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ICT, constructivist teaching and 21st century learning

Joanne Orlando

Dr Joanne Orlando is a lecturer in the School of Education, University of Western Sydney. She is also an AARE Executive Member (Research Development), AARE SIG convenor: Technology and Learning, Course Advisor Bachelor of Social Science (Early Childhood Pathway), Course Advisor Bachelor of Early Childhood Studies, and Editor: UWS EdNews.

This article is adapted from a forthcoming paper by the author. For further information please contact j.orlando@uws.edu.au.

This article reports on a five-year longitudinal study which investigated teachers' use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the classroom. The study, involving five teachers at primary and secondary schools in New South Wales, looked in particular at how ICT was incorporated into the participants' teaching practices over time, and why.

The teachers clearly developed their use and understanding of ICT over the five years of the study; however, they did not adopt constructivist styles of practice in their use of ICT, as is often expected of teachers. The teachers largely held to teacher-centred practices, but had nevertheless incorporated ICT into their teaching in ways which reflected knowledge needed for today’s society.

Background to the study

Significant social, economic and cultural change has brought with it the need for new literacies and dispositions and new forms of expertise, often referred to collectively as 21st century learning (Castells 2003; Hargreaves, 2003; Facer, Furlong, Furlong & Sutherland, 2003). This learning involves critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, creativity and innovation, information, media and technology skills, and life and career skills (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004). Politicians and educational authorities internationally have responded to the need for this knowledge by introducing ICT into schools (US Department of Education 2004, BECTA 2004).

Constructivist practices have been predicted as the most suitable use of ICTs, and it has been widely assumed that the introduction of ICT will be accompanied, more or less automatically, by the adoption of this approach to teaching. In the literature on ICT in teaching, the term 'constructivist practices' refers to student-centred learning, where there is teacher-student and student-student collaboration and co-construction of knowledge, in contrast to teacher-centred practice which involves explicit instruction, knowledge transmission, linear knowledge development, and more directly observable learning outcomes (Levin & Wadmany, 2005; Chen, 2008; Killen, 2009; Hennesy, et al., 2007; Brady, 2006). A growing body of research in Europe, Australia, USA and other parts of the world have used the adoption of constructivist practices as a criterion to evaluate whether teachers have accepted ICT and are fulfilling the 'plan' for these resources in schools (For example, see Chen, 2008; Conlon & Simpson, 2003; Cuban, 2001; Drent & Meelissen, 2008; Hermans, Tondeur, van Braak, Valcke, 2008; Levin & Wadmany, 2005; Warschauer, Knobel, & Stone, 2004; Wong, Li, Choi, & Lee, 2008; Bauer & Kenton, 2005; Hennesy, Ruthven, & Brindley, 2005; Hermans, Tondeur).

However, a consistent theme in this literature is that most teachers are not changing to constructivist practices, but rather have applied ICT to teacher-centred methods. (Kerawalla & Crook, 2002; Chen, 2008; Conlon & Simpson, 2003; Cuban, 2001b; Drent & Meelissen, 2008; Hennesy, et al., 2005; Hermans, et al., 2008; Matzen & Edmunds, 2007; Warschauer, et al., 2004; Wong, et al., 2008; Facer, et al., 2003; McCormick & Scrimshaw, 2001, Eurydice, 2004; PISA, 2006). Their lack of constructivism is generally interpreted as resistance to change.

However, any expectation that teachers would or could change to constructivist practices is problematic because it was based much less on evidence than on wishful thinking and speculation (Selwyn, 2011; Underwood 2004). Many factors simultaneously influence teaching practice, which means that predicting change in this practice can never be a completely certain affair. ICTs have been in schools for a number of years, and teachers' lack of constructivist practices with ICT can now also be interpreted as a disconnection between the theoretical conceptualisations of how ICT should be used in schools, and the day-to-day reality of teaching with ICT (Convery, 2009).

There is no doubt that new educational technologies are always charged with exciting pedagogical properties and there is an understanding of the type of knowledge learners ideally need to develop for the 21st century. However, effective school reform begins by taking existing practice as a way of tapping into what motivates teachers as a starting point for change (Fullan, 2008).

The question of how and why teachers actually use ICT must be resolved if progress is to be made.

The e.ffects study

The current research draws on the results of a larger, three-year study on teachers' practices mediated by ICT, titled Enhancing Learning Using New Technologies, and otherwise known as the e.ffects study (Hayes, Yates, Blackwell, Anderson, Harriman, Lal & Orlando, 2005). It involved 40 teachers from seven comprehensive government schools, known by local educational departments to be making concerted efforts to develop pedagogical uses of ICT.

Principals invited teachers from their school to participate in the study. The teachers were observed using ICT in three or four lessons each year, and detailed descriptions of each lesson were recorded. An interview with each teacher followed the lesson, which provided the opportunity for teachers to discuss the lesson, why they structured it in the way they did and why ICTs were used in the ways they were. 

The current study

Of the 40 teachers, five participated in the full three years of the e.ffects study, and they are the focus of the current research. The current study continued to examine their practices for a further two years, using the same methods. In addition, the participants' own retrospective analyses of the data collected about their ICT-mediated practice over five years were recorded and analysed. The five participants included: Beth and Vanessa, who were primary school classroom teachers with 25 and 26 years experience at the onset of the e.ffects study; Lisa, a primary school computing teacher with 27 years experience; Fran, a secondary school English teacher with 20 years experience; and Philip, a secondary school computer studies teacher with seven years experience. The teachers varied in their approaches to and enthusiasm towards teaching with ICT.


Some elements of the teachers' practices were constructivist. For example, Vanessa consistently encouraged collaboration and co-construction of knowledge between students. Vanessa, Fran and Philip also increasingly emphasised choice in learning: students were able to select tasks they wanted to engage in, how they wanted support from the teacher, the resources they might use, and with whom they would like to collaborate. Additionally, in the final stage of the study, Philip shifted the role of 'instructor' to one of his Year 12 students who had developed expertise in a particular animation program.

However, most of the classroom observations revealed teacher-centred practice. The lessons were characteristically sequential, and directed student attention toward specific and linear learning outcomes in a structured environment. The teachers transmitted information through explanation, demonstration and practice.

A recurring theme in the teachers' data was their perception that ICT took them away from their work because it did not organise knowledge in a sequential way. For example, Beth stated that the internet made it difficult for her to confine the students' learning to her lesson plan and the syllabus outcomes that guided her work. She referred to students 'going off on a tangent' in their learning when using the internet. Similarly, Philip noted that the use of ICT in the school subject Design and Technology imposed the additional need for students to learn critical literacy, which he saw as the responsibility of the English teacher. Fran, Beth and Vanessa believed that the syllabus did not require them to use ICT, which they consequently saw as an extra-curricular school activity.

Reasons for the retention of teacher-centred practice

The teachers referred to syllabus documents more than any other factor in their explanations of their ICT-mediated practice, perceiving that the organisation of knowledge in the syllabus required a teacher-centred approach. The syllabus is developed by the NSW Government's Board of Studies and sets the core curriculum for primary and secondary schools in NSW. Information is organised into disciplines and then into discrete bodies of knowledge within each discipline, each to be taught at different stages of schooling. The participants therefore grouped knowledge into disciplines, taught particular content at particular times, and sequenced learning into pre-determined steps. Their commitment to these practices was reinforced further by the need to complete school reports, and prepare students for standardised tests which also organised knowledge into discrete bodies.

The other key factor influencing  teacher-centred practice was the participants' own core beliefs about teaching. These beliefs had developed gradually out of their formal and informal experiences, such as teacher education courses, teaching at previous schools, and the influences of their own children, their school executive, and teaching peers.

The teachers also stated that the stress caused by their heavy workload, exacerbated by extra-curricular activities, hindered their opportunity and motivation to try new teaching approaches.

The impact of policy covering ICT for learning

The teachers challenged school and system level policies covering ICT for learning when these policies did not align with their own core approaches to teaching. They ignored them whenever possible, or adopted them only in minor ways. For example, Lisa and Vanessa stated that when a change was expected of them but they did 'not believe in' it, they 'compromised' and made only superficial changes observable to management.

The impact of professional learning

All the teachers were involved in school-based professional learning which focused on developing ICT skills and pedagogy, but there was very little evidence of this in the interviews or observations: often it only emerged during interviews with the principal or with other key ICT personel in their schools. In fact, the teachers rarely used content presented in professional learning sessions when it was disconnected from their core approaches to teaching and day-to-day classroom practice.

This is not to say that the teachers were not interested in pursuing their expertise with ICT. Each teacher consistently referred to their own avenues for professional development in ICT, primarily involving their own time using computers at home, and their personal networks.

Teaching ICT through teacher-centred approaches

The teachers clearly developed their use and understanding of ICT over the five years of the study. By the final year, all participants demonstrated more knowledge of ICT, valued it more highly, and used it more frequently in class. They were employing a broader range of ICT resources in their teaching, and using them with a wider range of content and purposes.

Nevertheless, this development occurred within a teaching approach still broadly characterised by set, closed tasks, completed in pre-determined time frames, based on direct verbal instructions from the teacher.


The generalised adoption of constructivist teaching practices in schools is unlikely to be achieved simply through the extensive resourcing of ICT in schools. It would most likely require a shift in emphasis within the syllabus, from specific content knowledge towards non-cognitive outcomes, values and citizenship education, as well as a strong emphasis on informal learning. Professional development in support of these constructivist practices would also need to allow for the depth and complexity of teachers' commitment to their current approaches to teaching.

We also need to rethink whether we really want constructivist practices as our aspiration or whether our aspiration should be learning conducive to our current society. This study has illustrated the fact that teachers can prepare students for life and work in our current society without using constructivist practices. A single-minded pursuit of constructivist practices alone may actually be a hindrance to learning and may obstruct the opportunity for teachers and school leaders to learn about what meaningful pedagogy with ICT might be.


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Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
New South Wales (NSW)