Stuck in the past?

What changes has technology made in schools? In 1970, sociologist Alvin Toffler predicted: 'Within thirty years, the educational systems of the United States, and several Western European countries as well, will have broken decisively with the mass production pedagogy of the past, and will have advanced into an era of educational diversity based on the liberating power of the new machines.' (Toffler, 1970, p 251) By new machines, Toffler was clearly referring to computers and their associated tool sets. By mass pedagogy, he referred to the factory production model of education that schools have been caught in for over a century. More than four decades after Toffler's book was published, there is conflicting evidence that technology has actually delivered any significant change to the pedagogy practiced in school classrooms. The answer to the question for many schools, is that technology brings very little change to the way teachers educate. The mass production pedagogy model stubbornly persists, and personalised learning seems far from the reach of many young people.

Technology (in the form of mobile telephones) has changed the way we communicate with each other, and social networking services such as Facebook have made similar advances in the way we relate to our friends and family. Broadcast media are ubiquitous, with television in every living room, on our hand held devices, even on large screens in the public areas of major cities around the world. Our leisure, economy and social lives have been transformed by the impact of the World Wide Web, and arguably, we are a lot better of because of it. In fact advances in interactive, personalised technologies are so prominent that hardly a day goes by without some new innovation being trumpeted by the media. So why has technology wrought so few changes in the school classroom? Why was Toffler's prediction so far off the mark, when many of his other, contemporary predictions were clearly realised?

One reason there has been little change in schools is that many continue to operate on a factory production system that belongs in last century's industrial age, and new technology is not permitted to disrupt it. Schools continue to jealously protect a conservatism that resides in few similarly large-scale institutions. Even when new technologies are introduced into classrooms, they are often used in a similar manner to the older technologies they replace. Disruption of old practices is unwelcome in school. A classic example of this is the Interactive Whiteboard (IWB). Over the last few years IWBs have been installed into many classrooms in the UK with little impact. Teachers continued to use IWBs as though they were standard dry-wipe or chalk boards - as presentational tools or slide projection screens. 

The pedagogical opportunities the new tools afforded (such as interactive touch surfaces on which children could experiment, create and manipulate images and text) were largely ignored because a) teachers were concerned about damage or b) disruption or c) lack of knowledge and fear of exposure to new ideas. Often the failure to adopt new practices arising from new technology provision can be blamed on a lack of good leadership. Sometimes it can be the result of lack of knowledge, but more often than not, teachers fail to develop new pedagogies due to a lack of time or resources to be able to do so. This is where good leadership intervention could benefit the entire school. One of the greatest barriers to innovative practice in schools arises from the ban many place on the use of mobile phones in their classrooms. Place this in the context of local education authorities concertedly blocking social media services due to 'safety' concerns, and there is little wonder that schools struggle to capitalise on the technological benefits being enjoyed by the rest of society. It is an abysmal situation.

And yet there are pockets of inspiration and innovation in the schools sectors. What kind of new pedagogies are emerging as a result of technology provision in classrooms? Firstly, we are seeing children being encouraged to improve their writing and reading through the use of social media such as blogs and wikis. They are being encouraged to communicate more effectively through podcasts, videos and on social networking sites. A great deal of creativity is being unleashed through the use of image sharing sites, touch screen tools and new dimensions to learning are being realised through game playing. Mobile learning takes the experience of discovery outside the classroom into the community the children will eventually work within. IWBs, when used effectively can enhance and enrich the entire learning encounter, with students as actively involved in knowledge production as their teachers. None of this has been achieved without some self-sacrifice by educators, some visionary leadership, and a large amount of disruption. If these three elements are present, innovative pedagogical practices will begin to spread, and we will see a realisation of Toffler's prediction. If not, we will be stuck with the mass production pedagogy of the past.

Toffler, A. (1970) Future Shock. London: Pan Books.

Image by David Wright
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Stuck in the past? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported LicenseBased on a work at


markwashere said…
"None of this has been achieved without some self-sacrifice by educators, some visionary leadership, and a large amount of disruption." Exactly!
My short blog about this in Australian High schools and the lack of risk taking I suppose.
Martin King said…
Steve - we've been saying these same words for at least 10 years - I wonder if you could reheat this blog in 2020.

In the same way the establishment assimilated and appropriated the Punk rebellion Education has used technology to reinforce itself -

I am partly optimistic that things will change as the new technology IS different from what has gone before - in the same way every student has a mobile phone very soon every student will be packing IT with them - this is personal and very different from the IT pushed on them by education.

I think the clash between personal IT and institutional IT is coming and institutional attempts to stop it will throw the problems in education into stark relief.
Anonymous said…
Although institutional inertia shares a measure of the blame for teaching being stuck in the past, a significant portion must be borne by the individual teachers. Teacher cognition (see: is the number one problem I come up against when trying to get someone to adopt something new.

All of us have been exposed to a great deal of education before we ever step in front of a classroom as the one responsible. When we decide to teach, we already know what good teaching is all about. We have been exposed to it (as a student), and we are the evidence of its success. This preconceived notion of what makes good teaching (teacher cognition) is highly resistant to training.

I went to a conference last year where a presentation was made by a couple of teacher trainers. Although not the core of their presentation, they showed data on the uptake of new, innovative methods of teaching by early career teachers. For the first five years of teaching, almost all of the teachers use extremely traditional approaches (teacher centred) to teaching, and only after about five years do they begin to engage in limited experimentation.

The "pockets of inspiration and innovation" you refer to are few and far between.
Martin King said…
Between now and 2020 a perfect storm is forecast - when the cold front of fossilised education practice and institutional IT meet the warm front of people's own IT and own learning practice.

Just as with mobile phones, all our students will be packing their own IT - we can continue to delude ourselves that institutions provide the best IT or start realising that our students have their own resources which are usually better.
Simon Ensor said…
I am not sure that this past/present contrast is helpful. While the contexts in which we live are changing the importance of engagement, passion, imagination, inspiration, social presence and value is unchanged.

I have the feeling that we must concentrate less on the question of learning and more on the question of activites from which learning can result.

What must change is this obsession with trying to engineer outcomes and procedures for delivery of 'learning'. Education is not an industry, successful learning is not a product it is an organic, chaotic, social process.

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