when hardware fails

Mr. Brown walks into the supply room with a candle in his hand,"How does a school expect its teachers to use the Edison Projectors if the electricity keeps going out?"

"I know.  I not only don't have electricity, they forgot the paper shipment system updates, so my entire system of operating has crashed."

"Crashed? That's a bit extreme. Besides, operating system?  Really?  It's paper, Tom. It doesn't have to be a system."

"Good point, Brown." (If they insist on changing the name colleague with the word "teammate" then I'm going to call him by just his last name and drop the "mister" entirely.  Brown, for his part, has started bringing sunflower seeds and scratching himself.  If we're going to use a sports metaphor, might as well go all out.) "But it's impossible for the paper and pencil system to work when they won't do a few purchase order updates. What's the point of one-to-one pencil to student ratio if I can't keep things updated?"

"People ask me why I'm not switching over to pencils and paper and Edison Projectors and phonographs.  You know how often slates break?  Never.  You know how often I run out of chalk?  Never.  I keep a huge stash of it under my desk.  Chalk doesn't get old, so I don't do any updates.  It's cheap.  It's portable.  It's durable. Tom, it's an issue of taking care of hardware.  That's why schools don't have meaningful pencil integration."

"Perhaps.  Some day, I imagine there will be machines that make copies for you and I won't have to worry about whether kids have paper, because they won't have to copy information from the board. We won't see the human errors, because it will come down to pushing a button."

"Yeah, but think about this, Tom.  A hundred years from now, they'll have telegraphs in each school and people will be able to access information from around the globe.  Yet, the telegraph connection will break constantly.  They'll have copy machines, but the machine will jam daily and they'll forget to order paper for it."

For all the talk about teachers being motivated to use pencils, no one seems to address this issue.  A teacher isn't going to create phenomenal PowerSlides, if the Edison Projector might not have electricity.  A teacher won't create a true pencil-based lesson if the access to paper is unpredictable.  Teachers want to have some certainty that the hardware they use will work.  Few of them relish in the unspoken role of improvisational speaker meets babysitter meets handy man while a group of restless kids sit on their hands and wait to learn.

No one does this explicitly, but on a subconscious level, we become timid about integrating new tools, because we are never sure if the tool will work properly.  We plan a lesson but then plan a back up lesson or a backup of the backup and it makes us a little skittish. Like a carpenter with a wobbly-handled hammer, we know that tools in schools are often unpredictable in their failure and in becoming overly careful, our students miss out on a full education.


  1. these things have become an issue in my classroom this week. It hurts to see the frustration levels rise for kids when the site I want them to use for their research papers doesn't work well or works differently or slower on different computers in the school. I felt bad for the kid, I kept saying "hang in there" it really is worth it when it is working... sigh. (like on your computer at home!) I am not going to give up but I can understand why so many are quick to do so or to complain. I wish I had more control over the machines and their maintenance in my classroom.

  2. "Few of them relish in the unspoken role of improvisational speaker meets babysitter meets handy man while a group of restless kids sit on their hands and wait to learn."

    We do need an array of options and resources to tide us over. Sometimes the resources might be very simple. I have flashcards, some game boards, a few decks of cards, dice, four rubber balls, and a bag of balloons. When the activity is going south for whatever the reason its time to switch gears. Over time we become master teachers. A master knows how to do something many different ways.

    I have the same cautious attitude most teachers have about change in technology. Some level of stability and structure needs to be established before a substantial investment is warranted. I think the discussion about these new instructional technologies has gone viral because the stable infrastructure (and costs)is now in place. We can do this! But life is problematic and uncertain. Things fail constantly so we always need a second or third way to approach each task. I fondly recall my first years of teaching in a tiny rural school in Saskatchewan. Sometimes the students and I would reach an impasse together and then it was time to grab the ball mitts and a bat and go play a game. "Okay guys, play seven-up until I work this out."