Putting the Tech Cart before the Theory Horse

I recall learning, in my pre-service teacher-training courses at Harvard, MIT, and Wellesley College, several popular theories of effective pedagogy: constructivism, constructionism, multiple-intelligences, situated learning, authentic assessment, UDL. Though some of these theories perhaps didn’t meet all the stringent criteria propounded by Logical Positivists* (clearly-defined outcomes, construct specificity, propositions that pass absurdity tests, etc), they all appeared to be supported by some research evidence from neuroscience or sociology. Furthermore, most of these theories were not novel, having been promoted and studied for a number of years. So I naturally expected to see at least some of them in prevalent use in schools.

Imagine my disappointment, when I began teaching in large, well-financed public high schools, at finding scant usage of those theories. Instead, I found the same Skinnerian behaviorism (extrinsic rewards and punishments), tabula-rasa pedagogy (pouring knowledge into students’ heads), and factory-model organization (one-size-fits-all, sequential, lockstep, compartmentalized) that I remembered from my own days as a student, decades earlier. Furthermore, I observed that my and other teachers’ efforts to introduce new practices based on progressive theories of learning met with subtle but powerful structural resistance; it was an uphill struggle, leading many idealistic new teachers to disillusionment and burnout. I was bewildered: how could these supposedly good school systems be so out of sync with the educational theory advanced by top-notch universities?

It took me several years to discover and acknowledge the answer: the difference lies in the desired outcomes. As described in recent years by various scholars (Gatto; Collins & Halverson), our traditional system of compulsory K-12 schooling is very conservative in maintaining the goals of its industrial-era roots: conditioning kids to become compliant consumers and factory workers, ensuring conformity, and sorting by easily-quantified abilities (mostly low on Bloom’s Taxonomy). In spite of the lip service that principals and superintendents often give to progressive ideals (deep learning, critical thinking, differentiated instruction, etc), the theories fundamentally at work in schools are those that serve the now-unspoken goals of the industrial era. No wonder that innovative school practices and technologies that would serve progressive goals tend to be hobbled, co-opted, or fail outright.

I think this explains the fate of many school tech fads in recent years: smartboards,  one-to-one laptop programs, lecture videos. They were sold as ways to advance the noble ideals in the cause for “reform”; but in many cases, school leaders have hastily implemented these technologies without first carefully examining the underlying pedagogical theories and structures. In such cases, the new technologies have generally failed to produce the envisioned transformations.

How can game-based learning avoid a similar fate in traditional K-12 schools?

* e.g. Briggs (2006), “On theory-driven design and deployment of collaboration systems”


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