//[1] Teachers' Views on Computers as Catalysts for Change
Dexter, S., Anderson, R. E., & Becker, H. J.**

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Dexter, Anderson, and Becker conducted a case study on the impact of computing on education, in particular, on how the presence and use of computers affected the constructivist changes teachers made to their classroom practice. Locating teachers along a spectrum between non-constructivist and strongly constructivist, Dexter et al. observed that none of the teachers referenced technology as a catalyst for change in their approach to teaching. Those teachers who were more constructivist, more progressive, saw computers as only tools that aided them in realizing goals they had all along. Among the catalysts these teachers cited were self-reflection, knowledge gained from classes taken, and the context or culture of their school environment. Though the teachers themselves did not explicitly acknowledge the use of computers as changing their teaching approach, Dexter et al. integrate the effect of computers with teachers' experiences and environment. They conclude, "[I]n order for teachers to implement the use of educational technology in a constructivist manner, they must have opportunities to construct pedagogical knowledge in a supportive climate."[2]


Re-conceptualizing Why Teachers Adopt the Use of Computers and Constructivist Practices

Dexter et al. assert that the impact of computer use on constructivist teaching practices
must be situated within the context of five main concepts:
  1. The teacher is a decision maker.
  2. The teacher is a learner.
  3. Change is a process of learning.
  4. Schools are the social context for learning.
  5. Constructivism is a model for teachers' learning and making instructional changes.

Teacher as Decision Maker

Teachers' knowledge base and prior experience influence the decisions they make in teaching. Lee Shulman had earlier studied how teachers' professional knowledge explains their teaching practices; teachers are constantly making decisions during planning and instruction, based on their prior knowledge. Shulman argues that teaching is "a constant stream of decision-making points."[3] This view emphasizes teachers' agency, their ability to make deliberate decisions, when approaching instructional changes.

Teacher as Learner

Teachers are themselves learners. This is evident in staff development training that helps to improve teachers' knowledge, skills, and methods. Michael Fullan sees the relationship between staff development and successful implementation of novel approaches to be a very "intimate" relationship.[4] In order to introduce and implement a new approach, teachers themselves must first understand the knowledge, skills, and strategies within that new approach. Then, they must integrate that new set of knowledge into the existing curriculum and context of their specific classrooms. Fullan uses the analogy of a dynamic system of gears to illustrate the environment of the classroom; each "sub-cog"--each component--must interact with the teacher as the learner at the very center of that system.

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Change as Learning

Learning is often characterized as a change in thinking or behavior. In this case, however, Dexter et al. introduce the converse, namely that deliberate change necessarily involves learning, by both students and teachers. Though change is systematic by nature, it is also a process that is experienced personally by the individual. In their work with the Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM), Susan Loucks-Horsley and Suzanne Steigelbauer argue that the individual holds a "critical place" in the process of change.[5] By putting teachers and their concerns at the center of the change process, their work acknowledges that teachers' learning and adopting innovation is personal and developmental in nature. Milbrey McLaughlin, in his study on the RAND Change Agent, emphasizes the contextual nature of teaching, in the "'nowness' of the teaching context."[6] Like Fullan, McLaughlin sees teaching as a dynamic activity and teachers as central to its successful functioning. Fullan and McLauglin concur that in order for change to take place, individual teachers must negotiate that change and integrate it into the existing components of their environment.

School as Learning Context

The context of the school environment affects teacher development. Andy Hargreaves maintains that this idea must begin with the premise that teaching is a kind of work. Like any kind of work, the culture and context of the workplace shape teachers' roles and relationships. To Hargreaves, innovation is inextricably linked to both individual and social learning. Hargreaves even brings up how the political and administrative environment might play a role, arguing that these factors might not always align with teachers' capacities or desires for change. Like Hargreaves, Liberman and Miller draw a connection between individual learning and the social environment.[7] They suggest that staff development be not only about individual improvement but also framed as culture building, building a culture of teaching.

Constructivism as Model

Constructivism centers around the idea that knowledge is actively constructed by the learner. This model emphasizes learning as a process wherein new understanding is integrated into existing foundations based on the learner's unique combination of experiences as well as the context in which the learner gained those experiences. New learning is shaped by prior schema; the new learning then becomes part of the schema for future learning. Teachers through their classroom experiences construct knowledge about which instructional approaches and methods produce the best results. Since knowledge is constructed, according to this model, even within the context of a single school there is a range of teaching styles rather than a narrow prescription of any single one. This brings us back to the first concept discussed in this section: the agency and autonomy of the teacher as a decision-maker. Each teacher chooses, within certain limitations, the approaches that work best for him or her--including the choice to reject instructional reform where he or she sees fit.

It is with this conceptual framework in mind that Dexter, Anderson, and Becker conduct their case study concerning the impact of computers on teachers' educational practice.

Data and Methods

The researchers in this study collected data using three different methods: administering a questionnaire, conducting three interviews, and making three observations in the classroom of the teacher participants. The report for this study primarily focuses on the third interview that was conducted with the teachers. The third interview focused on questions about teachers' beliefs about computers in the classroom and how teachers integrated computers in their curriculum. Forty-seven teachers were interviewed from twenty different elementary, middle, and high school. The teachers participating in this study were chosen based on their use of technology in the classroom. Most schools in this study were also chosen based on their use of technology in their school[8] .

Teacher Instructional Styles

The researchers categorized the teachers in this study based on a questionnaire that the teachers filled out prior to the interview process. The teachers were identified as one of three types of instructional styles: non-constructivist, weak constructivist, and substantially constructivist.


These teachers believed that learning comes from directly "listening, reading, note-taking, and practice in the solving of related problems or exercises". This is considered to be "teacher-directed" learning. This is where the teacher has direct control of the classroom and is responsible for the students' learning. These teachers also believed that the work that students completed was directly related to grades, praise or recognition, and promise of future benefits.


These teachers focused on a more "non-traditional" way of teaching. These teachers focused on student understanding rather than memorizing concepts, and incorporated discussion into their lesson plans. These teachers also focused on making lesson interesting and understandable, in addition to adding more interpersonal skills in their lesson. These teachers, however, still included grades and recognition as a primary focus of student learning.

Substantially Constructivist

These teachers believed in a more "group learning" philosophy of teaching. Their teaching was less teacher-directed and more student-directed. This means that the students were also responsible for their learning, not just the teacher. This allowed teachers to incorporate more group work, creative instructional methods, and lesson that were related to students' interests. These teachers also assessed their students a little differently than more traditional teachers. These teachers focused on students assessing each other, self-assessment, and more complex, evaluative assessments. These teachers were substantially different in their teaching methods compared to the more traditional teachers.


Constructivist Teachers

An overwhelming majority, 32 of the the 47 teachers interviewed, were categorized as constructivist. Within that majority, 22 were considered to be weak constructivist, and the remaining ten substantial constructivist.[9] The commonality between all of the constructivist teachers was that they all used computers in their classroom for their own needs, and all but one teacher allowed for student computer access in the classroom. The vast majority of the teachers who allowed student interaction with computers stated that “the software they valued most was tool software, such as word processing and multimedia authoring, and/or digital information sources, such as encyclopedias on CD-ROM and the Internet,” while two of the teachers preferred the software that improved their own classroom efficiency (Dexter, Anderson & Becker, 1999). This was primarily due, however, to the limited student access to computers that rendered computer time more troublesome than useful, not due to fear of technology. Of the teachers who allowed for student computer interaction, five teachers cited the use of educational online games as the prevalent computer activity in their classrooms.
Why They Are the Way They Are
All of the constructivist teachers changed their approached education over the years from a teacher centered classroom to a more student-centered learning environment. Two thirds of these constructivist teachers believe that technology itself was not at the heart of the change, but that it “helped them make changes they already wanted to make” (Dexter et al., 1999). Three were on the fence about who initiated the change, teacher or technology, and decided it was a bit of both. Just two of the teachers said computers were the catalyst for change, and the last two honest souls admitted they had changed their practices little though the years (Dexter et al., 1999). All in all, 19 of the 32 constructivists said they were the catalysts for change, and those who were the most constructivist were hip to technology in part because it had been introduced in a PLC meeting, it was expected of them, or they wanted to pass performance assessments. Many of these teachers appreciate “the insights about their own effectiveness, gained as a result of reflection” (Dexter et al., 1999). As researchers interviewed the teachers, they were able to identify an especially interesting thread of information: “The many teachers who, on the one hand, saw themselves as driving the changes they had made and, on the other hand, acknowledged that computers and network technologies had made many of these new opportunities possible, did not seem to see this as a contradiction” (Dexter et al., 1999).

Formal Learning Experiences

Three of the 32 teachers cited formal learning experience as the reason for their use of computers in the classroom; these teachers were trained recently enough in credential programs that technology in the classroom was accepted and even expected.

School-wide Expectations and Instructional Emphases

Often the climate of the school dictates how teachers approach every aspect of their teaching. For instance, one teacher moved from a traditional school setting where he was “the giver of knowledge” to a student-centered school where he was to be more of a coach as students explored concepts. He said, “...it’s like starting over” (Dexter et al., 1999). For him, the catalyst for change was the school philosophy on education that he had to mold himself to.

Non-Constructivist Teachers

Fifteen of the 47 teachers involved in this study were categorized as non-constructivist. They had also made changes to their practices over the years, and for many of the same reasons the constructivist teachers cited, so what made them different? Six of the teachers focused on group work and independent skills like research, while three teachers insisted that “as a the result of their students’ lower readiness to learn, they had made changes such as making lessons simpler or more focused, or instituting an accountability system for homework” (Dexter et al., 1999). Three of the teachers made changes because of something they learned in a college course or similar learning experience, and two stated that they had not really changed much.


  • Computers were not cited as the catalyst for change in either group
  • Highly constructivist teachers cited school-wide initiatives like a push for technology in the classroom or student centered learning as catalysts for change, as well as their reflections on their own effectiveness in teaching over the years.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Based on evidence in this study, it is evident that the implementation of the use of technology in the classroom is thanks to teachers themselves. This study focused on a teacher development and school change. It is the teachers who understand their classroom needs based on their experiences and understandings of when its appropriate to made the decision for change. Teachers are best at understanding what works and what does not work in their classroom. With all data taken into consideration, it can be understood that the experiences, reflection, and the culture of a school can influence a teacher to construct new knowledge onto students. Thus, bringing the use of computers into the classroom is the choice made by the teacher, making the teacher the catalyst for change.


  1. ^ **
    Dexter, S., Anderson, R. E., & Becher, H.J. (1999). Teachers' views of computers as catalysts for changes in their teaching practice.
    Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 31// (3), 1.
  2. ^ Dexter, S., Anderson, R. E., & Becher, H.J. (1999). Teachers' views of computers as catalysts for changes in their teaching practice. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 31 (3), 1.
  3. ^ Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Education Review, 57, 1-22, qtd. in Dexter et al. (1999), 3.
  4. ^ Fullan, M.G. (1992). Successful school improvement. Bristol, PA: Open University Press, qtd. in Dexter et al. (1999), 3.
  5. ^ Loucks-Horsley, A. & Steigelbauer, S. (1999). Using knowledge of change to guide staff development. In A. Liberman & L. Miller (Eds.), Staff development for education in the '90s (pp. 15-36). New York: Teachers College Press, qtd. in Dexter et al. (1999), 3.
  6. ^ McLaughlin, M.W. (1991). Enabling professional development: What have we learned? In A. Lieberman & L. Miller (Eds.), Staff development for education in the '90s (pp. 61-82). New York: Teachers College Press.
  7. ^ Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times. London: Cassell, qtd. in Dexter et al. (1999), 4.
  8. ^ Dexter, S., Anderson, R. E., & Becher, H.J. (1999). Teachers' views of computers as catalysts for changes in their teaching practice. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 31 (3), 1.
  9. ^


    Teachers’ Views of Computers as Catalysts for Changes in Their Teaching Practice
    Sara L. Dexter and Ronald E. Anderson University of Minnesota
    Henry Jay Becker University of California, Irvine