with computers.
Unfortunately, few district technology plans look beyond hardware and physical resources in a manner consistent with Fullan's advice.

Research Example Two - Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban, currently a professor of education at Stanford, has provided important insight into school change by describing the often disappointing history of various attempts to bring new technologies into schools.
In his 1986 study, Cuban outlined the experience of schools with each succeeding wave of "miracle workers" - radio, film, television, computers - and provided hypotheses for why these tools failed to penetrate or transform classrooms to any great extent.

More recently, Cuban has been a steady voice challenging the least tenable assumptions of technologists and the exaggerated marketing claims of vendors. In an excellent 1998 article available online, Cuban teams with Kirkpatrick to summarize and characterize the findings of research on the effectiveness of new technologies.


When considering the single studies in general, what is striking is how few studies have policy relevance to the kinds of questions we asked and the prevalence of methodological flaws in many of the studies. We can say on the basis of these single studies that the results for achievement and attitude improvement from computer use are mixed at best. They provide a fragile basis for making policy or allocating resources for computers in classrooms.

"Computers Make Kids Smarter—Right?" By Heather Kirkpatrick and Larry Cuban
TECHNOS Quarterly For Education and Technology, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer 1998

The authors report that some evidence of (mild) benefits from computer assisted instruction (CAI and CMI) emerged from meta studies but indicate that there were few convincing, well designed studies of "computer enhanced instruction" (CEI) - an approach requiring substantial teacher skill.

. . . using computers beyond CAI and CMI applications means that teachers become critical elements in applying CEI. Thus in advocating the use of computers for more than improving standardized achievement scores, policymakers and administrators will find themselves facing the familiar conundrum in the history of school reform: teachers as both the problem and the solution. Teachers are designated as the problem that CAI and CMI address by more efficiently improving standardized test scores through individualized computer drills. Yet CEI, which is becoming more popular, requires teachers to play a far larger role in interactions between students and machines.
"Computers Make Kids Smarter—Right?" By Heather Kirkpatrick and Larry Cuban

Cuban and Kirkpatrick help to focus attention on teaching as the key ingredient in any successful technology adoption.

Research Example Three - Ellen Mandinach

One of the best documented efforts to explore the potential of new technologies to make change is the The Systems Thinking and Curriculum Innovation Network Project (STACIN) developed by Ellen Mandinach and her team at ETS, a project that tracked the use of a software program called STELLA(TM), a simulation-modeling package. The project extended for more than six years with six high schools and two middle schools.
Despite careful planning, a well designed training program and a very thoughtful implementation strategy, the researchers candidly reported that the introduction of systems thinking with STACIN took a long time, required considerable patience and worked best with teachers who were willing to tolerate a high degree of student control and surprise.
In a paper presented at AERA in 1992, "The Impact of Technological Innovation on Teaching and Learning Activities," Mandinach reports that movement in stage from survival, to mastery and then to impact (which means substantial infusion into the classroom activities) is much harder for some types of teachers than others:
We have observed that some teachers need to be completely knowledgeable about and feel confident of their mastery of the systems thinking approach in order to use it effectively. However, basic knowledge and confidence are not sufficient conditions to insure success in implementing the systems approach.
The teachers must be willing and able to share control of the classroom and learning process with the students. With traditional methods, teachers most often know what sorts of questions and responses students are likely to pose. Teachers therefore can impart knowledge and exercise control through their disciplinary expertise.
However with the systems thinking approach, these interactions change substantially. Because there are generally many solution paths with the systems approach, there is no way that a teacher can anticipate the range of questions and possible solutions students might suggest.
As the innovative technology (both theory and equipment) becomes a more prominent part of the classroom, the teacher no longer serves as the sole expert with absolute mastery and control of content knowledge and instructional procedures. Instead, learning becomes more interactive with responsibility shared among teachers and students.
The teachers no longer function solely as transmitters of content knowledge. Instead, they become facilitators of learning. Students play a more active role in their own learning. The shift often requires teachers to take risks and develop new instructional strategies to facilitate the learning process. They must relinquish deeply entrenched pedagogical behaviors. This creates some fundamental shifts in the way classrooms, teachers and students function. Not all teachers are capable of or willing to explore or accept this evolving role (pp. 10-11)."
Regrettably, the STACIN experience bolsters Cuban's pessimistic forecast for the chances of a fundamental shift in the use of technologies within schools. The paragraphs quoted above suggests that adult comfort (or control) needs often stand in the way of learning, pioneering and innovation.
So what? We are left with a real quandary . . . If we determine that this generation of students needs to be educated by "a guide on the side," not "a sage on the stage," what do we do with all the sages who refuse to be guides?
We have excellent models at hand from researchers like Mandinach to guide willing teachers comfortably from one stage to another if they are willing, but we have not confronted the challenge of those who will not spare any change. Can we convert sages into guides? Have we created professional development models that will make this transition likely?

Research Example Four - Steven Hodas

In his 1993 essay and review of the literature, "Technology Refusal and the Organizational Culture of Schools," Steven Hodas suggests that the purposes of many technologies run counter to the true or embedded purposes of schools, that they are rejected not so much because of flawed implementation plans as because these technologies seem alien to many of the teachers and administrators.

This paper proposes that technology is never neutral: that its values and practices must always either support or subvert those of the organization into which it is placed; and that the failures of technology to alter the look-and-feel of schools more generally results from a mismatch between the values of school organization and those embedded within the contested technology.

Hodas points out that schools are themselves a "technology" for the delivery of learning and can rapidly organize to resist pressures for new technologies, especially if the workers within the schools cannot recognize value behind the new offerings.

    Entrenched or mature organizations (like the organisms to which they are functionally and etymologically related) experience change or the challenge to change most significantly as a disruption, an intrusion, as a failure of organismic defenses. This is true tenfold for public schools since they and their employees are exempt from nearly every form of outside pressure which can be brought to bear on organizations that must adapt or die (Hodas citing Chubb & Moe, 1990; Friedman, 1962).

So what? Technology planners must not fall into the trap of thinking that classroom practice will change simply because we have changed the equipment in the room. If a majority of teachers in a school are intent upon covering curriculum content to score well on new state standards and tests, networked information technologies offering more opportunities for student investigations, research and problem-solving may be greeted with refusal and resistance rather than enthusiasm and adoption.

Research Example Five - Henry Becker

Henry J. Becker and his team have been surveying teachers across the United States to find out how they report their use of the Internet and other technology learning experiences.
Becker's studies have found that uses of the Internet and new technologies vary dramatically according to a teacher's philosophy and practice. Based on surveys of teachers across the nation, Becker contrasts the reported attitudes and practices of "traditional" teachers with others he calls "contructivist" teachers. (1999)
Teachers who believe strongly that good teaching involves facilitating independent student work rather than emphasizing direct instruction and skills practice, and who put those beliefs into practice, along with an emphasis on complex thinking, were much more likely to have their students use the Internet than were those who put relatively limited value on such approaches to teaching.
In addition, these teachers, whom we label "constructivist," were twice as likely to believe the Internet in the classroom to be essential to their teaching as those who were least constructivist. Similarly, for teacher Internet use, the most constructivist teachers (19% of all teachers) were two-and-one-half times as likely as the most traditional teachers (the 22% closest to the "traditional" end of the scale) to use the Internet for their own professional use.

So what? These are troubling findings given the current popularity of distributing computers evenly across classrooms in twos, threes and fours. Even though we have evidence that teacher commitment to use varies dramatically across teacher types, planners seem to be ignoring the evidence, hoping, perhaps, that the presence of computers will change their minds. While Becker is curious to determine if such transformations will occur, he reports no conclusive evidence of such changes.
Given the preference of most teachers in Becker's survey for "traditional" teaching strategies and their expressed concerns about state testing pressures, his report should raise eyebrows if it could just gain more widespread attention.
Most teachers (64%) report themselves to be more comfortable teaching in a traditional style than a constructivist one (28%), and more believe that even students prefer that type of instruction (53% to 37%) even though they believe that constructivist teaching is better for students in helping them gain useful skills.

We must not underestimate the difficulty of moving toward constructivist classrooms, as an excellent article by Mark Windschitl in the June, 1999 issue of Phi Delta Kappan explains . . .

Constructivism is premised on the belief that learners actively create, interpret, and reorganize knowledge in individual ways.
. . . students should participate in experiences that accommodate these ways of learning.
. . . before teachers and administrators adopt such practices, they should understand that constructivism cannot make its appearance in the classroom as a set of isolated instructional methods grafted on otherwise traditional teaching techniques.
page 752
The journey from traditional to student centered teaching is one that is rarely addressed by technology advocates and even more rarely funded, but new approaches to professional development offer hope.
Many of these have been described in articles at FNO and in eSchool News. Many of these articles may be found for free at a new Web site devoted to professional development . . . Others are available in my new book, How Teachers Learn Technology Best. Bellingham, WA, FNO Press. Order How Teachers Learn Technology Best from FNO Press.
In addition, there are a growing number of promising projects that deliver sustained professional development with a focus upon learning and curriculum . . .

An Example of Quality Professional Development
The American Social History Project

For any program to deliver what Fullan calls "change in practice," it must be sustained over time, supporting the teachers' continuing growth. The best programs offer concentrated introductions that are then followed by significant contact, support and refresher sessions over the next year or more. The best programs also require the invention of some kind of unit plan translating theory into practice.
Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, history and social studies teachers from around the United States may spend a week exploring how they may best take advantage of new technologies.
Quoting from the site . . .
The American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning (ASHP/CML) in cooperation with the American Studies Association's Crossroads Project, is offering five to six-day faculty development institutes to explore the issues of narrative and inquiry as they pertain to the interdisciplinary study of American culture, new media resources, and classroom learning.
As part of a yearlong faculty development program, the New Media Classroom Summer Institutes will feature an integrated approach that combines practical hands-on sessions, demonstrations, and group work revolving around successful strategies for introducing new technologies into the culture and history classroom. In particular, the institutes will emphasize the use of information technologies to engage students in active and authentic learning, with an emphasis on multicultural and multivocal approaches to American culture study.
The institutes will focus on pedagogical contexts and classroom practice with technology-enhanced approaches; faculty participants will also be able to spend some time learning technical skills through workshops and guided open planning time. Among the technologies covered will be:
  • online communication tools and discussion lists
  • the World Wide Web and CD-ROM's as research and reference tools (especially for electronic primary materials)
  • Web-based syllabi and course platforms
  • classroom presentation tools
  • programs for the creation of hypertext, hypermedia, and multimedia materials
The program makes use of an exciting Web site called History Matters that engages teachers in online learning experiences with the new media.
We emphasize materials that focus on the lives of ordinary Americans and actively involve students in analyzing and interpreting evidence.
Under the Magnifying Glass is an example of the exceptionally high quality online learning opportunities provided by History Matters to win the confidence and enthusiasm of participating teachers.
Every Picture Tells A Story:
Documentary Photography and the Great Depression
From 1935 to 1943, photographers working for the federal government produced the most enduring images of the Great Depression. Under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a small group of men and women created a pictorial record of the nation's hard times, primarily of rural American life. These publicly displayed pictures had a profound impact on contemporary viewers, and more than fifty years later the FSA photographs continue to shape Americans' views about the 1930s. Like other forms of historical evidence, these images conveyed the views of their creators as well as the audiences they were made for. As interpretations photographs remain valuable historical resources, but they need to be studied critically. This interactive exercise allows viewers to examine how some of the photos of the FSA's Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange were created, which photos were selected for publications, and how they were changed for public presentation.
The participants taste a rich learning experience that employs the new media technologies in service to an understanding of critically important curriculum issues.

An Example of Quality Professional Development
The Learning Web:
Curriculum Projects Using the Internet

This Nebraska initiative engages teams of teachers in three day summer institutes that lead to the creation of curriculum projects and ongoing support sessions throughout the year.

An Example of Quality Professional Development
WebQuests - Triton/Patterns - Fall Symposium 98

Developed for the San Diego Schools with Challenge Grant funding, this program engages teachers as teams constructing WebQuests.
Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T. M. (1990). POLITICS, MARKETS, AND AMERICA'S SCHOOLS. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.
Cuban, L. (1986). TEACHERS AND MACHINES: THE CLASSROOM USE OF TECHNOLOGY SINCE 1920. New York: Teachers College Press.
Friedman, M. (1962). CAPITALISM AND FREEDOM. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mandinach, E. and Cline, H. (1992). "The impact of technological curriculum innovation on teaching and learning activities." Paper presented at AERA.

Mandinach, E. and Cline, H. (1994). CLASSROOM DYNAMICS: IMPLEMENTING A TECHOLOGY-BASED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT. Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.


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