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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Start With Goals, Not Tech Or Curriculum

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 20, 2015 13 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

Shawn Blankenship asked:

What comes first: the curriculum or the technology? During lesson development, should we consider the curriculum and determine the best way to force fit technology integration? Or, is it more important to choose a technology tool that is engaging and user-friendly for students and then force fit the curriculum? I know what I believe and what I feel the solution to be, however, this ‘force fitting’ practice seems to be happening in many classrooms.

In Part One, educators Suzie Boss, Ken Halla, Jennifer Gonzalez, Kristina J. Doubet, Eric M. Carbaugh, Heather Staker, Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke provide their contributions. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Suzie and Ken on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part Two’s responses came from Andrew Miller, Jennifer Orr, Michael Fisher, Cheryl Mizerny and Travis Phelps.

Today’s guests are Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Pontus Hiort, Rebecca Blink, Leah Cleary, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, and Barbara Blackburn. In addition, I include comments from readers.

Response From Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, PhD, has taught kindergarten through university and is the former Dean of Education at the Universidad de las Américas in Quito, Ecuador and former Director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning (IDEA) in the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. She serves on an expert panel for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to determine teachers’ new pedagogical knowledge, including the influence of neuroscience and technology on education. She is the author of Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science and Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-Based Teaching. Watch Dr. Tokuhama-Espinosa speak about mind, brain, and education science here, and visit her at http://traceytokuhama.com/:

Great question! My gut reaction is to say “Neither!”

The first thing that should come to mind during classroom design should not be the curriculum or the technology, but rather the greater global and specific goals of the course or class encounter. Curriculum implies content, and technology is a means to reach that content, but neither curriculum (content) nor technology (the medium) are goals in and of themselves.

A global goal might be to learn how to think deeply, critically, and creatively, for example. One could also pursue the macro Common Core State Standards as global class objectives: problem solve, reason, argue clearly, model, strategize, attend to precision, look for and make use of structure and patterns, and connect information to the real world. On the other hand, a specific goal could relate to curriculum standards, such as knowing how to compose two-dimensional shapes in first grade (meaning the curriculum should rule), or the goal might be to master a type of technology, such as using the Number Race open software to help first graders master basic number sense (meaning technology should lead the decision-making).

The point is that lesson planning should be guided by a clear compass pointing towards well-defined objectives: if the objective is curriculum driven, the answer is curriculum. If the objective is technology driven, the answer is technology. However, if the objective is to promote deeper thinking, then both curriculum and technology should play a back-seat role and become means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.

Some teachers feel it their duty to try and make lessons more attractive by weaving technological gadgets into all class topics. I believe this is a mistake. Once lesson goals are clearly identified, the teacher should ask him or herself how he or she expects to measure progress towards that goal. Once evaluation criteria are clear, then the choice of activities is also easy to identify. Once the appropriate activities are decided, then the decision about using technology (or not) will also be both abundantly apparent and justified--no force-fitting necessary!

Response From Pontus Hiort

Pontus Hiort is an Upper School Teacher at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, VA. He teaches Ancient World History and is interested in all things education and technology:

What comes first: the Curriculum or the Technology? During lesson development, should we consider the curriculum and determine the best way to force fit technology integration? Or, is it more important to choose a technology tool that is engaging and user-friendly for students and then force fit the curriculum? I know what I believe and what I feel the solution to be, however, this ‘force fitting’ practice seems to be happening in many classrooms.

This is an important question as there is no doubt that “force fitting” technology into the curriculum does take place. But, as educators, we must keep in mind what knowledge and skills we want to impart on our students. To start with the technology, no matter how engaging and user-friendly, and then try to fit the curriculum onto the technology, teaches few if any skills that will be useful for students after they have left our classrooms. After all, today’s engaging technology tools will in all likelihood not be in use by the time a student enters the workforce.

Education always needs to be centered on the curriculum and the skills that we want to teach our students. If you can find a technology tool that helps explain, enhance, or illuminate a particular aspect of your curriculum, then use it. If you cannot find that technology tool, go old-school and use no technology to teach your students a concept or skill that will serve them well in their future lives. At the end of the day, technology should enhance our curriculum, not detract from what we are trying to teach. I am fully ware that we are all under pressure to use as much technology as possible, but we must never lose sight of the fact that for education to be meaningful and worthwhile, we need to focus on the most efficient way to teach a concept or skill, regardless if that involves technology or not.

Response From Rebecca Blink

Rebecca Blink, Ph.D. has been an educator for over 20 years serving as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, and district-level administrator. She has published educational works including Data-Driven Instructional Leadership (2007) and Leading Learning: Combining Data and Technology in the Classroom (2016). Currently, Rebecca serves as an Account Executive for Compass Learning in the state of Wisconsin:

How do we integrate technology into classroom instruction? The first question that we need to ask ourselves is: What comes first, the curriculum or the technology? In the age of integrating technology into the classroom, should we think about the curriculum first and determine the best way to fit technology into the lesson? Or, is it more effective to choose a technology tool that is engaging for students and then figure out a way to fit that technology into the curriculum? What makes sense? Is one approach better than the other?

Are schools districts implementing 1:1 initiatives based on an identified need to augment curriculum; or are they implementing 1:1 initiatives based on the identified need to have devices in the hands of students so they have access to more resources instantly. What drives the decision, the curriculum or the technology? The answer to this question varies district by district. Some districts feel that a review of the curriculum is necessary prior to the purchase and implementation of technology into the classroom, while other districts have purchased the technology and issued it to students before reviewing curriculum. Is there a right way? I believe there is. In my opinion, it only makes sense to review curriculum first, identify places and lessons in which technology can be infused as part of the lesson, and then purchase the desired technology or devices. To purchase the technology first and then ask teachers to figure out a way to force it into their lessons is an ineffective way to implement technology.

Technology MUST be implemented into the classroom with a purpose. Students today do not learn as we did. They have grown up as digital natives and learn new things in a very different way. In order for classroom instruction to be interesting and engaging for today’s students, we need to understand how they learn. They live in a very fast-paced world of instant information. They are bombarded with external stimuli that can potentially be very distracting to the learning process. They are constantly connected to their friends, their family and the world - no matter where they are or what device they are using. Teachers must adjust and deliver their content in a way that capitalizes on the use of those devices. Since the students are going to have these devices, teachers and administrators need to embrace that idea and capitalize on it.

Response From Leah Cleary

Leah Cleary lives in Georgia with her husband and son. For nearly 14 years, she has taught either middle or high school, and she writes all about it at her blog:

As teachers, we should have three primary focuses:

  1. The Students
  2. The Curriculum
  3. Our Methods

Our methods are like arrows in a quiver, and we should choose the one that will best hit the mark. The students are fixed, the curriculum is fixed, but our methods for teaching the curriculum to the students are not fixed.

Unless you teach a technology course, technology does not fall under focuses 1 or 2. It is a method for delivering the curriculum. Methods will change with circumstances.

So, I would say if technology is appropriate for your students and for the curriculum you’re trying to teach, go ahead and use it, but don’t force it. For instance, if I’m teaching geography and my goal is to have students identify the countries and capitals of Europe, I might have two choices for content delivery:

  1. Have the students label the countries and capitals on a map and study them.
  2. Have the students use an app that is a geography game and teaches them the same concepts.

In that case, I would go with choice 2 because it would be more engaging for most students, and if they’re engaged, they’re more likely to learn the curriculum.

But if you’re teaching the parts of a cell in science, let’s say you have these two options:

  1. Diagram a cell with paper plates, marshmallows, and M&Ms.
  2. Drag and drop cell part labels using a computer app.

I would go with choice 1 there because my students are likely to be more engaged with that option.

When implementing technology, you first must be mindful of your students’ needs and your curriculum. If technology is the best option, use it. If not, leave that arrow in your quiver for the next time around.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher, blogger, and author of such books as DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History, DIY for PBL for Math and Science, and Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas. Heather believes curriculum design should tell a story, and hopes teachers play a role in 21st Century lesson development:

Do what brings your passion to a boil. I have been inspired by a new tool that makes me sit up and brainstorm about how I can use it to engage students. I have also been excited by a lesson or unit that I have been asked to teach, that then inspires me to supplement. The key, for me, as a teacher who loves to design curriculum, is to create a matrix of standards at the start of the design process. Then, design to your heart’s content. Use the matrix to reflect on what requirements you hit and what gaps still exist. Who cares how you start down a curricular road so long as you are enthusiastic about what and how you are implementing the lesson.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is an educational consultant and author of 13 books, including the best-selling Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word and her latest, Rigor for Students with Special Needs. She writes a blog and can be reached through her website:

I believe we should start with the standards. From there, we should plan instruction, which would include using technology as a tool. This requires knowing technology, so you can decide what fits best. For example, rather than simply researching a historical figure, character, or job role and writing a paper on the topic, ask students to truly step into the person’s shoes. Students can create a fake Facebook wall or blog for the person, requiring them to move beyond basic information to reflect the person’s thoughts, actions, life events, and feelings. I overheard one student say, “Making a Facebook wall for Martin Luther King, Jr. was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I kept having to go back and get more information.” ClassTools.net offers a template for easy implementation.

Responses From Readers


Neither...I believe that you start with skills you are wanting students to develop. First look as the skills and the learning targets and then match technology to help develop and support those skills.

Shawn Blankenship submitted this question last year, and sent in his own latest thoughts on the topic:

If you want to integrate technology in a way that elevates learning, I encourage any teacher to begin with two simple strategies.

1) Connect and Collaborate - try connecting, discussing, debating, and developing ideas with other people anytime, anywhere. Whether it’s students collaborating with other students or students collaborating with experts in the field, the potential for authentic learning is significant. Let’s not limit our students to what one teacher knows and is able to do. In my experience, collaboration seems to be the key to learning more than the technology itself.

2) Share with an authentic audience - An authentic audience “raises the bar” and students’ work hard to make sure their product is good. When their working only for one teacher, they make sure their product is good enough. Search for ways to use technology to go beyond your classroom walls to raise awareness, start conversations, change minds, drive change, or make a difference. In my experience, starting conversations, changing minds, and making a difference seems to be the key to learning more than the technology itself.

It’s important to understand how and why to use technology as an effective learning tool; otherwise you may not want to integrate just yet. Keep in mind, technology may not replace teachers, but teachers who integrate technology as a catalyst for learning will probably replace teachers who do not. Something to think about.

Thanks to Tracey, Pontus, Rebecca, Leah, Heather and Barbara, and to readers, for their contributions!

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