School Restructuring and the Roles of Technology: A Time for Modesty

August 1, 1992

Schools have been improved, changed, redesigned, reformed, and restructured throughout their history, yet, though they might not recognize the faces of the students in them, most nineteenth century teachers would probably still recognize our "changed" educational settings as schools. They might even applaud our expanded population as the true realization of the school as the great civilizer. But what our grandparents knew of the classroom manner at the beginning of this century is what most of our children, in most of our schools and classrooms know today-the teacher in front lecturing and directing. Most of our school reform efforts have been piecemeal and fragmented efforts rather than system-wide. Few have attempted radically new designs or complete paradigm shifts, and, as Raywid (1988) points out, "Widespread demand for restructuring is relatively recent and is often characterized as a second phase of the Excellence Movement of the 1980s."

Even modest school change requires great amounts of energy, focus and determination, and for good reason. Schools have been stable components of our society; they are conservators of our values and traditions. We must respect such powerful forces, even when we strive to restructure or improve them. When we tamper with our schools, we are tampering with our essential social and individual natures, and we are shaping the future. We should tread cautiously; we should propose with great modesty and restraint, but redesign and propose we must and should. Occasionally we hear grandiose proposals for change and panaceas are brought before the public unblushingly. Technology has been thus presented from time to time.

As our conversations about school restructuring expand during the 1990's, some common themes are emerging. Some of these themes are particularly significant for new designs that include technology: providing the time and resources needed for teachers and administrators to learn, think and plan together; designing for systemic change rather than piecemeal projects; integration of assessment and evaluation with curriculum; reduction of teacher isolation through the sharing of authority and responsibility and the creation of effective networks; blending research knowledge with wisdom gained from practice; changing teacher/student roles to foster collaborative, inquirybased, and experiential learning.

But, there has been a decade of tensions about change in schools-what kinds of changes are needed so that more students are educated well, what are the mechanisms and interventions that most effectively turn the system toward improved outcomes, and how does this get paid for? It is widely agreed that improved education has as a vision students who can think and reason well throughout the disciplines, using knowledge flexibly as appropriate for new problems and new situations, who can skillfully use language and textual, mathematical, and technological tools; who are motivated to learn and who can work well in groups and teams. There is considerable tension over how to get there. For example, there are programmatic arguments over whether curriculum is best structured around complex projects and tasks that embed "basic skills", or whether "basic skills" training is to be taught separately and first. And for which populations? There is tension between reorganization around local decision-making about curriculum, standards, budget, and state and national definition of standards and assessment procedures. There is tension around selection and use of technologies for learning: should resources be spent on "turn key" systems that are simply "operated" by teachers, or on the program development required to integrate technologies into the situations and tasks of individual schools?

Though we nearly always attribute our compulsion for changing schools to genuine concern for the welfare of our children, official authorization for change is more frequently aligned with economic interests, and schools are held accountable not for the stimulation of intellectual pursuits, creativity, or personal curiosity-from which alive and useful minds emerge-but solely for the immediate demonstration of marketable skills. School reformers envision changed physical structures, class size, more flexible time schedules, the introduction of wider ranges of program choice, the concentration of resources in schools with the greatest social or academic needs, making the curriculum more interesting or engaging, or altering the teacher's presentation of material. But, even in their newer forms, the schools are still schools, based on a particular view of mind and its development. Reform of schools is frequently confined to the movement of parts of the organization, shifting of curricular emphases, or the redirection of resources-material or human. Such changes, even the well-intentioned, are often isolated or superficial shifts.

The schooling that is deeply recognizable to us embodies a cultural heritage rooted in medieval concepts of the nature of knowing. Although often not explicit, much of our instruction today is based on the assumption that, for most intents and purposes, information is objective, stable, and is most effectively presented to students as fully formed. Knowledge can be destabilized or advanced only by those who have acquired the cultural credentials to do so-and the lives of these unusual individuals (predominately one race, gender, and class) become fixed objects of study. Mediators, usually teachers but sometimes some other sort of "realia" such as a book, a work of art, or a piece of music, convey stable truths directly to students. In an extreme extension of this stable, cumulative approach, some visions of the future have long imagined direct brain-machine links where knowledge is fed directly into minds through wires (Asimov, 1986, in Wilson, 1988) or chips (Brunner, l991). Authority is not to be analyzed. The student's job in school is to accumulate knowledge as it is presented. The teacher's job is to deliver information directly and to convey knowledge as it has been received.

Reform in schooling requires nothing less than broadly and significantly altering our common conceptions of mind and education, and of organizational and professional structures that are needed to carry it out.

The interesting and influential view that has been emerging has begun to blend current and past research in psychology and the cognitive and social sciences with decades of experience of progressive practice. While the emerging view is not fully harmonious in all particulars and details of learning processes, there are two robust overarching ideas that emerge as essential conditions for effective schooling. First, learners must be truly engaged. If students are to deeply and flexibly learn subject matter (or anything else), they must be actively engaged in exercising, querying, refining their capacities most of the time. That means building, rearranging, testing, refining ideas-and objects-by probing, discussing, reflecting, debating, and so forth. Without deep and constant engagement that supports students to probe and refashion their own and others' conceptions of things, much of their learning is short-term accretion with little lasting or useful development or change of mind. Second, the qualities of the communities in which learning takes place are key. Students-and teachers-must be well-known to each other, and it must be safe for them to try out new things and to change. This requires new designs for organizational structures (size, schedule, interaction, and built-in mechanisms for self-criticism and perpetual development) that are quite different from most schools as we know them.

Technologies have key roles to play in supporting these new conditions of schooling-in our view they are likely to be essential. Research has shown that well-designed technologies can deeply engage students in learning, can effectively support collaborative work and the more complex interactions that are needed. But we also well know that technologies do not themselves bring about these conditions. There is no engineering solution to this set of complex problems of reform-making the best materials (hardware, software, video, whatever) is a key element, but will not itself revolutionize schooling. These resources must now be enlisted in the debate about and the design of reformed schools, not isolated in a separate room.

There are a number of schools, and school/research collaborations around the country and the world that are have been experimenting with how to best integrate technology through simultaneously altering curriculum and learning activities and aspects of school structure. It is long term difficult work-but so is all substantial change in the way communities organize themselves. But far more commonly in schools across the country, new media have been assimilated with school business continuing as usual. Many of these applications are simply electronic versions of direct instruction and do not support the dialog and interaction needed for active learning. Successful implementation has depended largely on the degree to which teachers feel comfortable with the mechanical components, the interfaces, required by the new tools rather than better or deeper understanding of the nature of learning or the media.

In this report, we examine these two conditions in turn-engaged learning and qualities of communities-and some of the tensions that surround them in the soup of today's reform efforts.

Editor's Note: This paper was produced while CCT was part of the Bank Street College of Education.


Jan Hawkins
Terry Baker