From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 4 . . . No 9 . . . May, 1994

From Technology Refusal to Technology Acceptance:
A Reprise
by Jamie McKenzie

This article suggests ways for school districts to address the serious obstacles to change outlined in Steven Hodas' 1993 piece, "Technology Refusal and the Organizational Culture of Schools," one of the most illuminating essays I have encountered in recent years. It stands squarely with Larry Cuban's work in attempting to offer explanations for why it may be that new technologies have proven to be "full of sound and fury" but have actually made very little difference in the lives or classrooms of teachers and students. It is a "must read" for anyone working on technology planning for schools.

Hodas sees technology refusal as a set of behaviors rooted in the increasingly archaic purposes of schooling. "They (schools) are systems for preserving and transmitting information and authority, for inculcating certain values and practices while minimizing or eliminating others . . . " Technologies which support these purposes (intercoms, overhead projectors, chalk boards, CAI and ILSs) are welcomed and embraced while others are shunned, isolated or bent to fit the outmoded purposes.

Hodas demonstrates that schools (and teachers) generally have a great investment in maintaining the status quo and resisting change. Those most inclined toward change are those most likely to leave the profession. Many teachers begin their careers with idealism only to find themselves transformed and socialized into the way things are "spozed to be." Transcendence is sacrificed. Accommodations are made. Unlike Jack in the story of the bean stalk, many teachers find themselves forced to trade magic beans for sacred cows.

Typical approaches to the introduction of new technologies do little to ignite the passions or harness the deeply held beliefs of individual teachers. To the contrary, most schools and districts act in ways that are likely to reinforce existing behaviors, strengthen resistance and almost guarantee that the new equipment remains peripheral. Equipment is virtually "dropped" on classrooms and teachers with almost no investment in human resource development. It is an arranged marriage. There is no love and no real consent.

In most cases, the new equipment arrives (as if from abroad) unable to speak the language (of schools) and seemingly unaware of the customs and culture which dictate so much of what may happen in schools. Teachers are given almost no meaningful staff development which might develop their technological prowess and savvy. Instead, they are usually expected to teach themselves what to do with the new boxes or they are offered skills-based courses which introduce them to software functions but ignore the challenge of blending the technology into the activities of classrooms.

Hodas paints a grim picture but ends with the hope that a changing society may require a profound shift in schooling. For those who would speed that shift, what are the most productive strategies? How might we move from marginal adoption and widespread refusal to broad -based technology acceptance?

Strategy One - Raise Standards, Clarify Purpose and Address "Soft Technologies"

A huge percentage of the technology-related products and packages which have been aimed at the school market during the past decade have lacked substance and value. While Hodas might be correct in his analysis that refusal is rooted in archaic purpose, I would maintain that much refusal is also rooted in common sense and wisdom. When offered several hours a week of mindless courseware in a lab setting, many teachers fold arms over chests and become stubborn resisters. They become impatient with the tedium and the mediocrity of the experience. Before long, the lab sits empty much of the day as teachers return to "the tried and true." In elementary classrooms the same kinds of programs become "sponges," activities to keep the students occupied at the end of the morning when seatwork is completed, mimicking the electronic babysitters so often employed by parents at home.

Too often we buy the equipment without first clarifying purpose. If we could just get enough computers into the hands and classrooms of teachers, the reasoning goes, teachers will discover great uses that will transform classrooms. If we could just place enough machines on desktops or give each teacher a computer to take home, they would see the value of technology and embrace its potential, the argument continues. Unfortunately, the discovery process by itself is unlikely to transcend the already entrenched purposes of schooling unless someone takes the time to introduce teachers to activities which are inspiring and unless someone shows them how to launch the same kinds of activities comfortably, capably and independently. The desktop machines too often sit quietly showing off screen savers (an interesting ironic market niche) while the teacher teaches. The home machine is used for grades and lesson plans. New technologies with enormous and radical potentials are often "socialized" into the existing norms and practices of the organization much like the new teachers described by Hobas.

If we would agree upon meaningful goals before acquiring equipment or purchasing software, those goals might preclude unwise investments, acting to screen out products and programs which are unworthy. District technology plans, under this strategy, would focus more on learning than on equipment. They would identify ways that technologies empower learning. They would tie the selection of systems to the attainment of student outcomes.

"We want our students to be good problem-solvers working in teams to come up with inventive but practical proposals for change."

"We expect that our students will learn how to form reasonable decisions based upon thorough research which includes global communication."

Such goals would lead to considerations of technology as well as pedagogy. We ask which tools, technologies and learning strategies are most likely to produce the desired results. In little time, we discover, as Hobas points out, that schools, themselves, are a kind of technology, a delivery system, if you will, to produce a type of citizen and employee who was expected to adjust well to hierarchical controls, routines and procedures. Memorization has ruled for decades. If we wish to produce problem-solvers and decision-makers, we will radically shift the purposes of schooling and must adjust all of the school technologies accordingly to match this new set of goals.

"What kinds of technology are most likely to enhance our students' problem-solving and decision-making?" This question goes beyond equipment, infrastructure and systems. Teacher behaviors are part of the "soft technology" which is basic to schooling as we know it. Thus we find many observers suggesting that teachers must shift from "sage on the stage to guide on the side." If we neglect this "soft technology" we are unlikely to see much change no matter how many machines we drop on classrooms and no matter how ornately we connect up those machines in magical networks which thread across the district, the nation and the world.

"The Net opens the world to the classroom."

"Why would you want to do that?"

After decades of perfecting virtual reality before it became technologically fashionable, many schools see the advent of the Internet and its rich information resources as more threat and danger than opportunity. Textbooks and lectures have carefully screened the more objectionable and controversial aspects of reality out of history, science and literature. Despite the pleas of national studies for mathematics and science tied to life issues and problem solving, school learning is all too often an exercise in detachment, abstraction and isolation.

The Internet offers projects such as Save the Beaches which send students out to clean up beaches, collect garbage and bring it back to school for analysis. Dozens of participating schools in this country, Chile, Spain and elsewhere share their data, their questions and their hypotheses. And then the students seek out policy makers. The exercise leads to action.

It may also breed parent complaints. Nina Hansen, project inventor and coordinator, shared a story one day of an irate parent questioning the value of spending half a day on the beach. The science, the social studies and the mathematics lessons eluded this parent who could not recognize them unless they were presented within the confines of a rectangular space occupied by rows of desks.

Evidence mounts that the most dramatic benefits from new technologies like telecommunications emerge when teachers organize their classrooms around student learning rather than teaching. This represents a dramatic shift in the "soft technology" of many classrooms. The teacher orchestrates investigations and projects, helping students to construct meaning and develop insight rather than ladling it out with silver spoons.

The December issue of From Now On quotes extensively from Marty and Jacqueline Brooks' 1993 ASCD publication, In Search of Understanding: the Case for Constructivist Classrooms, noting, in particular, the excellent list of teacher behaviors which characterize constructivist classrooms. These behaviors constitute the "soft technology" and human infrastructure which will support optimal use of new electronic information technologies. Note these four of the dozen in particular:

1. Constructivist teachers encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative.

2. Constructivist teachers use raw data and primary sources, along with manipulative, interactive, and physical materials.

7. Constructivist teachers encourage student inquiry by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions and encouraging students to ask questions of each other.

12. Constructivist teachers nurture students' natural curiosity

(pp. 103-107, Brooks & Brooks, 1993)

If a teacher has devoted several decades to the development of "soft technology" or instructional strategies which emphasize teacher control, teacher expertise and teacher wisdom, constructivism is a radical departure. How, then, does clarification of purpose lead to technology acceptance rather than refusal? If new technologies require such major shifts and adjustments in teacher patterns, is it not likely that the refusal Hobas described will continue well into the next century like an endless loop?

While I do not yet have "hard" data to validate my hypothesis, I am banking on the following possibility to break through the inertia, the stasis and the culture of smokestack schooling:

Dormant Idealism - The original idealism and passion which once inspired many of today's veteran teachers to join the ranks has been suppressed but is not dead. This passion may be available to fuel the dramatic shift Hodas mentions if teachers come to see technologies and student centered classrooms as offering something as magical and transcendent as the instincts which first brought them to teaching. If they are fortunate to work in a district which has embraced restructuring and site-based decision-making, they may elect to shift the "soft technology" of their schools to dovetail with the "hard technology."

The strategic question is how do we re-light that fire?

Strategy Two - Personalize the Journey

We must offer teachers adult learning experiences with the new technologies which excite them, appeal to their deepest selves and model the kinds of learning we hope to see developing as we move into the next century. These adult learning experiences must be, quite simply, inspirational.

"Ha!" the doubters will cry. Staff development has such a poor track record and technology training has been so skills-based for so long that the cynics will have a field day with this entire proposition. Even worse, the vast majority of teachers cannot even complain about bad staff development because they are not even afforded that luxury.

Three recent staff development experiences in this school district have rocked my whole conception of technology refusal and acceptance. Fortunately, the new insights which emerged are optimistic.

1) Peer Coaching - The February '94 issue of >From Now On described a staff development strategy I call "Invitational Immersion" which relies upon technology coaches to immerse colleagues in successful units of study. This strategy has allowed even relatively techno -phobic teachers to embrace new technologies with confidence and comfort.

2) Information Rich Networks and the "Buddy System" - A networked lab of 29 computers connected to a file server and a CD-ROM drive serving out the Windows version of World Book's Multimedia Information Finder has produced adult reactions which approach Charley's joy in the chocolate factory. For many of the teachers involved in these sessions, technology has been a once or twice a week diversion for years now. A good number have felt little passion or interest. Number Munchers and the Oregon Trail were hardly inspirational. Suddenly they find themselves clicking on dozens of high resolution maps or pictures. They graze through dozens of articles, conducting powerful word searches. The room is filled with pleasurable noises. Everyone is successful. Everyone is curious. Everyone is safe and comfortable. They are making meaning, producing a rich information harvest. This particular electronic encyclopedia is so user friendly, intuitive, graphic and powerful that learning seems just like eating a hot fudge sundae.

Up to now, rich information harvesting was not offered up in many networked lab situations, but suddenly the joys of making meaning can be illustrated in very personal terms for teachers who might never otherwise understand how technology might open new windows to the world. Unlike journeys on the Internet, this source offers many of the comforts I critiqued in last month's article on "Rubber Rooms." It makes a great introduction to the powers of new technologies and it helps establish the value of considering a shift in the school's "soft technologies."

A particularly effective part of this learning is the reliance upon a "buddy system." When introducing groups to new technologies and new programs, whether they be children or adults, I have relied increasingly on pairs and teams sharing computers rather than individuals working in isolation on their own machines. I have found that this move dramatically increases the success level of all groups and immediately communicates the appropriateness of mutual support. Freed of isolation, participants rely less upon the instructor and more upon each other to resolve frustrations. Instead of leading the group through extensive, linear-sequential exercises, I rely upon instructional "bursts" of two or three minutes followed by "play times" which set the groups free to explore. "Try everything on this menu!" I encourage. Teams adjust pacing and experimentation to fit personal needs, preferences and curiosity. Some dive for the graphics. Others focus in on text searches. The crucial result? Passion.

3) Essential Questions

On three consecutive afternoons I worked with more than 20 secondary teachers in a course entitled "Power Learning." Originally cancelled for inadequate enrollment, this group was recruited by a few eager souls who had heard good things about the winter session of the same course. What are the chances that staff development might prove inspirational from 3:00 to 5:30 after a full day of working with high school students? That's a pretty tall order. Even more challenging was the focus upon numerical data. How sexy can that get?

The level of focus and intensity shown by this group was amazing. They would settle down as teams working on their projects and the end of class would suddenly arrive as a surprise. They were absorbed and immersed in their tasks to an extraordinary extent. The secret? I think it was the use of a single essential question which made the power of spreadsheets and graphing suddenly quite evident. While nearly everyone of them had at least a passing previous relationship with spreadsheets, no one had ever really shown them how they might be used to resolve a challenging problem. Spreadsheets were previously seen as calculators. During this workshop they became decoders and meaning makers.

The essential question? "Your team is a world renowned consulting firm hired to advise the minister of health of an African nation on the five most powerful ways to reduce the infant mortality rate of her/his nation. You will explore a vast database drawn from World Bank data and test the power of relationships between infant mortality and variables such as rates of innoculation to see which variables deserve the greatest attention."

The teams brainstormed variables, posed hypotheses, explored the electronic encyclopedia and then dove into the immense database, cutting and pasting data into a spreadsheet and beginning the generation of graphs. Easy as these first graphs were to create, they soon discovered that powerful representation of complex data requires artistry and design rather than simple automation. They sorted infant mortality rates in ascending order for their comparison groups so the relationship with a second variable would stand out more clearly. This ranking supported generalizations. "Infant mortality is likely to rise as the rate of innoculation against disease . . . " They also saw the effectiveness of showing infant mortality as a consistent set of bars in contrast with the other variable as a line chart. They were puzzled by the quest for meaning, challenged by the question and motivated by making of meaning. It was a constructivist classroom and they were inventors.


We may have come to the great divide in educational technology as rich information sources suddenly become available and the sounds of traffic on the electronic highway penetrate the walls of schools. Even though technology refusal may have been rooted as Hodas claims in the nature and purposes of schooling designed for a different kind of society and economy, the technology choices offered to teachers in the past and the failure to provide appropriate adult learning opportunities may have contributed dramatically to patterns of refusal. Our best hope to pierce through patterns of refusal is to focus upon technology applications which are worthy of our time and energy and capable of inspiring fresh outlooks on the part of teachers. We must combine high standards and purpose with adequate resources in support of adult learning, providing staff development for technology which includes attention to "soft technology" and student centered learning. We must seek to engage the passions and dormant idealism of teachers so the journey of change will seem worthwhile.

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