Stop Celebrating Low-Level Learning

In the spring of 2002, I was teaching 4th grade in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As a teacher in my second year, my classroom had a 1:1 student-to-device ratio.

That's right, in 2002, 17 years ago, we were 1:1.

Palm Pilots. Yes, Palm Pilots. Remember those things?


"I'd love to see these units become standard equipment for all students in five to ten years." - Thomas C. Murray, 2002 (HAHA!!)

These devices were really the beginning to mobility in the classroom. For the first time, these students had access to a device that could take pictures, create digital stories, "beam" information back and forth, both at school and while at home. In 2002, these devices were new. They were shiny. They were the gold standard of edtech in the classroom. (Especially when the color ones came out! Ha!)

A few weeks into the pilot project, I had a planned, formal observation. Like any teacher, I wanted to impress my principal. In knowing he was coming, my lesson plan was well thought out. Student engagement was planned throughout. I was going to be using technology the entire time. I just knew he'd be impressed.

To premise the observation, my principal was an incredible leader. He created a culture of innovation and pushed us to take risks and to try new things. He encouraged us to think outside-the-box and do things differently for kids as he modeled the way in the process. But, he didn't get caught up in the fluff. He remained focused on high quality instruction throughout.

The following week came, and my lesson was ready to go. It was a 30 minute spelling lesson. (Don't judge....but, yes, really!) After reviewing the Palm Pilot expectations and the software we'd be using, we dove in. For the majority of the lesson, students practiced their individualized spelling lists with partners. One partner would read another's spelling word. He/She would then write their spelling word using the new Graffity program on the Palm Pilot, and beam it back to their partner to verify their answer.

For the entire lesson...

- Every student was engaged.

- When questions were asked, virtually every student had their hand up.

- Every student was on task and followed all of my directions.

- My lesson plan was followed perfectly; seemingly to the minute.

- Technology was used the entire time.

After 30 minutes, as a confident, 23-year old teacher, I wrapped up the lesson and sent my students out to recess. I remember feeling like I had just crushed it.

The following day, all fired up, I walked down to my principal's office for the post observation. I was excited to hear how great he thought my lesson was the day before.

I can remember the conversation like it was yesterday. It'd be one that would fundamentally change my mindset on using technology and its role in teaching and learning.

I sat down, and as he always would, my principal made me feel welcome. Again, he created a culture where people wanted to be. A culture where people could take risks.

He looked at me and started like every principal has... "So Tom, how do YOU, think the lesson went?"

I remember being excited to share... "Well, I think it went really well. Kids were 100% engaged. Technology was used the entire time. My lesson plan was followed almost to the minute. Kids were on-task. Honestly, I think it went really well."

He smiled, looked at me, and said, "So Tom, what were your learning objectives?"

"We wanted to use the Palm Pilots to be able to..." I began.

He cut me off. "No, Tom, what were your learning objectives?"

Hmmm... Maybe he misunderstood. "We wanted to use the Palm Pilots to..." and he cut me off again.

"Tom, let me push you on this. Every time I ask you about learning, you start talking about technology."

Gulp. He was right. I was. I had. I did.

"Tom, were your kids engaged? Yes. 100% of the time? Pretty much. But, engaged on very low-level learning tasks. Were great management things in place? Absolutely. But what is it that kids actually learned?"

I remember instant humility coming over me. I was ready to celebrate what was 30 minutes of very low level, if any, learning.

He went on. "I really think you created that lesson because the technology could do something, not because it was the best way to learn something. Could you have done the exact same thing, with no technology, sitting side by side, pencil and paper, in only 6 or 7 minutes?"

Wow. He was right.

I had become hyper-focused on using the technology. Using the technology was my main goal. Not the learning.

Now don't get me wrong. I didn't leave that supervision conversation demoralized. I didn't leave that conversation feeling like a failure. I left challenged to try it again, but to lead with learning, not the technology. It's one of those supervision conversations that would do what it was supposed to do... it helped me look at things differently, and ultimately change my practice. It reinforced things I had done well (management), but pushed me where I needed to grow (mindset, vision, remaining focused on learning).

Fast forward 17 years. Chromebooks, iPads, PCs, millions of them in fact, are found in classrooms. During this time, the technology has evolved tremendously to the point where my devices from 2002 look like kiddy toys. Yet, the lesson I learned all those years ago, one that would alter my mindset and help me understand, is just as relevant, and just as needed now.

Today on social media, "being paperless" will be celebrated. Today on social media "a game-changing tool" will be glorified. Today on social media "an amazing new app that has to be used" will be highlighted.

We can never lose sight, like I did those years ago, about what technology is. It's a tool. It's an amplifier. It is not the learning goal. The app, the tool, the device, is not the "game-changer." What the students do with it for learning is. 

It's exactly why Eric Sheninger and I wrote about ensuring a "Return on Instruction" in Learning Transformed.

Simply put, as I share in the video, You can be 100% digital and 100% low-level learning. 

Principals - when your five minute walkthrough form checks off "Using technology," and you hand it back to your teacher to show them that it was in place, I ask you this question...

So what?

We need to stop celebrating low-level learning, and put technology in its place. It's a tool. It's a support. It's an amplifier. Checking off and sending feedback that "they were using technology" can inadvertently celebrate, and reinforce, low-level instructional practices, just as I did while sitting in the principal's office back in 2002.

Together, we can do this.

All for the kids we serve,