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In 1989, I became the principal of a technology magnet school. Nine years later, I was named an Apple Distinguished Educator. As the lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd Ed. (2012), I remain an active proponent of technology-infused learning. Technology enables learners to do or create things that might not otherwise be possible. Knowing all of this, you might ask why I, of all people, would ever advise educators to restrict technology in the classroom.

In one of the episodes* of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, Leonard reminds his roommate and fellow scientist, Sheldon, of a situation in which Sheldon learned to swim—on the floor—using the Internet. Sheldon defensively asserts, “The skills are transferable. I just have no interest in going in the water.” Clearly, there are times in the learning process when students learn best by actually “going in the water.” Take driver’s education, for example.

Do you remember the learning sequence in your experience? You likely started in the classroom, learning the declarative knowledge necessary to drive a car, such as the rules of the road, standard traffic laws, and other basics. You might have also spent time in a simulator, practicing evasive maneuvers that would be dangerous for a novice to attempt on the road. Still, you and your teacher clearly understood that the textbook and the simulator were no replacement for actually sitting behind the wheel. An app would not have cut it; simulated experiences wouldn’t be an adequate substitute for gaining real, experiential knowledge.

In math classrooms, many teachers are now augmenting—and sometimes replacing—direct instruction with apps or video instruction provided by third-party sources, such as Khan Academy. While these apps and websites do offer a way for many learners to reinforce their understanding of basic skills and processes, many elements of student discourse and reflection are lacking.

Recently, when I visited a middle school algebra class, I watched as students worked independently on their laptops, completing Khan Academy lessons related to the day’s learning objectives. Following that 10-minute exercise, students closed their laptops and were grouped into triads based on where they were in the Khan Academy progression. Each triad worked on a small number of algebra problems, discussing different ways to solve the problems. Some worked on interactive white boards while others worked on paper. They engaged in deep thinking and true problem solving, opening up a dialogue about math. Students helped each other, challenged each other’s thinking, and, ultimately, learned from each other.

At the end of the class, I asked a few students what they liked about the way the teacher structured the lesson. Yes, they liked being able to work at their own pace online, but every one of the students I talked to expressed that what they really liked about the class was the time they spent talking to each other about the learning. Uniformly, students agreed the conversations were the best part of the learning experience; the feedback they received from others deepened their understanding of the concepts.

Could the teacher have accomplished a similar objective by putting students in a variety of TodaysMeet rooms or Google hangouts and have them share their thinking in that way? Maybe. But the real question is, Why do that? Good educators plan their instruction intentionally. They think about what they want their students to understand and master, and then adapt their strategies to accomplish that goal.

The real art in teaching lies in knowing when and how to use technology to enhance learning. Sometimes, it’s better to use a textbook or a whiteboard. Other times, engaging students in online simulations and computer-assisted learning will be appropriate strategies. And, sometimes, it is best to just unplug and engage with other humans, face-to face, in real time.

*Season 2, Episode 13. Great show.


2014-PitlerHoward_7046_webA former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s executive director of digital solutions. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.) and Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and was the lead developer of McREL’s Power Walkthrough® classroom observation software.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Excellent post and excellent commentary on the recent FORTUNE Magazine article. I look forward to seeing more from you.

  • Dan Brough says:

    I believe that there is no turning back for technology in the classroom, nor should there be. But I agree wholeheartedly that we need to get students to not forget the human factor when exploring together. I have seen classrooms where students plug in their headphones to their I Pad and lose touch with the rest of the class. We need to teach how to use dialogue in the classroom in conjunction with the technology factor. Good ideas worth sharing with colleagues.

  • Jessica says:

    As a middle school math teacher, I have to agree with this article! Although technology has advanced education and created endless learning opportunities, it does not cover every aspect. Teamwork and working out problems long-hand also develops crucial skills within these students. Also, the lesson you described did a nice job of covering many different forms of learning, so that the concept should reach several types of learners and is reinforced many times.
    Technology is great, but it is not the be-all, end-all in the classroom.

  • Katrina Adkins says:

    I love this idea. Technology is amazing and can help students achieve far reaching things while staying connected globally. On that same topic however, students have allowed technology to over power their learning and abilities. Just with Sheldon, students can’t learn how to swim without a little water. I know my favorite teachers and classes used a lot less technology and a whole lot of other ideas and I learned the most from them!

  • Jesse Clifton says:

    One of the biggest challenges I face within the classroom is trying to keep the attention of 25-30 kids for the duration of a history lesson. Most students are accustomed to having entertainment or social media at their fingertips. Attention is constantly consumed by the use of game consoles, tablets, phones, and/or other gadgets. Though I believe some incorporation of technology is necessary, I also believe students must be taught how to work without it. Students should be taught how to research without the internet, write without spell check, and do math without a calculator. They should be able to listen and effectively respond to others, work with a partner or group, and learn to respect the opinions of others, even though they may not agree. These skills will be much more beneficial to them as they go through school and eventually enter the workforce.

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