The shape of school vs. the shape of ed-tech

We tend to look at innovations such as adaptive learning in isolation, out of context of how they might be applied in a real-world classroom. There is a disconnect between research studies and real-world classroom trials of the same technologies. In the 1970s, promising research results from academic studies using the technology of the day, programmed instruction on electro-mechanical “teaching machines” were not often replicated by actual classroom trials. The real world is, of course, a much messier environment than the laboratory, but there may be another reason for this mismatch and may have more to do with how classrooms are typically organized, than the ed-tech intervention itself.

The pedagogical organization or “shape” of a typical K12 classroom hasn’t changed much since schools began getting popular in the early twentieth century. The didactic model has prevailed, with the teacher acting as the sage on the stage, providing wisdom from the front of the room, while eager students attentively absorb that content from seats faced adoringly frontward.

Teacher-led, also known as whole-class instruction, fits the shape of this kind of instruction. Students are grouped according to their presumed ability (or at least their general age), with all students learning the same thing at the same time. From a management perspective, this arrangement is very effective. The most expensive component (the instructor) is leveraged among 20 or 30 students, and the secondary, but critical role that “babysitting” provides society is fulfilled.

Unfortunately, this is probably the worst organization if one cares about student learning. There is overwhelming evidence that students learn best when their prior knowledge is gently expanded upon, when they are allowed to progress at their own pace, when they are encouraged to master the material, not just parrot it back on a test, have a certain amount of agency as what to learn when, are given rapid feedback as to their learning progress, and allowed to be more physically active [1].

The few technologies that have actually flourished in the classroom have been those that fit its overall shape. Motion pictures and filmstrips; later replaced with digital projectors and smartboards nestle comfortably within the traditional teacher-led classroom. Even the graphing calculator, while used individually, is a minimally invasive addition to the classroom, especially when compared to a laptop, where attention is completely consumed by a more involved interaction with the technology [2].

Many of the more recent educational technology interventions require a one-to-one relationship between their product and the learner, but this shape is at odds with teacher-led instruction. In order for ed-tech to have any chance of impact, the two shapes need to be able to mesh. Therein lies the basic problem. If we make the leap that the learning path that many ed-tech products advocate is a positive direction, then the shape of class needs to change to accommodate the shape of the technology.

My own experiences in trying to introduce educational technology into K12 classrooms has reinforced this. The teachers we worked with grappled more with how to manage students in a non-unified manner than with how to use the technology itself. Some teachers are more adept at this than others, but it is often a challenging task.

Thankfully, whole-class instruction is not the only way to shape a classroom. There has been a number of what are referred to as “blended learning” models that educators have tried to reorganize the shape of the classroom. The Clayton Christensen Institute offers this list of possible organizational shapes [3]:

  • Station rotation – Students are scheduled to move between series of working areas, or stations set up within a classroom, as to their learning needs. These can access online resources and computer-based applications,  small group instruction, individual tutoring, lab-based activities, and collaborative group projects.
  • Individual rotation – This is similar to station rotation, but each student is given their own “playlist” based on their own learning objectives and go to specific stations to learn on their own schedule.
  • Lab rotation – Where instruction occurs in the classroom and a lab, like a traditional computer or biology course.
  • Flipped classroom – Students primarily learn online as a part of non-class activity (i.e. homework) but come to the classroom for face-to-face teacher guidance and other station-oriented activities.

Whole class education isn’t going away. The economies of scale, the perfect mesh with the entrenched industrial era model of school management, and the overall inertia of the educational system will ensure its place in the near future as the dominant pedagogical model. If we want to use the next generation of educational technology tools, we will need to actively seek new ways to connect students to what research is suggesting as a better way to learn. This can only happen when we begin to find ways to bridge the disparate shapes of both.

About Bill Ferster

Bill Ferster is a research professor at the University of Virginia and a technology consultant for organizations using web-applications for ed-tech, data visualization, and digital media. He is the author of Sage on the Screen (2016, Johns Hopkins), Teaching Machines (2014, Johns Hopkins), and Interactive Visualization (2012, MIT Press), and has founded a number of high-technology startups in past lives. For more information, see


[1] Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Mind, brain, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Research Council.  Free from:

[2] Ferster, B. (2014). Teaching Machines. Learning from the intersection of education and technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[3] Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Staker, H. (2013). Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive? An Introduction to the Theory of Hybrids. Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. /