Tag Archives: hack education

History of Ed Tech for lay people

Audrey Watters recently posted a really good, concise explanation about ed tech and how it seems to keep reinforcing content-delivery systems rather than project-based learning initiatives. She wrote it as a blog post since it seemed too long for an individual email response to a question she got.

I tweeted it out yesterday, and, as it happens, my mom reads my tweets and wrote me asking what this paragraph by Audrey Watters means:

Ed-tech has always been more Thorndike than Dewey becauseĀ educationĀ has been more Thorndike than Dewey. That means more instructivism than constructionism. That means more multiple choice tests than projects. That means more surveillance than justice.

As I was writing a response, it seemed like maybe I should also blog the answer in case it’s useful for other people wholly unfamiliar with what Audrey was talking about:


The field of educational technology is always treated as new in academia, but it’s actually grounded in the history of education in general. In the US in the early 20th century, there were two main philosophers whose work informed how the US could head towards national policy.

Thorndike based his theories on psychology and behaviorism, which is focused on memorizing facts and getting people to do and learn things by simple cause and effect mechanics. His model focused on a teacher standing in front of the classroom and doing a lecture, pouring knowledge into students’ minds.

Dewey, in contrast, was much more about a Montesorri style way of doing things. Have kids engage in projects, ask them to solve problems, let them explore and see the connections between phenomena.

Thorndike = instruction

Dewey = project=based learning

So, a lot of people keep saying that educational technology has great potential as a site for project-based learning, but a lot of what we see ends up being more efficient ways of delivering content. This mirrors the overall trend in education in the US to focus on content and not learning by doing.

The last part… since we are so focused on assessing whether people know things, we surveil them. We tabulate and measure. We don’t empower and let them do things and enact change. Education is about instilling shit rather than empowering.