The Fading Art of Teaching Without Technology

There was a fantastic piece on NPR recently about the fading art of the Physical Exam by doctors and medical practitioners, and how the medical professional as a whole is suffering because of it. Expensive, time consuming tests are replacing inexpensive, and often quick physical examinations. Medical conditions which are often quite easy to diagnosis by actually talking with the patient, and conducting a thorough exam are actually more difficult to make using more advanced technological means (a leaky heart valve which would be easy for a trained physician to hear using a traditional stethoscope, but would have gone unnoticed otherwise).

I actually liken this to the current trends in education. The temptation of using technology to “spruce up” a tired lesson plan, or create a more engaging learning experience is overtaking education today. 21st century learning skills, digital natives, UDL, problem-based learning; everything about teaching today is all about the technology, right? Wrong! Some of the most effective teaching strategies can be implemented without the use of an interactive whiteboard, a document camera, or a flashy iMovie intro video.

Everyone has Different Ideas

Something that every good Kindergarten teacher will tell you, is that all learners are different, and that’s a good thing! People have individual interests, strengths, weaknesses, and even different learning styles. Not all of the students in your classroom will respond to the technology; they may be confused by the vocabulary of a particular piece of software (an advanced image editing tool that uses masks, layers, and alpha channels), or they may have no physical reference or prior experience with a tool (hard to use spell check with students that aren’t sure of how to spell the word in the first place).

Learners may have different notions of how they want to use a piece of technology as well. I’ve had students that enjoy using the drawing tools in a word processor more than in KidPix or TuxPaint. Some students don’t even want to draw on the computer at all; the control and artistic fidelity found in a mouse when compared to pencil and paper is like learning how to draw all over again. I’ve experienced many frustrated faces and feelings on that issue alone.

Letting students use a tool or piece of software that makes the most sense to them to convey their understanding, rather than locking them into a rigid assignment can go a long way in providing engagement, and more importantly, lasting knowledge of the subject. If a student would rather create a poster than a movie (not very likely to happen, but possible), don’t stand in their way. Requiring students to master PowerPoint or Keynote may be great for covering your technology benchmarks, but if you haven’t checked on some of the more recent ISTE or state-level technology standards, you’ll find that they’re increasingly more focused on effectively using a tool to convey a certain message, or address your audience in an appropriate manner, rather than understand each tool and setting of a productivity or creativity suite. Students can do amazing things with Microsoft Paint, and a wiki would be a poor use of technology if students are just writing reports that you want to show off on the web, but aren’t working collaboratively.


Please, don’t start with the technology. The effective doctors in the NPR piece don’t start examining a patient and ask, “which piece of expensive equipment can I put this person through today?” Likewise, an effective teacher shouldn’t start planning a unit or lesson by asking, “how do I want to use this fabulous new piece of technology?” Like all good teaching, you have to start with the end…the expected outcomes and goals that you want your students to achieve. If your learning objectives align well with collaborative information creation, then a wiki would be a great place to start. Focusing on dialogue, conversation, and communication might lead you to use a blog, or a forum. If your learning objective are focused on spreading knowledge, or demonstrating knowledge gained, then perhaps a video project might be best.

If you start planning a new lesson with the idea that you want to have a gang-busters wiki site with all sorts of bells and whistles, then you’re missing the point. I’ve seen several lessons go up in flames, several of my own in fact, because I was so excited about the technology that I didn’t stop to think about the learning goals, and what the students were actually going to be busy learning, creating, and sharing. This can be especially disasterous with the web2.0 world, where most of what you’re doing is live 24/7 on the internet for all to see. Having to regroup, rethink, and replan an activity that has been derailed because of a lack of effective technology planning means that everyone “watching from home” has to be patient while you reorganize the learning experience, which is something that most veteran teachers, while capable of handling, don’t exactly look forward to happening.

Which is why planning effective activities and lessons, which almost always includes technology in today’s teaching environment, must continue to start without the technology. Start with the benchmarks, standards, or learning objectives is paramount, followed by what type of learning experience you want the students to undertake, and then determine which resources will help you achieve those end goals through the effective teaching strategies you’ve chosen. In a climate that is increasingly looking towards higher standards, best practices, and results, technology is not the “magic bullet” that will achieve what we as educators are being asked to deliver.

Collaborating & Sharing, not just Taking

Collaboration has a very specific meaning. Generally speaking, it’s two or more people working towards a common goal. Toss in a dash of sharing, and now you have a group of people working together, to produce a lesson, activity, or learning opportunity that is then shared with a larger group. It’s the foundation upon which the explosion of social media and networking is built upon; people creating, sharing, and connecting online. It’s the epitome of every great teacher-induction program in the U.S. built around working with your peers and colleagues, rather then toiling away in isolation, determined to craft every educational opportunity yourself.

However, with the advent of the web, peer to peer file sharing, and social networking, collaboration has taken on a different connotation, to emphasize the sharing, and not so much building upon what’s been shared. For examples, a lesson plan is uploaded to BetterLesson, and the majority of people who view it decide to download it without adding comments or suggestions. Even if there was intent to collaborate, you really don’t have much in the way to offer besides adding comments, or striking up a conversation with the person. With an ever increasing emphasis on “just using the technology” in order to keep up with everything the kids are doing these days, increasing engagement, or trying to reach new creative ways to get students’ to ever increasing standards, we lose a lot of ground, and a lot of opportunities.

Teachers have always “begged, borrowed, and stolen” lessons, content, and resources from one another, but it’s traditionally been done in a quid pro quo manner, with small groups of educators working within the same school supporting one another. One 4th grade teacher witnesses a fantastic writing lesson by a colleague, and they have a chat about it with them (during plan time, lunch, or some other time), and the collaboration begins. The teachers share with each other, and possibly even make the lesson better over the course of the next week because it’s a shared investment now, and they know that together they will run into a greater number of variables, and thus improve the quality of the lesson by adapting it to a larger range of learners.

With social networks and communities based around lesson plan sharing it’s increasingly easy for teachers to “take” what’s been shared without reciprocating. That’s nothing new; communities of creators have always seemed to be smaller than the community of consumers. But when you collaborate, share, or “take” from a colleague at school, someone you work with everyday, there’s an understanding that everyone is expected to contribute, to “add to the pot” of creative ideas, lessons, and activities. Even if it’s just serving in an advisory capacity on a committee, there’s still a contribution. However, when you present teachers with increasingly limited time to plan effectively, increased emphasis on growing standards, and then present those teachers with websites filled with “faceless” contributors, who have shared their work, but have no physical or real world connection to the teachers being asked to perform, there opens up a large opportunity for “takers” to just take.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with simply taking, and not giving back. I regularly bookmark, “take”, steal, rip-off, swipe (you get the idea) lesson and activity ideas on a daily basis. But some of the more effective teachers today will at least give credit to the originator of the content, or try to “give back” in some small way. Perhaps it’s with a simple 5 page flipchart for improving long division shared to Promethean Planet, or a comment on an excellent blog post that questions the activity being shared in a way that improves the resource for a more diverse group of learners.

When educators “give back” to the greater educational community, even the simplest forms of collaboration strengthen our learning. Small comments here and there, a quick critique, or perhaps sending out a lesson plan or two in an e-mail to some teachers that might be interested are all ways in which we can build effective communities without getting caught up in the “taking” part of the web’s new found collaboration and sharing communities.

If we are to believe what Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1818 regarding education, then we as educators are the chief instruments in effecting ever-constant positive change,

“If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated, as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it.” –Thomas Jefferson to M. A. Jullien, 1818

There are thousands of effective veteran educators who teach today without much need or use for technology. Could their teaching practice be improved with the use of technology? Most likely, but not if it comes at the cost of losing the effective strategies that have made them such an excellent teacher in the first place. In much the same way as the “old” methods of doctor’s diagnostic skills are slowly being recognized and revitalized, schools should be doing the same to ensure that effective planning, community-building, and recognition of diverse learner’s needs are at the forefront of any implementation of technology, otherwise we run the risk of making a lot of expensive technology purchases with a dwindling store of expertise on how to use the resources effectively.

Image:The locker misery‘


    1. Thanks Mike! This post has been a long time coming, and especially important to me as the explosive growth of technology in the classroom is ripe for all sorts of misuse.

  1. My name is Suzanne and I now that I presently enrolled in the doctoral program I feel that being in the program I have been exposed to new technology that I may not have encountered if I were not in the program. Because of technology I have been albe to build and sustain collaborative interactions with students around the world due to an oline environment and advanced technology. It also provides an opportunity for teachers to connect with students. I do agree tha some of the interactive lessons that are online are much more engaging than being in the classroom setting. Let me know what you think.


    1. The rumblings of this post actually started before I heard the NPR news story. This summer I took an online course from one of the large online universities, and the “communication” we were expected to maintain was forced, the assignments did not use technology in any inventive or creative ways.

      The only real benefit of using the technology was the fact that a number of people in far-reaching locales could all take the class together, and a great deal of it could be done at our own pace. Which is a great use of technology, just not a very forward thinking way considering how long distance learning and online classes have been around.

  2. I love your analogy about the medical exams and teaching. You are right on track, technology doesn’t (and shouldn’t)have to be the sole focus of a lesson plan. In my school, we have a computer lab and each teacher has an overhead projector (ELMO)… that’s the extent of our technology. But we have very effective teachers and somewhat higher test scores than the other schools in our large urban district.

    However, my question is this: Since technology is moving forward so rapidly, won’t the students who aren’t exposed to it as much slowly fall behind, and eventually be very behind when it comes to the job market?
    Even as I go through my student teaching, we are being trained on the most cutting-edge technology to give us an advantage in the job market…

  3. Thanks so much for an extremely relevant, timely and insightful post in all respects! As an adult educator, I completely agree with the point that, of course, all learners are different in terms of preferred learning styles, and to be effective educators we need to use a variety of strategies that engage the learners at their level. By using a variety of styles, we are promoting an inclusive educational environment where we take into consideration the diversity among our students in their learning styles. So, while I am a great supporter of technology in education and continue to work to broaden my skills and comfort level at using technology with my nutrition students, I use a variety of techniques, some of which require no technology at all, and in fact, may be more effective. I am big on small interactive collaborative groups with my students as this as an educational philosophy and framework that I want to promote and perpetuate. When the focus is on the technology, and not the content or experience, then I believe that as educators we are missing the picture. At times, just using technology for the sake of technology alone can be distracting to the lesson that is being taught in the first place. The pieces of advice here are excellent, particularly for the adult learner. Giving adults a choice on how a project should be completed beyond covering the technology standards they should be competent in. Also, starting with the lesson, rather than the technology, as the focal point, and thus using the technology as a tool to better teach the lesson or convey the meaning. As I continue to hold my technology skills and learn to use them in innovative and progressive ways within my traditional classroom and with online learning (in the future), these are pieces of advice that will serve me well.

  4. Ben,
    I would like to thank you for your thought provoking discussion on technology. Since I am currently taking a Master’s course on technology, I found it especially interesting. I had to reflect on my beliefs in regards to technology in education after reading your posting. Technology has provided countless opportunities to bring the student’s textbook pages to life. Yet, it is too often abused. I know that I am guilty of spending countless hours searching resources on the internet. This unfortunately has stifled my creativity. Instead of creating my own lesson plans, I often spend too much time trying to steal others.
    I also completely agree with you when you talk about technology not being the magic bullet. We now have administration that come to solely observe the usage of technology in the classroom. Many feel that technology is the way of the future: the foundation for success. Yet technology alone cannot change the fact that our country continues to be outperformed in every subject area.

  5. The university student leaders of One World Youth Project are currently working at Bell Multicultural High School, the very High School that Obama held this speech, embodying the type of global learning that Obama speaks about.

    Students from Georgetown University are linking Bell classrooms with high school classrooms in Kosovo and Qatar via a four-unit curriculum that guides students through cultural exchange, global awareness, community mapping, and service-learning.

    Click below to view a short video of the awesome wired connection between Bell Multicultural High School and High Schools in Kosovo: a prime example of global learning-

  6. I’ve noticed doctors asking A LOT more questions than they used to. And so that’s good. But I’ve also noticed them ordering A LOT more tests too. … You might think the two were related, and sometimes I’m sure they are, but there are definitely times when they don’t seem to be.

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