Critical review of Teachers and Machines:
The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920
From the list of books that dealt with science education and technology, I chose to read Larry Cuban’s Teachers and Machines. Although this book was published in the mid-1980s and may seem primitive, it was very insightful. Numerous trends that Cuban discusses in this book still apply to current trends that take place in the high school classroom setting. In this paper, I will discuss the following: (1) the goals of the book, (2) strengths/weaknesses of the book, (3) implications for science education and (4) application of technology in my science classroom.
Larry Cuban’s main goal in this book was to discuss the minimal impact digital technology had for changing the way students learned. Thus, students sitting in today’s classrooms might still be learning in ways similar to the 1920s. No matter what technology was invented and introduced to the classroom, the use of such technologies by educators was minimally applied to lessons; their presence was also short lived. The introduction of each newer and better technology he mentioned, starting with radio, television and then computers was similar to a child who opens a toy on Christmas day. In the first few days of experiencing the new toy, there was a complete excitement for it. Then, however, there was an immediate indifference towards the toy shortly after. I have to completely agree with this because I still use direct instruction with textbooks and classroom discussion, despite the technology that I could use with my students in my school building. When my school turned our outdated library in computer research laboratory in 2010, there was an immediate hype for many teachers to use it. It was pretty expensive to reconstruct this library into a lab with the latest digital technology. At first, it was widely used but currently, a handful of teachers may still use it for instruction.
There are several strengths in Teachers and Machines. Larry Cuban, who was a practitioner for 25 years in the public school setting, mentioned how reformers and policy makers think it’s quite simple to use digital technology effectively in classrooms. This is easier said than done. I have to completely agree with him here; it is quite difficult to incorporate digital technologies into the classroom. Larry Cuban knows because he was in the field for quite some time; this is a major strength. Reformers expect educators to completely infuse digital technology that is funded into school buildings as an alternative. I strongly agree with this statement that Cuban made: “Collateral learning may be more significant in children’s lives than formal lessons completely taught by machines.” (Cuban, 1986, p. 92) In other words, it might be better to use direct instruction in conjunction with digital technology when teaching students. Since many teachers are hesitant to use such technology in their classrooms, they are the culprits for minimal student learning and thus poor student achievement. Educators may also feel pressured from administrators and/or reformers to use these expensive machines. This is because citizen’s tax dollars paid for this technology. Technology, nonetheless, is not always effective for student learning.
Another strength of this book is the following: educators are stubborn or hesitant to change their comfortable ways of teaching children. “Lecturing, recitation, seatwork and homework… are direct, uncomplicated ways of transmitting knowledge.” (Cuban, 1986, p. 57) I like how Cuban showed in percentage the amount of time per week educators use digital technology in the classroom with students. It really gave me a better understanding of how little educators use technology.
This can definitely apply to the school I teach. There are older teachers who are out of the loop with current technology. Because they resist using digital teaching methods, this also might mean that they lack the skills to even operate machines. For example, all of our classrooms contain SMART board technology. There are at least 5 to 10 teachers in my school who completely do NOT use this technology at all. It either has to do with intimidation to using this technology or the resistance to implementing SMART boards into instruction. They may feel that they have all their lessons plans already planned out and feel no need to change them. This is how some of educators felt who shared their thoughts/experiences in Larry Cuban’s book.
However, this is not always the case. There are a lot of pressures/constraints that educators must face, especially in terms of keeping up with the curriculum they must get through before the academic year ends. As the book said, policy makers did not factor in additional instructional time needed to use digital technology such as television documentaries. I would love to show documentaries on topics such as human anatomy, evolution and fossils to my students. If, however, digital technology was constantly used, as reformers desire, I do not think I would be able to get through the whole science curriculum by June.
A final strength worthy of mentioning is the idea of using digital technology as “…filler material” and a way to give the instructor “…a break” from teaching. (Cuban, 1986, p.61) This is, more or less, what I regularly do in my classroom. I will use digital videos from YouTube or TeacherTube to fill in gaps or to slow down how much is being learned in one class. This is because my other class may be a little behind do to scheduling changes that occur throughout the year.
There were also some weaknesses in Larry Cuban’s book that should be mentioned. The book only discusses use of technology in the United States; it does not mention the use of digital technology in other countries. There may be differences in application of such technologies by educators in different parts of the world. It would be interesting to see how educators in Europe, per say, use technology in the classroom setting. This is not to say I would move to a different part of the world because technology is used more efficiently there. However, I would possibly adopt a useful strategy learned if it is effective with high school students.
Another weakness is the following: there was not much statistical data on research case studies mentioned in the book in terms of academic achievement. Yes, Larry Cuban does makes it clear that technology is not used that much. He does this by laying out statistics that pertains to duration or use of technology in classrooms by educators. However, it would have been nice to see how application of technology, such as a radio broadcast or a television lesson, impacted student achievement versus students who did not use the technology. If Larry Cuban mentioned some studies where use of digital technology was not really significant, this would have further supported his thoughts on technology having minimal impact on student learning. On the other hand, he may have included studies where digital technology significantly impacted academic achievement. This could have supported the idea that machines can assist students to achieve and this may cause educators who read this book to use digital technology in their classroom more frequently.
After reading this book, there are some implications that could be made for education in general and for science education. It could be said that even with the birth of newer and better technology, it will probably not impact students sitting in classrooms that much. Even though such neat technology is available to them, it will most likely not be utilized by the educator in their instructional lessons. It could also be implied that simple textbook readings and classroom discussions can still be very impacting in terms of student learning. In the epilogue of the book, Cuban says the following: “Scientists who study humans … understand that decades, centuries, and even millenia need to pass before some changes become noticeable.” (Cuban, 1986, p. 106) I have to strongly agree with this. Just because newer generations are exposed to the latest digital technology, such as smart devices and tablets, does not mean they can only using these things to learn. Since the 1920s, there have not been any sudden genetic changes that impede students from learning using traditional methods of textbook learning and lecturing etc. So, it should be implied using simple methods of learning is sometimes better for student learning. Digital technology cannot solve all the issues of minimal student learning in the US.
However, educators should be encouraged to implement digital technology into lessons where possible. This, I feel, does two things: (1) learning can become more student-centered and (2) students can become more motivated to learn. It is crucial that students recognize that they can learn for themselves; educators are there to facilitate in the process of learning. Even if using digital technology does not substantially increase academic achievement, it will give them the intrinsic motivation to learn science or other subjects. These students are a part of the N-generation, or are called digital natives (Spires, 2008). Students born currently are being surrounded by a world of advanced digital technology such as computers, laptops, video game consoles and smart devices. They can even learn more easily since they know how to maneuver and use these technologies efficiently.
There are some things that I have learned from this book when it comes to technology that I could use in my pedagogical strategies. I will now be aware of how digital technology should be used. It should not be used to fill in time as fellow educators would say. With the power of the web, videos and Web 2.0 tools, they can be used as a supplement for mastery learning in abstract topics. It can also guide students to develop better critical thinking and problem solving skills. With the research I am doing in my thesis, I found some studies that used software tools that helped to boost student achievement.
I will learn to use technology more effectively into more topics in chemistry and biology. I will not lie; I sometimes decide not to use technology because I am more comfortable just using a simple textbook reading or a discussion. It takes countless hours of planning to incorporate digital technology into lessons effectively. If not, this leads to student distractions and can actually hurt or impede student learning and thus achievement. As Cuban said, it is better to use technology in conjunction with digital technology. To completely substitute digital technology into a lesson may not work optimally.
This book made me realize that the digital technology sits right in front of me and most of the time, I do not use it. However, it could be like owning a guitar. It is nice to own it, but if it is not played frequently, there is no way that instrument playing could be mastered. This can also apply to the use of digital technology in my classroom. The more I incorporate digital machines into the classroom, the more confident I will become that technology can make a difference for students. I would like to start to bring my biology and chemistry students down to computer research laboratory more frequently so that they can use games to learn and/or review material recently discussed in class. Students would become less bored, I feel. This is because if they use the computer lab every once in a while, it breaks the constant monotony of going into the classroom to take notes on presentations.
Larry Cuban’s Teacher and Machines was a book that discussed the use of digital machines in the classroom from the 1920s to the 1980s. Despite its publication approximately 20 years ago, I was amazed that I can relate to so many trends that Cuban mentions to trends I follow in my classroom today. This paper discussed the goals and strengths/weaknesses of the book. Major implications on science education were also discussed. Finally, my application of digital technology in the clafile:///F:/Grad%20School%20USB/SEYS%20778/Excel%20Data%20Tablesssroom was mentioned. It was an insightful book to read and I would like to pass it on to fellow co-workers of mine who are educators as well. In a world where digital technology is becoming better and refined, there has to be a better attitude towards using these machines in the US classroom.
1920. New York: Teacher College Press.