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The use of technology in the classroom can be engaging, but it doesn’t necessarily make for more learning

Many of the goals of the 21st–century skills movement would be familiar to any teacher: critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and knowledge of standard subjects, including math, science, English, history, and others. But there are new goals too.

New content areas like global awareness, financial and business literacy, and environmental literacy. There are also new skills to be mastered such as collaborating effectively and accessing and evaluating knowledge wisely.

How can these worthy goals be achieved? Proposed answers often entail technology, used in one of two ways. In the first, teaching is traditional in that information still flows from the teacher to the students, but technology makes for more engaging or comprehensible presentations. In the second model, technology enables students to produce knowledge themselves through collaboration. Students become co-creators of knowledge.

Both methods are viable, but are more difficult than first meets the eye. Let’s consider each in turn.

The use of technology in the classroom can be engaging, but it doesn’t necessarily make for more learning. Interactive whiteboards, for instance, have been widely adopted in Britain—they are now in close to 100% of schools, and early studies showed great enthusiasm from both teachers and students.

But more recent studies have shown that they have done little or nothing for student learning. Why? Because the effective use of interactive white boards is not obvious. Lesson plans that exploit their strengths must be developed.

Let’s consider the second variety of technology use: having students collaborate to create information. This technique is, of course, not new. It was popularized by William Heard Kilpatrick in 1919 as The Project Method. Groups of students work together on a project, usually one that will result in a product, and that addresses an authentic problem. But while teachers generally have positive attitudes towards group projects, they use the project method infrequently. Why?

I have argued that the discord between attitudes and practices is due to the difficulty that projects present for the teacher. It is harder for the teacher to predict the knowledge he or she will need to guide the lesson, and many more decisions must be made in the moment, during the lesson. In contrast, traditional teacher-centered lessons can be prepared almost wholly in advance, and require fewer moment-to-moment decisions.

In short, technology does not solve these problems.

Using technology to meet the ambitious goals of the 21st century skills movement demands more than first meets the eye. A few teachers will figure out terrific uses for interactive whiteboards, just like some teachers are taking advantage of internet tools to help their students cooperatively create knowledge. But most aren’t yet prepared to do so. If the 21st century skills goals are to be met, there must be better professional development for teachers.