Technology should not drive education reform

October 22, 2015

Published in Troy Media

A recent OECD report dropped a bombshell on those who view technology as the driving force of education reform. The report found that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.”

The report was authored by Andreas Schleicher, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Hopefully this report slows down the mad rush to equip students of all ages with the latest computer gadgets.

Not only is this mindset incredibly expensive, it often undermines student learning.

At the same time, it is important not to react too far in the opposite direction. Schleicher does not advocate removing all computers from schools–they do have some benefits. For example, computers make it possible for teachers to provide up-to-date information to students, particularly in subjects like science where new discoveries happen regularly. Banishing computers from classrooms, particularly in high school, would be an unfortunate overreaction to Schleicher’s report.

So why does technology have such a poor track record in improving student achievement? After all, the OECD report is not nearly the first time education researchers have pointed out the limited benefits of technology in schools. Larry Cuban, for example, an education professor at Stanford University, has said for years that technology manufacturers regularly make overhyped and unsubstantiated promises about the latest gadgets.

Even researchers who believe that technology is beneficial in classrooms have warned against implementing it uncritically. In the International Handbook on Student Achievement (2013), Peter Reimann and Anindito Aditomo of the University of Sydney, reviewed a number of research studies and found that technology has “a positive, albeit small, impact on students’ achievement across many content areas.” They go on to caution that “claims that any particular technology will necessarily bring large, radical, or revolutionary improvement in academic achievement should be met with skepticism.”

Perhaps the best way to address this issue is to ask what actually has the biggest impact on student achievement. The answers are not hard to find. Strong teacher-student relationships, direct instruction, coherent curriculum, focused practice, and timely feedback from teachers all have large positive impacts on student achievement. Each of these can take place in the presence or absence of technology. So neither implementing nor removing technology is the key to improving student achievement.

Unfortunately, some of the strongest advocates of integrating technology in the classroom are simultaneously pushing education reforms that go against the research evidence. One of the most obvious examples is Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, which downplays the need for teachers to impart specific knowledge and skills to students. Nowhere is this blind adherence to ideology more apparent than in the province’s stubborn refusal to abandon discovery math, despite mountains of research showing the superiority of direct instruction and focused practice.

The age-old saying that a teacher should be a “guide by the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” is not only bad poetry, it is bad advice. Teachers should be front and centre in the classroom teaching, explaining new concepts, showing students how to solve problems, and providing immediate, corrective feedback so students can fix their mistakes right away and not two weeks later. Thus, teachers should be encouraged to set the direction of learning and provide clear, focused lessons to their students.

All too often, technology is used to push teachers off to the side and deemphasize direct instruction. It is no coincidence that the wholesale adoption of technology in the classroom is a central component of Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative. In fact, the Inspiring Education blueprint goes so far as to say that students need to “use these new technologies as designers and creators of knowledge.” In other words, teachers should just get out of the way and let students get on with the business of creating new knowledge—a surefire recipe for educational failure.

When technology leads to a greater reliance on ineffective instructional practices, it is bound to have a negative impact on student achievement. The recent OECD report serves as a poignant reminder that it is a mistake to put all your educational eggs in the technology basket. Instead, schools should focus on doing things the evidence actually supports. The quality of teaching is far more important than the type of technology used in the classroom.

New tablets for pupils less useful than old math method they come with

August 23, 2013

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Math instruction this fall is going to look quite different for approximately 300 Grade 7 students. Two major businesses and the province of Nova Scotia are providing the funds to purchase tablet computers for these students and their teachers.

If this $1-million pilot project is successful, the program may even expand to other grade levels and schools.

I predict this pilot project will be a big success, but not because of the tablet computers.

Simply introducing more technology in classrooms has only a limited impact on learning and is hardly worth the significant costs involved. Instead, this pilot project will succeed because it will revolutionize math instruction.


Because these tablets will enable students to receive instruction from the Khan Academy, a non-profit education website created in 2006 by Salman Khan. With more than 3,000 instructional videos available online at no charge, the Khan Academy is used by students around the world to learn about subjects as diverse as history, mathematics, and cosmology.

Anyone who takes the time to watch some of the instructional math videos on the Khan Academy’s website will quickly see some familiar concepts.

For example, the videos show how to add and subtract by placing one number on top of the other and working digit-by-digit from right to left. Multiplication is demonstrated using the standard vertical format while the traditional long division algorithm is consistently used as well.

In fact, all of the standard mathematical algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division feature prominently in these videos. Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of the approach recommended by education faculties where teachers are trained.

Under the influence of math education professors, provincial curriculum guides and math textbooks have been systematically expunged of the standard algorithms.

The underlying philosophy behind this “new math” approach is often called constructivism. Advocates say students need to construct their own ways of doing math.

So, they argue, instead of showing students the most efficient way of solving a question, teachers should give them open-ended word problems and encourage them to invent their own problem-solving strategies.

One of the most prominent “new math” advocates was the late John Van de Walle, formerly a math education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. In his widely circulated book series, Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics, Van de Walle disparaged the teaching of standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He also argued that skill-based drill and practice makes it harder for students to gain a deep conceptual understanding of mathematics.

Some math education professors go so far as to claim that teaching the standard algorithms to students is developmentally harmful.

Constance Kamii, professor of early childhood education at the University of Alabama, co-authored a widely influential paper in 1998 entitled “The harmful effects of algorithms in grades 1-4.” Even though the arguments contained in this paper have been thoroughly debunked by real math professors, Kamii’s dubious research is regularly cited by “new math” advocates.

The Atlantic Canada Mathematics Curriculum, which is used in Nova Scotia, was strongly influenced by these education professors and their disciples. In addition, commonly used math textbooks such as Math Makes Sense and Math Focus are also heavily infused with the constructivist approach as it is almost impossible to find any standard algorithms in either of these textbook series. Instead, students are given convoluted word problems, poorly designed algorithms, and unclear directions.

So when Grade 7 students in this pilot project receive their tablet computers and watch the Khan Academy instructional videos featuring standard math algorithms, they will finally be exposed to math that makes sense. Once they learn the most efficient way of solving math questions, students won’t be particularly interested in going back to the fuzzy math that appears in their textbooks.

Of course, all of this could be done without bringing a single tablet into any classroom. Teachers could teach the standard algorithms using textbooks that actually contain proper step-by-step directions. While watching a solid instructional video about a math technique is good, getting the same lesson from a teacher in the classroom who can answer questions is even better.

There is a certain amount of irony that the Nova Scotia students who use cutting edge technology are going to end up learning math the old-fashioned way. Students in this pilot project are fortunate because they are going to do math properly, not because they get to play with fancy tablets.

Gadgets in classrooms are gimmicks

June 6, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

According to many education gurus, incorporating technology in the classroom is the key to a solid 21st century education. As a result, school superintendents race to be the first to purchase the latest gadgets, while principals boast about the extent to which technology has been embedded in their schools.

Recently, CBC Manitoba reported that a Winnipeg school division plans to make iPads mandatory for all grades 6 to 8 students. During a public information session, parents were informed that tablets would soon become as essential in the classroom as basketballs are in a basketball game. These iPads are expected to replace textbooks, maps, and other printed classroom materials.

However, before rushing to equip schools with the latest technological gadgets, it is prudent to ask whether this will improve student learning. Considering the significant cost of purchasing, maintaining, and upgrading technological devices such as iPads, we need to ensure that it is not simply another expensive fad.

Peter Reiman and Anindito Aditomo of the University of Sydney recently conducted an analysis of the research literature about the impact of technology on student achievement. Their findings were published in the International Guide to Student Achievement (2013). They conclude that most studies show only a moderate academic benefit from technology and that “the effect of computer technology seems to be particularly small in studies that use either large samples or randomized control groups.”

In other words, rigorous research studies reveal that the wholesale introduction of computer technology in classrooms has, at best, only a limited impact on student achievement. One needs to ask whether this modest benefit justifies making technology the focus of school reform.

Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, certainly doesn’t think so. In an article published in the April 17, 2013 edition of Education Week, Cuban notes that technology purveyors have promised for decades that schools need the latest gadget to engage their students. To make his point, Cuban quotes from an early typewriter ad that promises to “raise her marks,” a filmstrip ad that says it can help “pupils comprehend faster,” and an Apple ad that tells teachers that an Apple IIe “makes it easy to become attached to your students.” While the technology may change, the overblown promises remain the same.

If schools truly wish to improve academic achievement, they should focus on the three essentials of learning – a content-rich curriculum, sound lessons, and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline. In his 2011 book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, Mike Schmoker demonstrates that schools focusing on these three things substantially outperform schools that do not. According to Schmoker, technology is unnecessary when it comes to improving student achievement and too much emphasis on technology can get in the way of these learning essentials.

For example, Schmoker notes that reading properly written textbooks is the type of reading students need to do more often. “Textbooks, along with other carefully selected nonfiction documents, afford students the kind of content-rich, semantically rich prose that . . . students need to acquire and critically process essential knowledge,” writes Schmoker. While students may read some non-fiction on their iPads, it is unlikely they will read the same amount of dense, complex prose they would normally encounter in a course textbook.

Some technology advocates suggest that iPads are better than regular textbooks because they can provide more up-to-date information to students. However, this argument overlooks the fact that most sound textbook content is not outdated. The history of Canadian Confederation remains the same now as it was 10 years ago, as do most of the basic scientific concepts students need to understand. When updates are needed, there is nothing stopping teachers from providing supplemental information to their students.

Anyone who thinks students will be left behind if schools do not incorporate the latest technological gadgets needs to take a deep breath. The reality is that students have no difficulty learning how to use technology whether or not schools show them how to do it. In fact, using the latest technology is something that comes naturally to most young students. What does not come naturally is the kind of intense, systematic reading and writing that only happens if it is explicitly taught.

Before school administrators rush to adopt the latest technological gadget, they need to ask themselves whether it is the wisest course of action. Technology may be flashy and exciting, but it should not be the driver of education reform.