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Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920


reviewed by Stephen T. Kerr - 1987

coverTitle: Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920
Author(s): Larry Cuban
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080772792X, Pages: , Year: 1986
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Teachers and Machines is an intriguing and subtle book. At first glance the author, associate professor of educational administration at Stanford University, might be taken to have written about the use (or lack of it) of new technological modes of delivering instruction in American classrooms during the past sixty-plus years. In fact, while doing this, he also invites us to question larger and more significant assumptions—assumptions about whether teaching is an art or a science, about the feasibility of centrally administering change in teaching, and about the possibility and desirability of changing educational institutions over the short run.


Cuban begins with a puzzled observation about the introduction of several new technologies (film, radio, television) into American schools since 1920: Why, given considerable popular interest, administrative enthusiasm, and significant amounts of capital investment, did these approaches gain only limited support from classroom teachers? From this general concern flow the three related questions that drive the inquiry in this book: To what degree did teachers actually use the new technologies of film, radio, and television, once a decision to adopt these had been made by school district authorities? What explains differing levels of use of these approaches by teachers? Considering this earlier experience with other technologies, just how likely are teachers to adopt microcomputers in the classroom and to what effect?


Separate chapters dealing with film and radio, and with television, attempt to outline the extent of teacher use of these systems for delivering instruction. In dealing with film and radio, Cuban admits he was hampered by a lack of relevant data. Most researchers in those early years asked superintendents or principals, not classroom teachers, how frequently film and radio were being used for teaching. In spite of these handicaps, Cuban concludes that teachers typically used perhaps one film a month. The data for instructional television are more complete and more varied. In several national studies, teachers were found to devote 4 to 11 percent of total classroom time to televised lessons. Cuban’s own visitation notes from his six years as a superintendent suggest that perhaps 2 percent of classroom time is spent with the class engaged in a lesson delivered by television. Other studies in individual schools or districts show similar levels of use.


The heart of the book is the chapter entitled “Explaining Teacher Use of Machines in Classrooms.” The arguments outlined here are firmly rooted in current theory and research on the realities of classroom life. Cuban notes that the classroom is an arena of “situationally constrained choice,” a setting in which teachers’ options, while seemingly broad, are in fact severely limited by what the community, the school administrative structure, and their own peers expect of them. To use the new technologies of instruction successfully would require more time, more patience, more flexibility, and more willingness to tolerate otherwise needless interruptions in classroom life than most teachers can reasonably be expected to accept.


Another factor at play here is that teacher training puts a great premium on a direct relationship with pupils, but new technologies are usually designed and packaged in such a way as to decrease the importance of that relationship. Other aspects of new technologies have also inhibited their wider use—the lack of accessible hardware and software, and the “top-down” administrative style that has characterized the attempt to introduce many of these systems. While some new technologies have historically found a role in the classroom (chalkboard, textbooks, group instruction), these have been approaches that did not fundamentally contradict the teacher’s role as provider of instruction and monitor of classroom learning. In short, as the author notes, “what teachers adopted buttressed their authority, rather than undermining it” (p. 65).


Given the continuing importance of the teacher’s central location in the classroom and the difficulty of mandating change in that arrangement, what future is there for the computer in education? Interestingly, Cuban finds that the arrival of computers differs from that of earlier technologies. The push to obtain computers came partly from central administrators, but also partly from interested teachers and parents. There is additionally a strong “cultural push” to incorporate computers into classroom work. Most important, computers can indeed do certain things well that teachers value-help with drill and practice, keep records quickly and accurately, and help make up and score tests. For these functions, Cuban predicts computers will be welcomed by teachers.


In other areas, however, the prospects for computer use in the classroom are less sanguine. Although enthusiasts argue that computers should be used to teach programming, problem solving, and creative thinking, and that students could productively work at individual computer work stations, these proposals violate organizational realities of the classroom. It is probably too much, Cuban argues, to expect teachers and administrators to adopt this model of using technology. He concludes that we are much more likely to see teachers using computers in roughly the same way they have become accustomed to using film, radio, and television—as supplements to instruction in classrooms that continue to revolve around the teacher at the center.


How valid are Cuban’s arguments? As far as they go, they are quite convincing. Anyone who has tried to initiate a program of technologically based change in an educational institution, regardless of level, will find much here that is familiar, plus new insights into why teaching patterns seem so immutable. Although the author’s data are not as complete as one might hope, and come from sources with varying degrees of reliability, the author recognizes this problem and offers appropriate caveats. His intent is to outline a set of propositions regarding technological change in education, rather than to come to definitive conclusions.


If there is a serious omission, it lies in Cuban’s focus on instructional technology as devices to increase teacher productivity or to improve instruction directly, an approach now largely discarded by those in the field of educational technology. As one review noted, there probably is no more instructional effect from the type of delivery system that provides a lesson than there is a nutritional effect from the type of truck that delivers the milk to the local market.1 The approach that now seems more worthy of serious pursuit is one that tries to look at what media systems can accomplish uniquely, what impact these capabilities have on learner cognition, and how educators can capitalize on these effects for instructional purposes.


Cuban notes that certain teachers often become “media- (or computer-) philes,” and he explores their reasons for developing a fascination with the instructional potential in new technologies, but the possibility that some teachers may have found instructionally compelling reasons to use technology to teach specific topics is never explored. The broader issue of whether classroom teaching should continue to look the way it has for the past century is not considered here.


The field of educational technology has long been without an adequate history, and Cuban’s book is a significant first step toward changing that unhappy situation. This is an important book for administrators and for those who are now busily at work trying to figure out how to introduce the next generation of new technology (videodisc, CD-ROMs, etc.) into classrooms. Any effort to change classroom practice must be grounded in an understanding that goes beyond seeing teachers as recalcitrant Luddites, and technology as the sole approach that leads to a hopeful tomorrow. If future attempts to use technology in education are not to mirror past failures, we must learn not only how to change the mirror but also how to understand at a deeper level what we see reflected there. This work helps us to do both.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 88 Number 3, 1987, p. 457-460
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 626, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 11:10:58 PM

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  • Stephen Kerr
    University of Washington, Seattle

 
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