Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

What Would Ted Sizer Say About Technology?

CJ Westerberg, September 26, 2012 2:18 PM


Editor's Note: Last week during lunch with a school Head, the conversation turned to the timeless and powerful work of uber-educator and icon, Ted Sizer. It reminded me how profound his influence was for so many educators and thought it was important to introduce many of our new readers to this classic post along with a glimpse of his legacy. - C.J. Westerberg

"Every student, without exception,
should be able to succeed well
at something consequential.

- Ted Sizer, former Head of Phillips Academy Andover,
Professor and Dean of the School of Education, Harvard

Use Your Mind Well:
Tech in Schools and the Educational Philosophy of Ted Sizer

by J. Robert Shirley, Ph.D.

It seems that technology has found a permanent place in the realm of education. Preschoolers are taking computer classes, student grades are being posted online, and interactive whiteboards are no longer a rarity in classrooms. Thus, it is crucial that we continually examine the use technology in schools. How are we using it? Are we using it well? How is it affecting our children and how they learn? How is it affecting our teachers and how they teach? In certain uses, is it merely tech for tech's sake and thus a waste of school resources?

These musings on technology in schools are in part inspired by a man who never directly addressed the issue, though he dedicated his life's work to American educational reform. Theodore "Ted" Sizer, who was one of the great educational minds of our time and a personal inspirational colleague, passed away last October (ed note: 2009). It would be very presumptuous to already begin assessing the impact of his work on the modern American school.  However, it is important to continue reflecting on his educational philosophy in order to improve how we teach our children.

Sizer's views were built on some basic assumptions about learning: different children learn differently; the future of American education should be an ongoing discussion; democracy and equity are the basis for strong educational institutions; and a school's culture should go hand in hand with its academic undertakings. To simplify Sizer's educational philosophy, he believed in empowering educators to teach young people to use their minds well and in perpetuating a powerful conversation about education among all those involved in and impacted by it.

" . . . he believed in empowering educators
to teach young people to use their minds well and in perpetuating a powerful conversation about education among all those involved in and impacted by it."

As a professor and Dean of the School of Education at Harvard University and Head of School at Phillips Academy Andover, a long career as a teacher and administrator provided Sizer with the opportunities to see education from various perspectives. After his time at Andover, Sizer and a team of researchers conducted a five-year study of the American high school, and he published three books as a result of this work: Horace's Compromise, Horace's School, and Horace's Hope.
Then in 1984 Sizer united twelve schools to form the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). For 25 years, CES has prided itself on "creating and sustaining personalized, equitable, and intellectually challenging schools," called Essential schools, which "are places of powerful student learning where all students have the chance to reach their fullest potential." 
Though no two Essential schools are alike, all are committed to the CES Ten Common Principals, which "reflect more than two decades of careful research and examined practice and are used to guide whole-school reform efforts in the areas of school design, classroom practice, leadership, and community connections." CES has grown to nearly one thousand schools.

"Sizer believed that to be influential educators,
teachers must know the child.
- Robert Shirley

Remarkably, Sizer knew at some point that he did not want to perpetuate an institution, so he devolved the Coalition, which guaranteed two things: CES would not persist as a national presence, and the ideas of the organization would permeate education. This contribution nudged the education field in the direction of authenticity and championed providing interesting work for teachers, administrators, and students.

So how would Ted Sizer, a man with a profound understanding of how children learn best, have approached the issue of technology in schools? One thing I know for sure is that he would not have shied away from it. After reviewing some of his work, there are some recurring ideas that correspond with the issue of technology in schools today:

  • Sizer believed that to be influential educators, teachers must know the child. In a speech given at the 1999 CES Fall Forum, he said, "We must learn to see young people whole and to craft schools which address their reality." Thus, Sizer would assert that it is crucial that teachers are educated in, understand, and interact with the tech world of the modern child in order to best teach each individual child.

  • In his Fall Forum speech the following year, he commented, "Every student's mind should be stretched. Every student's values should be . . . confronted at the appropriate time. Every student, without exception, should be able to succeed well at something consequential." This is how he would approach technology in schools. It must only be used to stretch a child's mind, confront a child's values when appropriate, and open doors to consequential success.
  • Sizer repeatedly averred that educators and school administrators must stand by their principles, and so Sizer would have insisted that technology in schools never conflict with any of the CES Common Principles and always be used to improve the individual child and/or the school community.

  • Sizer did not support a fixed school design. He knew no one school was the same as another and that all schools must grow and change as the world and its children grow and change. As he said in a speech given in 1997, "To adapt the work of a school to its immediate children and adults requires great flexibility . . . A good school must be able to shift." Thus, he would have insisted technology be an everyday part of school life and an integral part of every academic program, but be used wisely and with conscientious consideration. 

Though Sizer never actually stated what he thought about technology in schools, we can certainly infer from his life's work that he would have told
us to be smart, never get too comfortable, and constantly reevaluate how and why we are using technology when teaching our children. So, are schools today following these ideals? Some are, but not all. And those schools that are not should certainly reevaluate the use of technology within each and every classroom, and I suggest those reevaluations be made with Ted Sizer's educational philosophy in mind.


Dr. Robert Shirley, former Head Of Charleston Collegiate School (NAIS, NISCR, CES), Director of National Development of Independent School Renewal (NISCR), is presently senior consultant to Fox, Shirley and Associates.  He was also Head of Heathwood Hall Episcopal Academy, co-Director of NAIS workshop on school change and is author of various works including "Content Knowledge, Pedagogical Knowledge and Student Learning" Shirley, J. Robert and Anderson, Lorin W. AERA.

Previously Published by The Daily Riff March 2010

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