Technology itself will never impact student achievement

Did you ever notice there’s not much research on the impact of pencils on student achievement? Yet you’ll come across research at many times that suggests technology has little to no impact on student achievement. It really shouldn’t be all that surprising that it doesn’t. Technology is a tool. It’s not a strategy. Technology–itself–will never impact student achievement any more than pencils–themselves–will.

What does impact student achievement is what students are doing with the technology (or the pencils). And, like pencils, the impact of what students are doing with technology on student achievement could be positive, negative, or have little effect.

The fact of the matter is that anything we have students doing in our classrooms carries with it these same risks. But when is it bad? When does what we have students doing actually hurt?

When does it hurt?

Not everything is as it seems. Simply putting technology in the hands of our students is not magically going to increase achievement. Neither is having them go through the motions of all the other strategies we try to employ. Just being “engaged” doesn’t mean a student is being enriched. Having ruthless grading practices does not mean we’re being rigorous. Having great “classroom management” doesn’t mean students are in a stable learning community. Merely having the appearance of learning does not mean that learning is necessarily taking place. But false perceptions about what is happening aren’t necessarily bad aside from the fact that they waste a whole lot of time and might just be putting to death any semblance of passion kids ever had for learning.

What I would argue is detrimental to student learning is calling what students are doing “learning” when it’s not. And what we endorse as the strategies that make it into our practice give students the best sense of what learning is.

You can witness the symptoms of a distorted sense of what learning actually is on a daily basis. Every time a student works hard just to get it “done”, every time a student writes down whatever is on the board without asking the question “why am I doing this in the first place?”, every time a student turns in an assignment they copied off the internet, every time a student doing an activity asks why we can’t “just take notes today,” every time a student who is asked a question in response to their question gets upset because “you’re not teaching” them (shall I go on?), they’re expressing the dreadful symptoms of their indoctrination in fake learning.

Technology is not the cure

Is technology the cure? Certainly not. (Neither are pencils.) A kid with a Chromebook can fake learning just as much as one without, he just might be able to fake it more efficiently. But re-imagining what learning could be with these tools is part of the cure. Helping students get beyond trying to make it look like they’re learning is too. So is helping ourselves get beyond thinking that if we’re not jumping through all the hoops, scrambling around a classroom, or spending hours in preparation for our lessons we’re not teaching. Having conversations, designing activities around questions like “What does learning look like?”, “How do you know you know?”, and “What characteristics would good work have in this case?” are also a steps in the right direction.

The point is we need to do things differently. And if there’s anything that will allow us to do things differently, technology will. Pencils may help too, of course. But without constantly envisioning what students could do with technology, we might be limiting our capacity to re-envision learning. We might even be contributing to the systematic squashing of passion for learning that would thrive in the presence of technology.

Only students will increase student achievement

Technology will never increase student achievement. Neither will pencils. And neither will teachers. But students with reflective teachers who have creative space, who aren’t afraid to have tough conversations and challenge false perceptions of what learning is, and are given the opportunity to use technology in ways that are consistent with these, will.

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