Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low-Level #edtech Practices

This is going to make darn near everyone angry:  I cringe every time I hear people pitching Kahoot as an #edtech supertool.

Ask any ten teachers who are interested in #edtech and nine are likely to wax poetic for an hour about the sheer beauty of Kahoot.  They will testify about how engaged their students are when they are playing Kahoot in class.  They will passionately argue that Kahoot is the single best tech tool known to man and that Kahoot games are the most popular activities in their classrooms.  I haven’t seen this kind of universal commitment to any digital product since Interactive Whiteboards stormed onto the scene just over a decade ago.

My beef with the popular tool is a simple one:  While Kahoot argues that it is “Making Learning Awesome”, it really IS a tool that is best suited for nothing more than facilitating the review of basic concepts.  It’s a flashy way to get kids to answer MORE fact-driven multiple choice questions.  And while I get the notion that early #edtech integration efforts almost always start by substituting technology for existing practices, I guess I just keep hoping that our vision for the kinds of things that kids can do with technology would move BEYOND preparing them for the next knowledge-based end of grade exam.

What if “Making Learning Awesome” meant something more than coming up with a killer strategy for engaging kids in the study of content that they don’t really care about?  What if making learning awesome meant giving kids chances to do work that matters or to study topics that motivate THEM?  What if making learning awesome meant creating opportunities for kids to ask and answer interesting questions together.  What if making learning awesome meant  getting kids to wrestle with the issues that are defining our world.

Here’s an example:  Right now, one of the largest humanitarian crises in history is taking place right in front of our eyes.  The news is filled with stories detailing the struggles of migrants and refugees who are risking their lives to make it to nations where they have a better chance for a future that’s NOT defined by abject poverty.  People are drowning.  People are starving.  People are WALKING across Europe.  But instead of asking our students to reflect on the root causes of — and possible solutions for — this heart-wrenching human tragedy, we’ve got them sitting in classrooms answering trivia questions.


But here’s the thing:  Getting frustrated with folks for embracing #edtech practices that faciliate low level behaviors overlooks the simple truth that most teachers are working in positions that have incredibly high stakes attached to those low level behaviors.  

Our very public attempts to hold teachers and schools accountable have nothing to do with developing higher order thinking skills in kids or creating problem-based classrooms or giving students chances to change the world for the better.  No one is interested in whether or not the kids in our classrooms are prepared to act when faced with challenging situations.  All we continue to care about in this country is producing higher test scores — and producing higher test scores still depends on nothing more than getting kids to review and to memorize and to regurgitate basic information.

Now I know what all y’all idealists are thinking:  If teachers teach higher order skills, students will master the kinds of basic information required for succeeding on standardized tests.  

That’s just NOT true.

How do I know?

Because I refused to give much attention to standardized tests for years when I was teaching language arts.  Instead, I focused on making Socrative Seminars — a practice that encourages higher order thinking through collaborative dialogue — around issues like poverty and racism and hatred a regular part of my instruction.  I was quickly recognized as an expert teacher.  I was observed time and again and was celebrated for the kind of thinking that was happening in my classroom on a regular basis. My students were genuinely engaged in meaningful issues day after day.  I won the teacher of the year award in my county, and was named a finalist for teacher of the year in my state based largely on my commitment to higher order instruction.

And year after year, I had the LOWEST test scores on my hallway.

The skills that the students were mastering in my classroom are exactly the kinds of skills that employers say that they want from graduates, but they just didn’t translate to higher scores when it came time for my students to take the kinds of knowledge-first end of grade exams that we use to identify successful teachers and schools.

The lesson that I learned every time that I was called into the office to review my “results” and to look at my “value-added” numbers was a simple one:  The BEST way to prepare students for low level tests is to grind them through constant review and recitation of “the basics.”  Kahoot — with its fast paced music and updated standings after every question — really IS a great way to get kids to embrace that kind of learning.

And THAT’s why it’s so darn popular.

You see why this is important, right?  The tension we feel about the instructional technology decisions made by clasroom teachers is nothing more than a direct reflection of the disconnect between our stated priorities and our actual practices for evaluating teachers and schools.

WE like to wax poetic about the beauty of critical thinking and problem-based learning and purpose-driven opportunities and self-directed experiences .  Worse yet, we turn our noses up whenever teachers spend their time and professional energy on #edtech tools that do little to advance “a new vision for modern learning spaces.”  But we continue to use the most traditional of metrics — results on multiple choice exams — as a cudgel to influence the actions and behaviors of teachers and schools.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe it’s time we STOP blaming and shaming classroom teachers for struggling to move beyond #edtech integration efforts that facilitate low level behaviors and START blaming and shaming the policymakers who continue to perpetuate high-stakes situations that prioritize schooling over learning.




Related Radical Reads:

What Kind of Students is YOUR School Producing?

HERE’s What We Have to Stop Pretending

What if Schools Created Cultures of Doing Instead of Cultures of Knowing?

15 thoughts on “Blaming and Shaming Teachers for Low-Level #edtech Practices

  1. David Jakes

    When I read your last paragraph, I have to ask a question. You seem to be implying that all low level tech use is the result of, or reaction to, the need for students to perform on high stakes standards created by the bad laws of politicians. The paragraph is written as to suggest this is THE reason. A quick trip through Twitter surely suggests otherwise, and that there are many reasons for low level tech use.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      David wrote:

      The paragraph is written as to suggest this is THE reason. A quick trip through Twitter surely suggests otherwise, and that there are many reasons for low level tech use.

      Hey Pal,

      First good to see you and hope you are well! Been a while since we crossed paths.

      Second, I really DO think that most of the reason for low level tech use — and for the small number of people who are actually willing to innovate beyond the test in education — is a result of the coercive testing and accountability policies that we’ve used for years to evaluate schools.

      There’s no real reason to look beyond review and low level practices in our classrooms. We give no real attention to higher order thinking skills — in staff development meetings, in professional development, in teacher preparation programs. And the cherry on top of the crap sundae: We hang teachers out to dry if they don’t “produce results” on standardized tests.

      Think about all of that for a minute: Whether teachers are doing it intentionally or not, the practices that we see are the practices that we’ve incentivized. We’ve made knowledge SO important that it has influenced every action taken in schools.

      Any of this make sense?

      One more thing: I’m tired of the “teachers should do the right thing anyway” take on this conversation. The right thing is a heck of a lot easier to do in supportive environments. The environments that we work in are as far from supportive as you can get. “The numbers” drive everything even though them mean next to nothing.

      Rock right on,

      1. David Jakes

        I don’t really agree with you on this, but I really love the way you put yourself out there.

        I’ve been well, yes it has been a long time.

        Do you see the same level of low level of technology use in high performing schools? Schools where test scores are not really an issue and kids generally perform well in response to “coercive testing and accountability policies?” If so, then we could eliminate this set of factors from being contributors to such a low level of use. I am aware of many instances where tech use is at a low level and test scores have nothing to do with it…teachers just aren’t interested.

        Call it what it is. Low level tech use is easy. It follows an integrative model where the use is assimilated into current practice, and not used to transform anything.

        Most importantly, my guess is that you could walk into any classroom where a low level of tech use was evident, and see a low level of instruction and learning occurring.

        And, if teachers aren’t prepared by leadership to create a different condition for their classrooms and students as you suggest, then they have the responsibility to prepare themselves. After all, there are learning opportunities everywhere. If not, then everyone has to shut up about being a “connected educator” and that Twitter is the greatest PD ever.

        Be a learner.

  2. wmchamberlain

    Bill, we really shouldn’t dismiss the teacher’s role in making decisions about what is best for the student. A truly professional teacher will make choices that are better for the student than for the test scores. Pointing to ed policies that seem to reward memorization gives all of us an out when it comes to doing the right thing.

    I don’t use Kahoot or anything similar. I might have introduced it to my class if I had daily access to computers but it wouldn’t be a regular part of my week. That does not mean I don’t find real value in students learning facts. I think that without having facts it would be impossible to make difficult decisions. I do believe we are expected to rely a bit too much on fact learning and not enough on how to use facts to make decisions.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      William wrote:

      A truly professional teacher will make choices that are better for the student than for the test scores. Pointing to ed policies that seem to reward memorization gives all of us an out when it comes to doing the right thing.

      I don’t know, Pal. I guess I look at this two ways. First, by using the “we should do what’s right anyway” argument, aren’t we giving policymakers an out? What if we started to give policymakers exactly what they are asking for and force them to explain why it’s awful?

      Also, it’s a heck of a lot easier to say that teachers should just ignore the test scores than it is to do. I just know that as a teacher of a tested subject for the better part of my career, those numbers are always in the back of my mind and sometimes right in my face. I was called on the carpet more than once for low scores by principals who simultaneously told me that they loved the higher order thinking happening in my room. The message was always clear: Get those scores up. Period.

      I guess the “just do it because it is the right thing to do even though you might end up in hot water with your boss” approach to school reform hacks me off a little.

      Any of this make sense?

      1. wmchamberlain

        It isn’t an either/or argument. There is no doubt that our education policy makers (the public) need to be held accountable for their poor choices (who they elect). The thing is, I have much more ability to do the right thing in my room than to make the public responsible for their poor election choices 😉 In the end, what choice do we really have?

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Darren,

      THAT’s my next post!


      But seriously, it literally encourages guessing because being first matters more than being right.

      A colleague mentioned to me the other day that it promotes unrealistic thinking. When are we forced to make decisions in an instant in order to win? Surely not on end of grade exams, where we give kids FOUR hours to answer 58 questions.

      Competition is fun. I enjoy it too. But competitions over low level facts that encourage kids to guess to be first instead of reason out an actual answer don’t really seem like a practice worth promoting.

      Unless, of course, getting kids engaged in review is REALLY important — which it is.


      Hope you are well,

  3. Julee

    Bill, I absolutely agree with your central claim here, but would like to add that sometimes, you have to start somewhere.

    Tech with relatively low-level cognitive demands can be a comfortable starting point for a less tech savvy teacher to begin integrating new tools into his or her classroom.

    The click-bait (effective, though) title of this eloquent piece suggests that these teachers should not be embraced where there they are, which has the dangerous potential to exclude them from the conversation.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Julee,

      I definitely agree with you that tools like Kahoot provide valuable starting points for teachers and that we need to embrace teachers where they are in their #edtech journey.

      What I’m arguing, though, is that many teachers never move forward in that journey because of the way that we hold teachers accountable. There’s no reason to question the use of tools like Kahoot when we are held accountable only for behaviors that tools like Kahoot enable.

      That’s not the fault of teachers — even though we like to blame and shame them for never moving forward. That’s the fault of policymakers who continue to make basic skills a priority in our decisions about who is effective and who isn’t.

      Does this make sense? I’m not turning my nose up at teachers for their choices. I’m trying to explain why those choices make perfect sense given the circumstances that we work in.


      1. Julee

        Bill, absolutely, yes, I agree. Those choices make sense due the political-educational-economic climate we teach within, but also, at times, due to the lack of supportive networks in place for educators. Like you, I’m all about empowering teachers to do what’s best for their students. As an instructional coach, I’m sensitive to the idea that just as we meet our students where they are, we should embrace our colleagues the same way.

  4. Jon Bergmann

    Well said. We must move beyond the lower levels and engage our students in higher order cognitive tasks. I am a proponent of technology but only when it is backed by sound pedagogy and thoughtfulness.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Thanks for the kind words Jon — and for the comment.

      But you know what: I don’t think we’ll ever see a strong push away from lower level practices until we come up with new ways to evaluate schools and teachers. My guess is that the majority of teachers would LOVE to be held acccountable for something other than test scores — but until that happens, I’m not sure they are going to walk away from the kinds of practices that produce the results that they are held accountable for.

      Does that make sense?

      I guess what I’m wondering is will we ever get to higher order cognitive tasks when teachers aren’t held accountable for that work — or more importantly, when they are hung out to dry over nothing more than lower level tasks?


      1. jonbergmann

        I think/hope we will. The push to common core is really a push to higher order cognitive thinking. Common Core at its root is about higher order thinking–The tests, etc–now that is another story altogether.

        1. Bill Ferriter Post author

          Hey Jon,

          That’s the thing, right? Until the tests — which is what is used to hold teachers accountable — change, what’s in the Common Core doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. We keep hearing about these legendary better tests that are supposed to be on the way, but I haven’t seen them.

          In the end, we have to redefine accountability with fact-driven tests playing a smaller role somehow. Otherwise, we’re screwed.

          Thanks for stopping by,

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