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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: Technology in the Classroom ‘Is Simply a Tool’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 17, 2015 14 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today’s guests are Andrew Miller, Jennifer Orr, Michael Fisher, Cheryl Mizerny and Travis Phelps.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is on the faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, and is a regular blogger with ASCD and Edutopia. He is the author of Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? (ASCD, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @betamiller.

Technology is simply a tool, and we need to remember that no matter how we integrate technology. Often, we find a technology tool, and yes, this tool excites our students. However, the excitement of the tool if it not used in a truly purposeful manner grounded in teaching and learning. Yes, something that is user-friendly, and engaging is a good thing, but if it simply chosen for that reason, it may not come with teaching and learning at the forefront. Teachers should focus on what they want students to learn and the model of learning in which they want to engage their students. Interestingly, I think teachers who see an exciting piece of technology, where app or hardware, and their brains immediately go to that place of intentionality of instruction of assessment. “Oh this game will really help my students learn....” or “This program will help assess...” Great integrators of technology always see potential of technology to support and enhance instruction, not replace it.

One place to start is from the realm of assessment. Will the technology help students show what they know and how will it? This might be formatively, along the way, or as a summative piece to capture. One powerful aspect of technology and assessment is that it can show the journey of learning and serve as a form of curating the learning in the digital realm. Students can use these collections as reflection tools not only across a unit but also over years of learning.

Technology can also be used to support the instruction and learning of content. It could include videos and games that help “push out” content or help students practice their skills. Technology can also serve as tools to have learning happen in a collaborative way, from Google hangouts and documents, to learning management systems. Teachers should consider how the technology would help support their instruction and make learning accessible to all students.

Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr teaches kindergartners at a public, Title I school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader, blogs at jenorr.com, and is @jenorr on twitter. She feels lucky to have a job she loves:

Curriculum and technology are both tools of learning, and only two of many tools. To be truly useful to our students and to us they must work together. We need to identify what we want our students to learn or to explore or to be able to do and then determine what tools are best for that purpose.

As a kindergarten teacher, especially one with many English language learner students, I want my students to hear text read fluently as often as possible. I look for tools that will not only read fluently to my students, but do so while highlighting the words. I also look for tools that will read fluently while highlighting the words in Spanish, as that’s the first language for many of my students. Even when I find technology tools that meet the need, I look carefully for specific texts for that tool which will be support my students’ growth.

If we have a vision of where we want our students to be we are able to plan curriculum and technology to support that journey. One of many things I want for my students is for them to be fluent readers, ideally in English and Spanish for many. Knowing that goal I can choose technology tools to support it. Knowing my students as individuals and learners allows me to determine specific texts, based on their knowledge of English, their personal interests, and their specific reading levels.

One of the greatest challenges in teaching is the need to know so many different things. The most critical knowledge we need is of our students. We need to know the children in our care exceptionally well. We need to know the content areas we are expected to teach. We need to know a wide variety of ways to teach the content to the specific students; this includes uses of technology. It’s critical that we don’t let the content, curriculum, or technology become the focus of our planning and decision making. That focus should always be our students.

Response From Michael Fisher

Michael Fisher is a former teacher who is now a full-time author, consultant, and instructional coach. He works with schools around the country, helping to sustain curriculum upgrades, design curriculum, and modernize instruction in immersive technology. His website is The Digigogy Collaborative and he can also be found on Twitter as @fisher1000.

Michael is the author of Ditch the Daily Lesson Plan: How do I plan for meaningful student learning?, Digital Learning Strategies: How do I assign and assess 21st Century Work?, and the co-author of Upgrade Your Curriculum: Practical Ways to Transform Units and Engage Students, all published by ASCD:

Anyone who reads me online regularly knows where I stand on this issue. Form always follows function. Tool always follows task. The curriculum is the place to plan and prioritize and the technology should come as needed. This doesn’t negate the fact that students need a toolbox of digital opportunities so that they can choose wisely when it’s time to integrate a digital tool. Technology and digital tools are the new pencil; the new paper. They are useful when it’s time for them to be useful. Force-fitting should never be “a thing.” Just because a web tool is cool and awesome and shiny doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for instruction or learning. We must focus on the task.

One of the curricular issues I work on with teachers has to do with upgrading their work based on several lenses that include technology but are not driven by technology. They are driven by what contemporary practice looks like and what a teacher’s objective is for student learning. That may be related to technology but it also may be related to new standards, new ways of thinking, or opportunities for collaboration or communication. Technology might make curriculum upgrades easier but they can’t be the focus. A fire can be made in many ways but if fire is the objective, understanding technological ways of creating fire are great, but they are not the only way to make fire. Plus, if the technology fails, what other ways do we know to make fire? We must be divergent thinkers. We must teach so that students learn multiple ways to get to the objective.

All of this said, I do think there are opportunities as students grow to sophisticate what we do with digital tools. Several years ago, I blogged about a Pyramid of Tools based on Bloom’s Taxonomy with a colleague and friend, Paula White. We tried (and failed) to sort tools into the taxonomy based on which ones we thought paired with an associated thinking level. Years after the Bloom’s post, I blogged again about why it doesn’t work and why we need to consider how individual tools should be engaged at every thinking level. This is where I think tool sophistication could potentially live in the taught curriculum.

One of the districts I’m currently working with are incorporating National Educational Technology Standards for teachers and students into their documented curriculum. With those standards, they are considering tools for student toolboxes and what a student might do with those tools as they progress through this district’s K-12 program. For instance, with a tool such as Youtube, students in Kindergarten and First Grade access Youtube as a potential research source but shift to comparative analysis of multiple videos on a particular topic in Grades Two and Three. By the time the students in this district are in Grade 6, they’ve made a full shift from consumer to producer and create their own videos to share with the entire world on Youtube. In Middle and High School, they continue to produce, reflect, evaluate, and sophisticate their usage and creation of digital media.

Teachers and students, in this example, are still using Youtube as a choice tool rather than a mandated content piece or skill to develop. Their objectives are still to research, to do comparative analysis, to create nonlinguistic representations of content, and to evaluate media. Youtube is a choice that helps them meet their objectives on multiple levels of cognition.

So, in a nutshell, curriculum first, technology as needed, but think about letting students be creative in the technology choices they have and letting the technology inside school be as ubiquitous as it is outside of school.

Response From Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny is a veteran educator with over 20 years experience-primarily at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches sixth grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Her teaching is guided by her belief in reaching every student and teaching the whole child: socially, emotionally, and cognitively. She writes a blog about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher:

Modern teachers are well aware of best classroom practices. We know that our classrooms should incorporate 21st century skills, be student-centered, brain-based, strive to reach all learners, and provide authentic learning opportunities. Because of this, I am very concerned with what I have observed happening in the last several years. In the current educational climate, any lesson that utilizes technology is automatically considered superior.


All too often, I see teachers get excited about a new, shiny app or device and immediately start thinking about how they can incorporate it into their classroom. Their curriculum becomes heavily influenced by what app they want to use just because it’s “cool” so they tack it in. The problem with this thinking is that cool fades--learning sticks.

These teachers have it backward. Instead, they should determine what is to be taught and learned before they decide what technology to use. The goal of the task at hand should influence the choice of technology and not vice-versa.

Don’t misunderstand. I am in no way anti-technology. What I am is anti-bad pedagogy. One may be able to get away with outdated teaching practices using a tech-free lesson, but any flaws or faulty methodology become enhanced when technology enters the picture.

It bears repeating, that technology, whether in the form of a device or an application, is but a tool in our teaching toolbox. Meaningful, purposeful tech integration means it must a vital part of the lesson and truly improve the instruction.


Teachers should be focusing on what students can do with the addition of technology that they could not do without it before. Too many apps are just animated drill-and-kill exercises. A digital worksheet is still just a worksheet. We don’t need to make the same old lesson look better; we need to reinvent it in a completely new and improved way.

Today’s students must be focused on the application, instead of acquisition, of knowledge. They must go beyond what they can memorize and replicate. Technology should be used to promote original, complex thinking, not just be digital memorization props.


Good middle school teachers strive to keep their students engaged and productive. They want to make the best use of their precious few minutes of time with their students. However, using technology for the sole purpose of increasing engagement is also a very shortsighted goal. We know that by focusing only on engagement without purpose, we will never achieve true mastery of content. Educators must not trade a true wish to make meaning of information for a short-term distraction to keep students occupied. You want students to be able to answer the question, “What are you learning?” and not, “What are you playing?”

I’m not saying don’t use technology. Please use it! But incorporate it mindfully and purposefully in order to reap all the potential benefits.

Response From Travis Phelps

Travis Phelps is the Assistant Principal and 8th Grade Teacher at St. Justin School, where he has worked since 2008. He is a Google Education Trainer, Classcraft Ambassador, and Adjunct Faculty at Santa Clara University’s Academy of Blended Learning. When he is not trying to change the world of education, he is spending time with his beautiful wife and two charismatic children:

It’s the age-old question: which comes first: the curriculum, or the technology? Some proponents call for curriculum to come first to ensure that teachers are following a consistent program across grade levels or within departments. They tend to believe that just throwing technology at a problem won’t solve it. Others believe that forcing technology to adhere to canned programs that allow for very little teacher freedom will stifle creativity and will harm student growth. Both of these scenarios are stark and daunting.

In the end however, both sides are seeking a silver bullet. Some are looking for that “magic program” that will completely address a school’s needs, while others believe that once devices are put in the hands of students, creativity and innovation will ensue, and student motivation will flourish.

In the end, however, there are no silver bullets. The one reliable factor on which we should depend is effective pedagogy. No curriculum should limit a teacher’s ability, and technology without an effective teacher will not lead to greater student success. Such a reality might not sit well with people who look for the one thing that will change education, but it is true.

What we can do with this? Allow for teachers to have the space to collaborate. If there is a curriculum that doesn’t fit for all teachers and grades, then teachers need to determine what works best. If a teacher learns about a new app or website that can benefit learners, that teacher needs to feel safe sharing it with colleagues.

Working together, we can do great things.

Thanks to Andrew, Jennifer, Mike, Cheryl and Travis for their contributions!

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