Saturday, July 15, 2006

technological change and systemic change

Technological innovation does not equal systemic or cultural change. Systemic change is much harder. Technological innovation can be used by "progressives" (not defined) to promote systemic change but in itself will not achieve that goal. It helps but is not sufficient.

In the end this may be why revolutions or other forms of dramatic change are necessary - because the gap between what is possible and what the system allows to happen becomes so great. This may build up to a point where the critical mass of those crying out for change snowballs sufficiently that change must happen.

We are not at that point. We are at a point where technological educational reform (blogs, wikis, podcasts etc.) are simultaneously both encouraged and discouraged by the system. Encouraged because innovation is seen by some as good and necessary. Discouraged (eg. by censor-ware) because innovation is seen by some as dangerous and faddish. Yes, the system is schitzophrenic.

This introduction situates some new points raised by Leigh Blackall in April on the TALO list:

1) new technologies, blogs, wikis (the read write web) are relatively simple cf. programming languages (remember logo), CSS, HTML etc.
2) new technologies are close to emergent youth culture, such as mobile communications, video games etc.
"By doing so we believe teachers will rediscover the relevance in their topics that their students need and crave. By doing so we believe teacher's live's, attitudes and moral will improve. By doing so we believe teachers will discover ways of integrating those "distractions" such as mobile phones, MP3 Xbox, PSP and television players and laptops, into their classroom activities. By doing so we believe teachers will learn how to communicate better in our digitally networked world."
So, to ask for school reform along these lines - incorporating blogs, wikis, mobile phones into the curriculum is not asking a great deal.

Leigh raised this in the context of native web systems being better than custom made school Learning Management Systems (such as Moodle)

Leigh raised and was critical about two excuses made by teachers for not learning new technologies:
1. teachers too busy
2. show me the evidence that it will help learning

I suspect Leigh is correct on the LMS point (I go that way myself) but I haven't fully investigated it and until I have I decline to be critical of those who use moodle etc. The reports I hear are good.

Since then Leigh has further refined his ideas around the slogan, Teaching is dead, long live learning. Bad slogan IMO. But that would be another essay. It might be fair to say that Leigh no longer adheres to the views being critiqued here. Nevertheless, the viewpoint is worth critiquing as a viewpoint.

In this essay, I'm addressing the broader question of the slowness of the "computer revolution" in schools and some reasons for that.

SHORT ANSWER (on the TALO list last April)

In so far as you (Leigh) are not asking too much (blogs and wikis are not hard) then you will not achieve too much - to integrate any new things into learning successfully does require real knowledge, insight, effort, belief, passion - if it is done mechanically then it won't work very well

In reality you are asking for a lot, that schools adapt to integrate modern youth culture, such as mobile phones, into their curriculum - for schools that is a big change (huge) wrt their established power relationships. That change is highly desirable IMO but it's not right to suggest that it is not asking for a lot

You have started by saying that this technology is relatively simple (true to an extent only) and then allowed that to slide into the suggestion that systemic change of power relationships in schools could be simple (not true)

The danger of the oversimplification is to invite the sort of comments that Bronwyn has made (on the TALO list) about teachers, suggesting stridently that in general teachers who don't adopt these technologies don't care for their kids (which is far from the truth)


1) The "IT revolution" - the transformation to "being digital" is happening but slowly, at a snail's pace really. Some people want it move a lot faster (me included), others want it to move much slower and the majority are content to jog along at the current rate (not too threatening).

2) Teachers. There are real and significant reasons why many teachers don't change as rapidly as we would like

3) Systems. There are real and significant reasons why School (capital S, as social institution) resist change

4) Learning theory. Why should the high tech path be the best way forward? Some thoughtful educators are not yet convinced.


There are very good - brilliant - teachers who have computers at home which are rarely switched on

Teachers have a subculture within a broader system consisting of department culture, teacher culture and student culture. I have discussed this previously in the context of Disadvantaged schools. The basic teacher priority is to survive in what is an incredibly complex and demanding job. Steering a path through conflicting and contradictory demands of the system takes up a lot of energy.

Teacher priorities can often consume all energy - behaviour management, the workload of 5 lines, the marking etc. etc.

Teachers are too busy. That is not an excuse. Teachers are too busy.

Another argument used for not learning computing is that the Department should provide inservice time for teachers to learn these new things. The reality however is that only IMMERSION works and no Department can ever provide that. The desire to master computers must come from within.

Access to computers in schools is still limited. The slow uptake of open source wastes money. The MicroSoft agreement slows down this process.

Real real world communities have very different cultures to real virtual world communities. The internet is still a new frontier. School is the last cottage industry.

There are significant generational issues, the average teacher age is 45+ which puts most teachers outside of the inner world of the digital native.

Teachers have a reflexive opposition (part healthy, part unhealthy) to the evangelical / strident note that some reformers strike. We have heard it many times before.

What teachers respect is leadership by example. Not polemics. Not philosophy. "Come into my classroom and show me how it is done".

As part of this discussion on the TALO list, botts came up with a great fear list:
  • fear of the unknown;
  • fear of looking stupid;
  • fear of new technology;
  • fear of loss of power;
  • fear of loss of control;
  • fear of not knowing as much as the students;
  • fear of change;
  • fear of getting it wrong;
  • fear of peers;
  • fear of the speed of change;
  • fear of losing all the work we do;
  • fear of others stealing our work;
  • fear of students cheating because they can do hacker stuff;
  • fear of the expectations that may be created by taking up this new way;
  • fear of not being good enough;
  • fear of those who are "experts";
As well as fear there is reticence which is just as important, maybe more so


The system (institutionalised education, School for short) has some or all of these characteristics / ways of thinking and doing:

The computer is just a tool (WRONG), not a new medium for the sharing and manipulation of all human knowledge for everyone

The curriculum is used as a blunt instrument of control over what is taught in schools. Teachers fiddle at the edges all the time but major transformation (what is needed) is nullified by this instrument of control

The Department thinks: "We control". Teachers think: "We shut the classroom door and do our thing" The reality often is that each is thwarting the vision and hopes of the other.

Computers are integrated into the curriculum. This is like using the piano for firewood because the average teacher does not have the required skills in use of the computer. "School Education is an invitation to a banquet and then you are served the menu" - Murray Gell Mann

Schools have a social function. (1) Production, churning out productive citizens (2) (Social)Reproduction, churning out compliant citizens. That is the bottom line. Schools have dual and contradictory purposes. Thinking about Schools, technology and change needs to start from understanding this basic point.

Schools are well managed ship wrecks designed to select the best swimmers

School as an analog system resists digital change and incorporates the computer into itself and remoulds the computer in it's own image. Not vice versa. There is a very nice Papert quote about this from The Childrens Machine:
... an innate intelligence of School, which acted like any living organism in defending itself against a foreign body. It put into motion an immune reaction whose end result would be to digest and assimilate the intruder. Progressive teachers knew very well how to use the computer for their own ends as an instrument of change. Schools knew very well how to nip this subversion in the bud.

Within schools there is turf war over the curriculum and time allocations. Turf war, not what is good for overall development of schools, computers, children.

School admins vary considerably in attitude to technology. Management skills do not correlate with technological readiness and even less with the epistemological transformation that could be rendered through a radical uptake.


Why should anyone accept that this particular new thing (new technology) is better than any other particular new thing? This point was raised by Seb at a PowerHouse Museum discussion about the Marc Prensky visit.

Maybe there are other great, excellent learning theories / ideas that are going to transform education radically. Seb raised the example of Kieran Egan. Maybe there are dozens of such theories? Why on earth should technological innovation be regarded so highly?

I think similar discussions have already been had 20 years ago wrt the promises and disappointments that grew up around the programming language logo

Papert eventually was forced to respond to the critique that logo was not delivering the goods because they could not be measured clearly and he accused his critics of being "technocentric"
"Consider for a moment some questions that are "obviously" absurd. Does wood produce good houses? If I built a house out of wood and it fell down, would this show that wood does not produce good houses? Do hammers and saws produce good furniture? These betray themselves as technocentric questions by ignoring people and the elements only people can introduce: skill, design, aesthetics. Of course these examples are caricatures. In practice, hardly anyone carries technocentrism that far. Everyone realizes that it is carpenters who use wood, hammers, and saws to produce houses and furniture, and the quality of the product depends on the quality of their work. But when it comes to computers and LOGO, critics (and some practitioners as well) seem to move into abstractions and ask "Is the computer good for the cognitive development of the child?" and even "Does the computer (or LOGO or whatever) produce thinking skills?"
Substitute the word LOGO in the above with "blog", "wiki" and you have a similar argument about Leigh's call for the transformative power of modern technology.

My criticism Leigh, is not that your position is wrong (I believe it is right) but that you have over simplified something that is quite complex. Your argument sounds like a technocentric magic bullet.


Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Bill, my response is a long one, so I've linked it in as a comment.

Doug Noon said...

Your essay is one of the more comprehensive explorations of institutional resistance to change in schools I've seen. I enjoyed this very much, and will probably reread it a few times before I've grabbed up all the goodies.

Distinctions between objective and subjective dangers in mountaineering are important for climbers to be aware of, since some we can manage and some we have to anticipate and live with. Looking at schooling as a blend of technologies and cultural influences helps to bring the various influences at play into clearer focus. You're right that it's not a simple matter, and the timetable is probably a lot longer than we'd like to think.z

Bill Kerr said...

hi leigh,

thanks for detailed response at your blog - not sure how quickly I can get back but will try

hi doug,

yes, if you are climbing a mountain and underestimate the difficulties then you are in deep shit - so if we are serious about changing schools then we need to know deeply what they really are

however, that understanding might speed the transformation, not slow it?

I wouldn't want my insistence of examining the reality of Schools to dampen the revolutionary spirit of those who want to radically transform them

Tony Forster said...

Um.. a late comment to this thread
you say of teachers: "The reality however is that only IMMERSION works and no Department can ever provide that. The desire to master computers must come from within."


Only immersion works but we can try to provide immersive PD for teachers. We should try to provide the same kinds of situated, relevant and authentic learning in teacher PD as we are trying to provide for kids.