What comes first – technology or pedagogy?

A common mantra in the education sector states that: ‘pedagogy is the driver, technology is the accelerator’, but should it always be the case that the former takes priority? Is it time to reshape the sector and let tech take centre stage?

The Breakdown

  • Research shows that motivation and engagement dwindle as students progress through the education system, but tech’s collaborative capabilities can boost engagement levels
  • However, engagement is really not the best proxy for learning – especially when so much edtech has a propensity to be ‘gimmicky’
  • “Why is there this strong focus in edtech on engagement, when we really need to be focusing on effective teaching?” – Steven Anderson, co-founder, Web20Classroom
  • Teachers must approach edtech implementation with caution, as many tools and devices simply don’t make sense within an academic context

The relationship between technology and pedagogy has long been discussed across the education sector. The complexity of both the teaching and learning process means institutions are constantly striving to adopt the next-best methods and strategies. But while a common mantra places pedagogy as the driver and technology as the accelerator, there’s no denying the growing influence of tech as we progress through the digital age. Where then, does this leave the pedagogy vs. technology debate?

The case for technology as the driver

According to Dr Aspa Baroutsis, postdoctoral research fellow at Griffith University’s Institute for Educational Research (GIER), there are many educational drivers – i.e. things that generate, promote or encourage particular ‘outputs’, which in this case would be learning. “Some drivers are positive and productive and others less so, in that they present challenges or barriers to learning,” she told ET. “Technology use in learning can mean either or both to teachers and learners, at different times or in different learning situations.” Aspa went on to emphasise four key ways in which classroom tech can be considered a positive driver:

  • Access: an availability of the digital technologies in the required quantity (e.g. “three iPads shared amongst 28 children will not drive learning,” she explained).
  • Time and knowledge: teachers must have sufficient time to develop their knowledge and ability to use the relevant edtech, school systems and practices to better support integrated tech usage.
  • Acceptance: “practices such as banning the use of mobile phones may send a message to children and young people that ‘technology isn’t used in learning’,” said Aspa. “While I understand that mobile phones can be distracting for some, for technology to be a driver in learning, it would need to be accepted as a natural aspect of learning spaces, rather than something that requires children to seek permission or that’s banned within the school context.”
  • Learning spaces: Aspa also believes that tech can be a positive driver when classrooms are “reconfigured” to better suit integration. She explained that schools with older buildings that hamper connectivity put students at a disadvantage as they do not support digital learning. “So, greater flexibility within school learning spaces would better support technology as a driver for learning,” she added.

Research has repeatedly shown that levels of motivation and engagement dwindle as students progress through the education system. By the time they reach secondary school, a considerable number have already mentally ‘checked out’, often considering curriculum content as irrelevant to their lives. Gallup’s 2014 Student Poll demonstrates this in action, with almost 50% of the 825,000-strong student sample of fifth–12th graders claiming they were either not engaged (28%) or actively disengaged in school. A 2014 survey by Education Week also found that only 40% of the teachers and administrators who had submitted responses believed the majority of their students were highly engaged and motivated in class.


“I’ve got an 8th grade son and a 6th grade daughter and they still very much like school, but when we see this kind of disengagement it’s concerning,” said Matt Renwick, elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District in Wisconsin, U.S., in an interview with ET.

“Well, if we focus on strong pedagogy, they’ll have no choice but to be engaged” – Steven Anderson

Renwick described a project from one school he worked at, in which teachers put together a range of tech-centred projects – including a Minecraft club. “There were no expectations, no standards and no lesson plans in place,” he explained. The focus on Minecraft – a sandbox video game with a player count of 126 million worldwide – captured the students’ attention. “We always had kids showing up – it was always a full house.” Renwick expressed that learning still occurred despite the lack of structured planning, the majority of which was purely incidental. “Kids supported kids,” he noted. Both Renwick and his co-teacher were present at the club, and while the students often asked questions, their familiarity with the game inspired a culture of peer support, encouraging them to take ownership of their learning and creating a state of innate curiosity.

“Technology created that context for learning,” he said. “It made them come up with their own guiding question, which I think is good.” Renwick added that while teachers must meet set standards in subjects they teach, allowing students to steer the direction of their learning instils a sense of inquiry which is much harder to replicate via the traditional ‘sage on the stage’ mode of teaching.

The case for pedagogy as the driver

Whittling it down to its simplest form, pedagogy represents the science behind teaching. To paraphrase David Sousa’s 2001 book, How the Brain Learns, research into the cognitive process of learning itself has repeatedly highlighted the importance of teachers. Equipped with detailed lesson plans and armed with varying levels of experience, teachers enter the classroom confident that what they’re about to deliver will not just be understood and remembered, but that it will also be applicable to the real world. Sousa explains that the extent to which this confidence is realised depends on the knowledge base teachers drew from when constructing the lesson plan, and, most importantly, the instructional techniques they choose for delivery. “Teachers try to change the human brain every day,” Sousa concludes.

So, successful teaching not only depends on mastery of the content and curriculum, but also an appreciation of educational standards, an awareness of assessment, sound organisational skills and the ability to engage. This means knowing students well enough to adapt instructional methods according to their needs. The most accomplished teachers are those who are seamlessly able to tie these elements together – and that is true pedagogy, or the science behind teaching.

“From my own experience, as someone who has taught teachers how to use technology, I’ve found that what usually happens is that technology comes first,” said Steven Anderson, co-founder of Web20Classroom, in an interview with ET. “Teachers try to force technology into situations where it can actually do more harm than good,” he added. “So I, along with my colleagues, have spent a great deal of time talking more about a focus on pedagogy, and especially research-based pedagogy, looking at the things that have actually been proven to work and where technology can accelerate that work.”

One thing Steven champions in this process is formative assessment. If teachers don’t know where students are in their learning or understanding, he stressed, how can they possibly determine the next best steps in helping them succeed? As Black and William concluded in their 1998 review of literature on formative assessment, “…formative assessment does improve learning. The gains in achievement appear to be quite considerable…among the largest ever reported for educational interventions.”

Formative assessment takes many forms, but technology can definitely enhance teachers’ ability to carry out this practice. “It provides an engaging way for kids to demonstrate their understanding, but more importantly, it provides a lot of data – a record for me, as a teacher, to be able to look at students’ learning over time. That would be much more difficult to do if I wasn’t using technology, but certainly not impossible,” Steven explained.

Feedback has been shown to be one of the powerful elements of formative assessment. In one meta-analysis of 40 studies, results showed that detailed feedback (e.g. providing an explanation for a particular concept) had a markedly positive effect on student outcomes when compared with feedback regarding the correctness of the answer, or simply providing the correct answer. Today, there are many edtech tools on the market that have been specifically designed for formative assessment – but these tools don’t just benefit the teacher alone; the very best digital assessment solutions are those that empower students to self-reflect, assess and take the helm in their learning. As per an OECD formative assessment policy brief from 2005, this is transformative in itself, as students become ‘active agents’ in the education process, learning how to address constructive feedback, set goals, track their own development and select strategies that will be conducive to their learning.

“Technology produces data that enables me to say, ‘Okay, over the last three days, whenever I get to the middle part of my lesson, these five students always have trouble moving to the next step’,” added Steven. “So, what am I doing in the middle part of that lesson that may be causing those students not to understand? It would be very difficult for me to determine that if I didn’t have technology, so technology should always be the accelerator of strong pedagogy. Pedagogy should always come first. When it’s the other way around, things have a tendency to go out of control, because the focus shifts towards a particular edtech tool rather than the learning objective.”

Tech and pedagogy: a symbiotic relationship?

Many education professionals – including Aspa from the GIER – see the relationship between technology and pedagogy as complementary. “I can draw on my own experiences and say that I don’t prioritise pedagogy over technology, nor technology over pedagogy,” she said. “They go hand in hand, supporting each other. When it works, it’s like a jigsaw and the pieces fit together. When it doesn’t work, no amount of force will make that piece fit the puzzle.

“There is a lot to be said for including a variety of learning experiences within pedagogic practice,” she added. “If children are always doing the same thing, whether it’s with or without edtech, they are likely to get bored. I’ve found that including a variety of learning experiences supports learning engagement.”

And it seems that, fundamentally, the effectiveness of edtech depends on the quality of pedagogy that drives it. “It’s important to keep the depth of challenge and your use of technology informed by pedagogy,” Mark Anderson (pure coincidence, no relationship to Steven!), director of ICT Evangelist and co-founder of Global Edtech, told ET. “There are many ways in which technology can be used to support the work of teachers. If the technology isn’t helping you either be more efficient as a teacher (by performing tasks that could be automated, such as through self-marking quizzing tools or AI-driven software), or supporting your teaching and learning endeavours, you should really ask yourself why you’re choosing to use it in the first place.” So, above all else, edtech has to have purpose.

“Then, the use of technology should be transformational. It should allow students to do something they couldn’t do before” – Steven Anderson

Matt Renwick agrees with this idea, noting that whatever teachers are preparing for instruction-wise, the foremost consideration must be how it benefits students and how technology is serving those needs. “It’s about being student-centred but keeping the content standards in mind. We must be thinking about what’s going to engage students while also guiding them towards levels of success in whatever we’re trying to teach,” he explained.

But according to Mark, engagement is really not the best proxy for learning – especially when so much edtech has a propensity to be ‘gimmicky’. “If we use edtech for these reasons,” he said, “it devalues what you’re trying to achieve in the classroom, it devalues the subject you’re trying to teach, and ultimately devalues you as a teacher.”

Before a certain tool or technology is employed, teachers must run it by a sort of mental ‘check list’ to ensure the main purpose for use is not simply because it’s available, nor because it’s ‘on trend’. While a student might be very taken with a game, device or service, it’s imperative to note that engagement doesn’t translate to learning or understanding.

“Why is there this strong focus in edtech on engagement, when we really need to be focusing on effective teaching?” asked Steven. “There are so many tech tools out there for which the cornerstone is to ‘engage’ – “engage your students in virtual learning”, for example; or “in this distance learning, students need to be ‘engaged’”. Well, if we focus on strong pedagogy, they’ll have no choice but to be engaged. Then, the use of technology should be transformational. It should allow students to do something they couldn’t do before.”

‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’

So, when it comes to the age-old question of: what comes first – technology or pedagogy? I think we can safely say that the answer is pedagogy.

But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be using technology in the classroom. There’s no doubt that today’s vast digital ocean of tools and devices have made the impossible possible, but when it comes to integration, careful consideration is required. While technology opens doors and allows us to embrace new perspectives on the world, the sector must approach it with caution, as many services and solutions have been designed for public spaces or another specific purpose, and simply don’t make sense within an academic context. The ‘cool’ factor alone is not enough to spur the uptake of technology.

Edtech has to have purpose.

As Mark Anderson eloquently concludes: “Teacher time is precious, and so, if you’re thinking about using technology in the classroom and it’s going to take you longer to prepare that lesson with technology than it would without, why are you even using it in the first place? Is the juice worth the squeeze? Will it bring the learning returns you’re looking for? I would argue it probably won’t.”

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