Becker, H.J. (2000). The “exemplary teacher” paper—how it arose and how it changed its author’s research program. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, [Online serial] , 1 (2).

The “Exemplary Teacher” Paper— How It Arose and How It Changed Its Author’s Research Program

by HENRY JAY BECKER, University of California, Irvine


Between 1985 and 1989, the percentage of teachers requiring their students to use computers during class time doubled, from roughly 25% of all teachers to 50% of all teachers. This doubling occurred both among elementary school teachers and secondary teachers, although it continued to be the case that a much higher proportion of elementary teachers than secondary teachers had students use computers during class time (Becker, 1987, 1991).

As the number of computer-using teachers rapidly increased, researchers began cautioning that (a) all efforts to use computers with students are not equally defensible, and (b) many years are required for teachers to become accomplished as computer-using instructors (Sheingold & Hadley, 1990). Although I regarded this new attention to differences among teachers as an advance over simple discussions of the “effects” of using computers (as if these effects were the same everywhere), I had two concerns about the conversation occurring among educational computerists at the time. This conversation was greatly influenced by the study of “accomplished teachers” conducted by Sheingold and Hadley (1990) at the Bank Street College of Education.

Conditions That Encourage Effective Use of Computers

First, I was skeptical of the logic that “time” was the main ingredient to improving teachers’ computer use—that inexperience was the main impediment to exemplary use of computers (Hadley & Sheingold, 1993). It seemed to me that to use computers appropriately and successfully with students, teachers needed to gain certain perspectives about teaching and learning—perspectives that the simple factor of time could not assure. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that certain workplace conditions might influence how well teachers could gain these pedagogical perspectives—conditions such as the existence of communication networks among computer-using teachers, formal staff development opportunities, the full-time presence of a school-based computer specialist, and school leadership that modeled and encouraged exemplary uses of computers.

Second, I believed that the primary methodologies being used to examine how teachers became accomplished computer-users—narratives of successful teachers and purposive sampling of teachers reputed to be exemplary —(the latter, as in Sheingold & Hadley, 1990), was incomplete and even logically flawed because it lacked comparable data on teachers not reputed to be accomplished computer-users. To isolate determinants of exemplary use, one needed to be able to compare the working conditions and professional backgrounds of teachers whose practices one could define as “exemplary” with those of other teachers who were using computers with their students.

It so happened that at the same time Sheingold and Hadley were collecting questionnaire data from their sample of teachers reputed to be accomplished computer-users, I was collecting data on a national probability sample of elementary classroom teachers and teachers of several secondary subjects. This survey was part of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) study of computers in education, whose purpose was primarily descriptive rather than explanatory in nature (Pelgrum & Plomp, 1993). Although my research was not intended to answer the question, “How do exemplary computer-using teachers differ from other teachers?” I realized that the kinds of questions that were in my United States supplement to the IEA survey were relevant to addressing this issue.

I had asked the teachers questions about their teaching responsibilities, including the types of students they taught, questions about their teaching experience and their own expertise with computers, questions about school policies and practices that might influence how they would use computers, questions about their opportunity to learn from other educators—both peers and technology specialists—and questions about the computer resources available to them. What was not so clear was how one might define “exemplary computer-using teacher.”

Identifying Exemplary Computer-Using Teachers

We lacked then—and still lack today­—strongly verified knowledge about what kinds of teaching practices with computers result in students attaining important academic competencies they otherwise would not attain ( Becker & Lovitts, 2000 ). So instead I used my own judgment: I examined my survey questionnaires for practices that, on their face, seemed to reflect quality teaching practices—for example, having objectives for computer use that related to higher order competency development, rather than rewarding students for completing their other class work. Teachers of different subjects and levels also would not be expected to use computers in the same way, so it was clear that distinct definitions of exemplary practice ought to respect different teaching responsibilities. At the same time, the database for these decisions was a survey of 516 computer-using teachers—not 516 in-depth interviews—and so some coding rule had to be invented to make a judgment that X teachers were more exemplary than Y teachers of the same subject.

The procedure I used, as discussed further in “How Exemplary Computer-Using Teachers Differ from Other Teachers” (Becker, 1994), was to first define a set of core practices that could be assumed to be exemplary and then to supplement that set with others for which responses were highly correlated to the initial set. Thus, with a larger pool of items, a more reliable judgment could be made about where an individual teacher stood on a scale of “exemplariness” of their teaching practices with computers. The final step was classification; that is, given a continuous index of exemplary teaching, where should the line be drawn so that one group could be defined as “exemplary.” The rule I came up with—that the teacher passed a bare majority of the dichotomous criteria (i.e., exemplary practices) used for their subject—was somewhat arbitrary. However, it was reached by examining at some length, the survey questionnaires of the teachers on either side of the “bare majority” cutting point.

My decision-rule produced a sample of 45 “exemplary computer-using teachers,” which, because of the weighted probability sampling design that I had used, suggested that 1 out of 20 (5%) computer-using teachers at the time who taught in the subjects and levels studied (elementary as well as secondary math, science, and English) would have met this decision-rule and thus have been regarded as exemplary computer-using teachers.

School Conditions Associated With Effective Use of Computers

My data analysis, as shown in Becker (1994), did indeed find workplace conditions that differed between the exemplary computer-using teachers and other computer-using teachers. I found that exemplary teachers were more likely to work at a school with the following characteristics:

  • A full-time computer coordinator, where many other teachers also used computers and where teacher computer expertise was above average (suggesting the impact of a local social network of users).

  • Formal staff development was discipline specific and included help in using tool-oriented (rather than skills and knowledge-testing) software.

  • Teachers were given school time and resources to use computers in class preparation and other professional activities.

  • There was a pattern at the school of using computers for “consequential” activities—for real-world purposes such as occupational preparation, a school newspaper, and writing in academic classes (in contrast to skills instruction in word processing).

I also found that exemplary teachers experienced more problems with their school’s computer infrastructure, suggesting that they made greater demands on the support and maintenance system than other teachers did. I found that exemplary teachers were better educated themselves and were more experienced in using computers, thus supporting the Sheingold hypothesis about “time.” And I found, somewhat unexpectedly, that the exemplary computer-using teachers taught classes with fewer students than did other computer-using teachers of the same subjects—classes fully 20% smaller.

Those are a lot of differences. Moreover, they worried me. If it took all of that to produce exemplary computer use among a few teachers, what might that cost for a school’s entire teaching staff to become exemplary in their use of computers? In a subsequent paper (but one published earlier), I explored that question by developing a set of assumptions about each of the elements of the “equation”—for example, the cost of a full-time computer coordinator for every 20 teachers, the cost of providing time for teachers to network together and to use computers for professional purposes, and the cost of giving teachers smaller classes. I combined that with a model of ongoing investments in computer infrastructure and maintenance and developed an estimate for what it would cost a school to become exemplary school-wide in its use of computers (Becker, 1993). Although that amount was, in some sense, mind-boggling (nearly $2,000 per pupil per year; nearly one third of that for smaller classes), I compared that cost to differences in expenditures between high- and low-spending districts around the country and to the cost of undertaking major instructional reform that did not focus on computer technology. I suggested that large-scale school improvements are expensive, regardless of whether computers are a central feature of the reform or not.

Effects of Teaching Philosophy on Technology Use

The model of producing exemplary computer-using teachers that I employed in Becker (1994) excluded one very important factor. In the IEA survey, we had not asked teachers about their pedagogical philosophy—what their central beliefs were about how children learned and how best to instruct classes to accomplish that learning. Yet, as I thought about the problem of what would be required for teachers to use computers successfully, it was increasingly obvious that all the staff development and technology support in the world might not be effective if a teacher had beliefs about teaching and learning that conflicted with the assumptions of the training and support. Thus, I realized, having facilitating workplace conditions was only one part of the equation for producing exemplary computer-using teachers. We needed to understand more about teachers’ pedagogical beliefs and how they interacted with workplace opportunities to produce exemplary teaching practice. It seemed likely, for example, that teachers who believed that good teaching was a matter of transmitting factual knowledge to students and having them practice “textbook” skills without any context of practical use were not the kind of teachers who would profit from working at a school that provided large amounts of technology training and support, smaller class sizes, networking opportunities, and so forth. At most, the effects of favorable workplace conditions might be present only to the extent that they impacted teachers’ basic beliefs about learning and teaching and, thereby, affected their characteristic pedagogy as well.

At the same time, I was beginning to believe that computer experience itself might change teachers’ understandings of how children learn best, with a result that their pedagogy itself would be transformed. In the “Exemplary Teachers” paper, I had found hints of this pedagogical change. For example, I had found that exemplary teachers were much more likely to report changing their curriculum, dropping some content in favor of having students spend more time on other content, and appearing to focus more on depth of understanding than on breadth of curriculum coverage. However, I had not studied specific pedagogical practices, such as the use of small group project-based instruction, and whether these had changed more for exemplary computer-using teachers than for other teachers.

Effects of Technology Use on Teaching Philosophy

The authors of the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) research had specifically suggested that basic changes in pedagogical approaches were an outcome of teaching in a computer resource-intensive environment (Sandholtz, Ringstaff, & Dwyer, 1997). Once again, though, the methodology used for this conclusion seemed an inadequate basis for it. The ACOT study lacked comparative data by teachers teaching under different conditions and following various practices with computers. Yet the ACOT researchers’ claim seemed to be of critical importance in understanding whether a large investment into computer technologies was worth undertaking. Consequently, the question of whether and under what conditions technology use affects teacher pedagogy became a second primary research question in my subsequent work—one complementary to the original question omitted from the Exemplary Teachers study—that is, how teachers’ beliefs about learning and good teaching affects their ability to employ technology in an exemplary way.

Along with colleagues Ron Anderson and Sara Dexter of the University of Minnesota and Margaret Riel and Jason Ravitz of my own institution (Ravitz is now at SRI International), my research over the past six years has focused on these two questions linking computer use practices and experience with teaching philosophy and changes in pedagogical approach, while our work continues to attend to issues of workplace determinants of computer-use practices. I will only briefly mention this work, providing references to archival and online sources where the reader may go for more detailed information.

My first opportunity to study the possible effects of computer use on teachers’ pedagogy came with my participation in the National School Network (NSN), an National Science Foundation funded research and community-building project organized by Bolt, Beranak, and Newman’s educational technology group led by Beverly Hunter. The NSN schools were somewhat atypical. Although sociodemographically quite heterogeneous, they were schools on the leading edge of Internet use, being among the first to have LAN-based, high-speed Internet connections and linked to each other through supportive intermediating organizations such as science museums, university research and development programs, and school districts with strong technology investment ambitions.

As part of a study of 441 teachers at 153 schools of the NSN, Jason Ravitz and I found that the teachers who had used computers with students on a weekly basis for three years were much more likely than non-computer-using teachers at the same schools to report having changed their teaching practice over the previous several years. They were, for example, twice as likely to say they were more willing than they used to be to include a topic in their teaching that was new to them and to permit themselves to learn from their students. They were twice as likely to feel more skilled at orchestrating multiple simultaneous activities in their classroom; and they were 50% more likely than non-computer-users to say they increasingly had students explore a topic on their own, without giving close procedural directions. On the vast majority of survey questions, they were more likely to report changes toward a constructivist, student-centered teaching practice than were teachers who had not used computers with their students (Becker & Ravitz, 1999).

But do computers change teachers’ basic beliefs or merely help teachers who are already constructivist in philosophy implement their pedagogical philosophy in practice? The NSN survey had not investigated teaching philosophy per se, but only the practices that teachers engaged in. Our more recent studies have begun looking specifically at the complex relationships among pedagogical beliefs, instructional practices, and teachers’ use of computers. In our first effort, a study of 47 teachers who were interviewed in-depth about their beliefs and practices, we confirmed that teachers generally see computers as helping them implement changes to their pedagogy that they wanted to accomplish but which they had previously been unable to accomplish. However, they did not attribute changes in their pedagogical beliefs to their use of computers (Dexter, Anderson, & Becker, 1999).

Teaching, Learning, and Computing

We are currently examining these relationships further using data we collected from a large, nationally representative sample of teachers in the spring of 1998. Teaching, Learning, and Computing—1998 (TLC) is a national study of computer technologies and instructional reform that was jointly funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. Rather than focusing on a comparison between “exemplary” computer-using teachers and other computer users, as in the IEA study, and rather than examining effects on teaching of teachers only in atypical school settings (as in the National School Network study), a majority of the schools and teachers in the TLC study are a nationally representative “probability” sample of U.S.schools (and teachers in grades 4-12). The remaining schools and teachers were selected either because they were involved in major instructional reform efforts (either schoolwide or involving individual teachers) or because they were at the upper-end of schools investing in computer technology hardware.

In TLC, teachers’ beliefs and practices were measured in a number of different ways generally along a scale from a transmission and skills orientation to a “constructivist” orientation. Separate measures were constructed to study teacher beliefs about the value of different types of instruction and to study concrete practices (e.g., the extent to which the teacher assigns tasks designed to have students build on their prior understandings or the frequency that they assign project-based work to be presented to audiences outside of their classroom). Teachers report how their teaching practices have changed over the past several years (as in the NSN study), but also how their choice of “most valuable” software has changed over the past few years.

So far, we have reported descriptive data about teachers’ uses of computers ( Becker, Ravitz, & Wong, 1999 ) and descriptive data on teachers’ philosophies and teaching practices ( Ravitz, Becker, & Wong, 2000 ). We have also presented our findings about the extent to which teachers’ philosophies of teaching can explain variations in their use of the Internet ( Becker, 1999 ) and related teaching philosophy to how frequently teachers use computers and to their objectives for computer use (Becker, 2000). We have shown that teacher leaders—those who participate in professional activities such as informally communicating with and mentoring other teachers, and giving workshops and classes—differ from other teachers, both in having more constructivist philosophies and in being more active users of computers in their professional life and in teaching ( Becker & Riel, 1999 ; Riel & Becker, 2000 ). Exploratory analysis has been presented linking teachers’ use of computers and changes in their pedagogy over time, but our current effort is to specify these relationships in more detail and with greater precision. Future findings will be presented on the TLC project website: .

Can Technology Transform Teaching Practice and Student Learning?

There is much yet to be learned about exemplary computer-using teachers. Perhaps the most important need is to develop a valid and reliable measure of exemplary practice using computers –one that is based on the actual effects that exposure to such teachers has on students’ competencies. In this, the critical problem is that our range of reliable assessments of student competency is so narrow and distorted. We have plenty of standardized tests of basic skills; however, there is no instrument that I am aware of, that can be reliably used to show whether or not students have gained complex competencies in writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving as a result of having had instruction by one teacher or another. (However, see Becker and Lovitts, 2000, for a proposed model for project-based assessment aimed at filling in this gap in our assessment knowledge.) Thus, “exemplariness” remains a subjective judgment that depends on public articulation and justification of the standards used in any one application, such as I attempted to do in Becker (1994).

Substantively, our current TLC study is cross-sectional and, therefore, limited to correlational analyses—analyses of the relationship at any one time between teaching philosophy and computer use practices and between computer use practices and reported changes in overall pedagogy. Because the survey is not longitudinal (as of yet), we cannot hope to unambiguously demonstrate the extent to which exemplary computer use by teachers is the product of having a particular teaching philosophy, or leads to changes in a teachers’ specific teaching practices, or changes their underlying approach to teaching. What is needed are studies that follow a substantial number of teachers over a several year period—for example, a study contrasting teachers who have a rich opportunity to use computers in their teaching with others equally prepared to do so, but who lack that opportunity; or a study that follows how teachers’ pedagogy changes over time and associates those changes with opportunities and experiences in using computers in their teaching.

Both of these types of investigations are critical—developing reliable measures of student competencies that are better accomplished through computer-based instruction than by other instructional approaches (what might be called “computer-affordanced” competencies) and clarifying how computer use is limited by teacher beliefs but, in turn, under particular circumstances helps to change teachers’ approaches to instruction and curriculum and their basic underlying pedagogical beliefs. Without a fuller range of student outcome measures, our claims that one group of teachers is “exemplary” in how they use computers will simply not be believed by those who disagree with the importance of what any one researcher defines as “exemplary” practices. Without more reliable understanding about whether computer use practices actually change teachers in ways that policymakers would like, many efforts to reform teaching practices will continue to ignore the possibly valuable role of computers as catalysts for instructional change. Such is the work yet to be done.


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