‘The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet?’

Author discusses new book on how technology is changing K-12 education, and the lessons of schools' experiences for higher education.

February 28, 2018
Cover image of The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet?: Using Technology to Transform Teaching and Learning

The title of Larry Cuban's new book, The Flight of a Butterfly or the Path of a Bullet? (Harvard Education Press), refers to how technology innovations spread among schoolteachers. Cuban suggests that despite the hype about how technology can change everything, the progress comes from the gradual spread -- cross-pollination, if you will -- of ideas, not from mandates from on high.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, he writes, but it explains why hype outpaces change in actual teaching approaches in the schools he observed.

Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, bases his book on observations he made in 41 classrooms in schools across the Silicon Valley. He writes that these are certainly not typical schools, even for the region, as he sought out schools where technology is being used by many teachers. He writes repeatedly of the need for strong support for teachers changing their approaches to their classrooms, and of the importance of having reasonable expectations on the pace of change.

While his focus is on K-12, his book has implications for higher education -- particularly for teaching with technology. Via email, Cuban responded to questions about the book and about his findings as they may relate to colleges.

Q: Your book focuses on exemplar schools in one of the most technologically focused regions in the country (Silicon Valley). Why did you focus on a subset of schools that are no doubt anything but typical?

A: Yes, Silicon Valley is atypical in its wealth, entrepreneurial culture, energy and unvarnished optimism about problems that can be solved through technological tools. Moreover, Google, Apple and other high-tech companies have encouraged local use of school devices and software through donations and direct grants.

While the immediate context may be atypical, these Silicon Valley teachers, schools and districts I describe are representative of California. The Valley has over 70 districts that cover the socioeconomic spectrum. I visited schools with large enrollments of high-poverty students and other schools with few students from poor families. Like other California districts, Valley schools depend on the state financing formula allotting monies based on students’ daily attendance. Moreover, teachers work in age-graded schools -- just like schools across California -- where they maintain discipline, teach lessons, assign homework and evaluate their students’ academic performance. These schools, like others in California, have to follow state curriculum standards, administer tests and ensure the safety and health of students in their daily care.

While Silicon Valley schools are typical in many ways to other settings in the state, I nonetheless concentrated on atypical classrooms within these schools, because there was a large pool of exemplary teachers from which I could extract common features that might be replicated in typical classrooms and schools elsewhere.

So I observed lessons, interviewed key people and identified common qualities that cross these teachers, schools and districts in putting digital tools effortlessly in the background of a lesson rather than foreground. With these features of exemplary use once identified, other teachers and schools near and far could determine to what degree they can adopt what I describe in my book.

Q: How much of a gap do you believe exists between these schools and their more typical counterparts?

A: Socioeconomic and educational gaps that do exist in Silicon Valley schools and classrooms are representative of districts across the state and nation. There is no gap in these respects. However, the classroom lessons I observed of teachers integrating technology daily were atypical but not sufficiently so to be unrecognizable to any teacher, principal, superintendent or parent who might have joined me in in my classroom visit. The key point is that these atypical teachers, schools and districts offer lessons to others in the common features they displayed in their daily work that typical teachers, schools and districts might consider adopting and tailoring to their settings.

Q: Much of your analysis seems to have a "yes, but" quality -- yes to real changes taking place, but uncertainty about their uniformity or impact. Why does technology not promote more uniformity in teaching methods?

A: New technologies targeting classroom instruction, past or present (think: educational films and instructional television in the 20th century) have failed in securing “uniformity in teaching methods.”

Teaching machines in the 1920s, programmed learning in the 1950s and the spread of online learning with an arsenal of software tools in the past few decades sought to individualize instruction and in doing so increased variation in teaching approaches -- again failing to standardize how teachers teach. The lack of uniformity in teaching content and skills across the 41 classrooms I observed testifies to the fool’s errand of using technology to produce identical teaching methods.

Q: Your book of course focuses on K-12, not higher education. But what should faculty members in higher education consider as they teach students who came out of the teaching environments you described?

A: Historically, the university faculty has criticized graduates of public high schools as unprepared for college-level work. This perception of unpreparedness strengthened the professorial rationale for using traditional methods of teaching such as content-filled lectures for undergraduates.

The surveys of professors’ repertoire for classroom instruction I have seen show much faculty interest in digital tools, but little use beyond PowerPoint presentations, occasional simulations and student demonstration of their work. And when one samples online learning -- an expanding universe in college teaching -- the lecture format remains a staple of instruction.

Moreover, professors have historically underestimated university students for the past decade who have been technologically literate and well versed in use of many different devices and social media. In many instances, these young adults are “digital natives” before they attended their first Econ 101 lecture. The issue is not the students and their repertoire of technological expertise, the issue is the value professors place on teaching that engages students' minds and hearts versus the time such preparation for classes takes away from their research (in first- and second-tier universities) and professional service in and out of their institution.

The current structural incentives within universities do not favor spending more time on teaching and less on research and service; the incentives run in the other direction (e.g., tenure and promotion primarily depending on research publications).

Q: The debates over use of technology in the classroom also extend to higher education. Based on your observations, and your years as a faculty member, can you offer advice for college leaders thinking about encouraging greater use of technology in the college classroom?

A: Depending upon the institution -- community college, state university, elite public and private universities -- promoting excellence in instruction by any means, including use of digital tools, is what college leaders should do. It is the professor, not the digital tool, that determines whether a lecture, seminar or workshop succeeds with students. It is the professor’s pedagogy, not the technology that matters. Exemplary professors determine the content and format of a course and figure out when and where digital tools will help students best in understanding content and acquiring skills. Digital tools cannot do what a smart, engaged instructor, mindful in organizing content and skills of the subject he or she teaches, can do.

The exemplary K-12 teachers I observed avoided pushing digital tools to the foreground of a course. Instead, as pen and notebooks used to be in the background, the teachers I observed integrated digital tools seamlessly into the lectures, discussions and classwork they organized for their students.

If college leaders could understand finally that it is not the technology but the pedagogy professors use that matters and then create structural incentives to reward faculty who develop ambitious ways of teaching and integrating digital tools, well, that would be refreshing and helpful to both undergraduates and graduate students.


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