Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education by Sonny Magana, Corwin, 152 pp., $29.95
To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection. Jules Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912)
NOTE: I’ve heard it said that great writing is ‘clear thinking about mixed feelings,’ and I have a lot of them after working through Sonny Magana’s book and the research and the marketing behind it. As an experiment I am going to publish this post and then publish a follow up post after I see Magana speak about his book in person at the ELMLE conference in Budapest. I want to be open to changing my mind if I am misunderstanding him or his work etc., so after the conference, I will write up any changes in my thinking. The follow-up post will be here.
What follows builds on my previous post where I wondered aloud if anyone had any evidence or data on technology’s positive effects on student achievement? I look at Magana’s work in the context of the wider Edtech zeitgeist and examine it not just for what it contains, but what it does not contain, how it is marketed, and who it is marketed towards.
By the end, I hope readers will not only better understand the issues Magana addresses in his book, but also hope you will be more confident in making an informed judgement when hearing your own heads of school and principals offer solutions to the challenges of technology integration.
First, my conclusions:
Magana’s framework is itself sound— (I know, I created one largely identical to it a decade ago as an MYP IT teacher), so one can argue it could be an improvement over SAMR, Triple E. TPACK, etc., but the problem is that for generalist teachers, it’s akin to putting a new stereo in your car to fix a faulty transmission. As “Julie’s” review of the book on Amazon.com explains perfectly:
Despite claiming “It’s important to refrain from assigning any kind of blame” when promoting the book, In the book itself Magana singles out teachers, and only teachers. Magana claims teacher’s “tell and practice” model of teaching is the reason technology’s effect on student achievement is so “dismal.” Nearly every chance he got when promoting the book, he would say it again, and again and again, over, and over in different ways. It’s most notable because of the contrast: Magana has absolutely nothing at all to say about how leadership, policy, school programming and any other actions or inaction around technology and teaching and learning bears any responsibility for what is happening in classrooms.
Magana’s research partner, John Hattie, blurbs the book and seems to be saying the opposite, claiming that understanding why performance is so low is “critical” and then goes on as Magana does to claim the “revolution” will come when teachers essentially change what school itself “is” on their own, as if it was simply up to teachers to do this, that they’ve just chosen by themselves to do otherwise thus far:
Magana points to Hattie’s Visible Learning data which claims “computer technology” as having effects underneath the zone of desired effects for the past 50 years. For someone who claims to have spent thirty-five years, his “life’s work”, in Edtech as Magana says, his uncritical acceptance and lack of pushback or questioning of Hattie’s data, methodology or vague categorization of what exactly Hattie supposedly measured with regard to “computer technology”, doesn’t seem credible to me.
In a promotional piece on Magana’s website written about a school that implemented his T3 framework, the actual changes made to implement it could only have been done by Administrators, not teachers, and thus Magana obliterates his bedrock claim that the problem with tech failure stems from “tell and practice” teaching methods. The piece claims success came from the provision of tech training for teachers through a “Curriculum Camp” and allowing demand from teachers to drive tech choices/integration instead of top down decision making. Nowhere in Magana’s book are administrators asked to be responsible for these types of changes, yet they are front and center in his own “success stories?”
Corwin’s stable of authors all blurb the book effusively on the Corwin site, on Amazon, LinkedIn, Sonny’s website, etc., without disclosing that they are all fellow Corwin authors. How is this different than Amazon product reviews where the financial incentives/conflicts of interest are not disclosed? If this kind of intra publisher back scratching is common practice, so be it, but it seems awfully contrived.
“Where are the nuts and bolts?”
For two former technology teachers and integrationists who’ve no doubt shared many of same experiences in schools, I draw different conclusions than Magana does about the root cause of low impact technology integration. I began writing about these realities in TIE back in June of 2019. I called some of the phenomena Trickledown Edtechonomics, the Edtechochamber and Kabuki Integration.
During the decade and a half plus years I taught, coached and lead Edtech programs in several schools and countries, I worked with administrative leadership who more often than not had a limited grasp of technology but both micromanaged and starved IT programs of attention simultaneously; no small feat. My hope in publishing this review is to offer my experience so you can make up your own minds what you think makes sense as the best next step to invest scarce time and resources in your own school. On to the review.
The studies the book is based on some consider “Pseudoscience”
One cannot review Magana’s book without first reviewing the material on which Magana bases it on, which is the work of Australian researcher, John Hattie.
Hattie’s partnership with the educational publisher Corwin (both Hattie’s and Magana’s publisher) is to develop professional publications and learning workshops. Hattie has co-authored about twelve different books since publishing the original Visible Learning book in 2009, all variations on the same theme and all containing the same highly controversial analysis as a starting point. One can find Visible Learning books for math, literacy, K-5, science, teaching, and a host of other spinoffs, the most recent being Magana’s book.
There are many critics of Hattie’s work and it’s conclusions, but the core complaint is that the work is unscientific and his methodology draws conclusions that simply cannot be drawn. Another is that Hattie’s work facilitates the rise of the guru, one who outlines how things could be and provides aspirational descriptions of a utopian future if we just do the work…often without any consideration of how the labor involved in the new work will be “paid for” and by whom.
The Role of Leadership, Teachers and Solutions in Technology Integration
Role of Leadership
Any school that believes the use of technology can improve instruction must find a way to provide training for teachers and opportunities for them to practice and prepare technology enhanced lessons. Full stop.
If they can’t or don’t, then school administration should be held responsible for the failures and no one else. Otherwise, what does their “leadership” even mean? Who is hiring all these “tell and practice” teachers Magana and Hattie say are mucking everything up? Who is setting and directing the schedules that enable or disable collaborative planning? The PD budgets? The management of the IT department? The overall school culture?
It’s not teachers.
As with Hattie’s blurb above, it is disheartening when you see leadership responsibilities foisted on teachers who have zero power to make the programmatic decisions that would enable the possibility of success for technology integration.
In a separate TIE article, I argue this behavior is a deeply ingrained pattern of deflecting responsibility that goes well beyond Education and I offered a parallel with the 737 Max disasters where the pattern of Boeing leadership blaming pilots and distracting attention from systemic issues led to the accidents. Hattie and Magana’s type of “help” is music to administration ears because it eliminates any need for changes to school programming and policy, administrative leadership style and accountability or rebuilding for high-touch versus high-tech support.
Nearly everyone would agree that Edtech has been successful in getting kid’s parents connected to the school, making student assessments viewable online, enabling endless variations on digital teaching, made many forms of collaboration a breeze, survey data collection is now easily done, the list goes on. Edtech’s successes are in command and control, communication and collaboration among teachers, but this is largely digital teaching, not digital learning, and thus it’s not really aimed at student achievement. Magana does not address this or make any distinctions about what exactly he’s talking about when he talks about “computer technology.”
Schools have been successful with this kind of digital teaching, and I think that’s why more and more you’re seeing schools trying to commingle the success of command and control tech and sell it as part of “digital learning” that is benefiting students. It’s a very convenient conflagration for schools to make, sort of like digital “Kleenex”, but everything being lumped together makes real problem solving much more difficult.
Most schools have some kind of marketing for Information Technology, descriptions of their aim to provide 21st century, student centered learning and some even have a scope and sequence/curriculum for digital learning, a makerspace, etc.. On close inspection, a much smaller number of schools actually have an operational vision, processes, expertise and leadership to make it all function for powerful discovery and learning for students.
It starts with awful implementations of layers of security and passwords and clunky systems that elementary students are required to surmount exactly when they need the most free and easy access. The sad fact is that many of our most impressionable students are lead by teachers who don’t have even the most basic training to be able to use it effectively themselves, much less help others just getting started. What our youngest students often effectively get taught is a mixture of half hearted consumption on crippled- -for-their-own-good machines, along with strong dose of learned helplessness from the teacher.
Underneath the mediocre provisioning for students is in large part I think the pernicious myth of the digital native. This nearly 20 year old, evidence free myth was started by Marc Prensky (another Corwin author) and I would argue one of the myth’s most significant effects was that it gave school administrators a rationale and cover for minimizing time and resources deployed to train staff and students on the devices they were pushing into classrooms.
Which has lead us to the reality of much of Edtech in the classroom, Kabuki Integration. This is when culture hasn’t changed because no skill-sets nor mindsets were changed: New boxes, old ideas. Magana calls it “technology rich and innovation poor”, I call it FOMO and virtue signaling over virtuosity. Whatever you call it, it is high concept performance art; the expensive hardware and software is all there, but the critical bits behind it all, the “mindware”, is largely missing. Without having done the work to create a functional digital culture, absent a user focus and the requisite socio-technical feedback and iteration processes, many of today’s Edtech implementations are the equivalent of giving teachers chainsaws:
It all depends on how teachers use it. We don’t buy a chain saw for every teacher. If we did, a few teachers would do brilliant work with the chain saws, a few others would cut off their thumbs, and the vast majority would just make a mess.” Dr. Gary Stager
So in a sense, Magana is right in that teachers would be better teachers if they were also better technologists, but what is interesting about Stager’s quote is that we in fact have given chainsaws to almost every teacher, many times with only the barest minimal of instruction/support in how to use it. The result? A mess. What else should we expect?
We’ve been steadily increasing the amount of operating systems, apps and hardware every teacher and student must know each year. Our orientations and PD include a tiny fraction of the training teachers eventually piece together on their own just to stay afloat, let alone innovate. In my last school we had over a half-dozen major software platforms staff needed to navigate and that didn’t even include any “learning” apps for lessons, etc., that was just for infrastructure, grades, curriculum, communications, storage, etc..
Why aren’t teachers efficacious at imparting digital learning skills even when they have integration support? Because the tech integration process into units/lessons, the functional integration system and mechanisms that connect a schools digital learning “aspirations” to actual classroom activity are often completely absent or inconsistent at best in all but the smallest percentage of schools, even the “better” schools. And this floundering is as at least as much or more the result of programming choices by administrators, as it is the way teachers teach, and Magana has nothing at all to say about this in his book.
There is no shame in being an “Average user” as without continual access to training and knowledge, without being told that it’s not worth pursuing a certain course of action because there’s a non-obvious roadblock that leads to negative results, without someone to tell them they should try procedure X in this specific step because “it just works better when you do it this way,” everyone struggles. Getting access to this kind of hard earned tech knowledge and skill is an enormous performance advantage and that’s why it’s such a shame that so much tech is rolled out with so little time devoted to coaching and integration support.
Also mentionable, in teachers defense, regarding the common refrain from the school community peanut gallery that “The kids are just sitting there on their devices watching/doing X instead of doing the work in class…” To suggest that a teachers inability to defeat the work of professional psychologists, behaviorists, gamification experts, and all the other people paid to make devices, games and social media addicting is somehow the fault of the teacher is at best irksome.
Magana is correct that we’re putting computers and other technology in a school system that was designed for a totally different epoch. We’re still living under the legacy of the blackboard, the overhead projector and pencil and paper, technologies that required presentation bit by bit…which is why it had to be divided into curriculums, subjects, assignments…where children then had to be organized into age groups and rows because what could be taught was restricted by the conditions under which the knowledge was disseminated.
Today, knowledge dissemination is largely the reason “computer technology” is assigned to students to use in schools—most often it’s used as an efficient content delivery and assessment system; and it’s prescriptive, not imaginative. It does things to children; rather than empower them to do things that are important to them. Tech use in schools is largely about following rules and copyright, finding the right answers, consuming in the basic ways what you’ve been told to consume; it’s the way you process and turn in assignments.
Magana’s recommendations are in sync with the feedback I’ve gotten from students over the years is that information technology has been the most beneficial to students as an autodidactic launching pad; enabling self determined, independent learning. Unfortunately, schools, leaders and teachers today are ill prepared, and often hostile towards this type of learning as it requires an entirely different approach to “School.” And no, you cannot single teachers out as the resistance, most I have worked with would love to loosen up how and what they teach, but parents, school leadership and even students often reject these “new teaching methods”.
As far as new ways of doing “School”, teachers largely do not seem to have the support systems necessary to re-conceptualize their educational roles and the requirements placed upon them. Whether it’s Magana’s framework or another, absent change at an administrative level that not only acknowledges the need for teacher training/support, but actually devotes adequate (ongoing) resources toward it; creating the culture, calendaring and communication systems to support the collaboration it requires, godspeed to you in “disrupting Education.”
Assuming the Status Quo in Schools Stays Pretty Much The Same (it’s a safe bet), What Might a Truly New Framework for Digital Learning Look Like?
So, if the computing “grammar” and ecosystem kids experience in school, its structure and constraints, stand in the way of the real possibilities computers and the internet represent for learning, what then?
Outside of the school environment, digital tools can offer an incredible breadth of experience in a tiny footprint, — IF and it’s a big IF, you know how to use IT yourself and have the ability and patience to guide others in how to use IT.
Assuming a person had the skills and patience, what might be possible?
What if you set schools aside completely, forgot about them as part of digital learning until the Magana’s and the Admins and the teachers of the world get their priorities and responsibilities worked out, and instead you focused on cultivating one of the most accurate (and uncontested) predictors of student achievement: parental involvement in their child’s education?
In other words, what if you were to design a system that was about learning with technology, not teaching with it; acting as the curator and coach of students’ and parents learning experiences together? e.g., A framework that includes dedicated “mindware development” for digital learning, rather than focusing on the process and devices and apps for digital teaching which is a different animal altogether?
This way you could imprint the better angels of what technology is useful for and ingrain the right types of “screentime” from the start. Young children would then have a useful tool that follows them through the rest of the their schooling, not a debilitating distraction as many children today seem to relate primarily with devices.
Perhaps technology is best learned as an autodidactic launchpad, not taught as the way to turn in assignments?
I will have to generate some data on that idea.