Challenging the ‘education is broken’ and Silicon Valley narratives

Over the last 100 years an unassailable myth about education has taken root in popular culture: the formal enterprise of education is in some way ‘broken’ and in urgent need of drastic reform. In the last 20 years this myth has gone into overdrive with the advent of what Audrey Watters calls the ‘Silicon Valley narrative’, described as ‘the story that the technology industry tells about the world – not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be’. This narrative positions technology as the saviour to the ‘factory model’ of education, seeks to ‘personalise’ every aspect of learning and views knowledge as obsolete in an age of Google. However, its roots lie in a familiar kind of revolutionary zeal and entrepreneurial fatuity. Writing in 1922, Thomas Edison proclaimed that:

‘I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. I should say that on average we get about two percent efficiency out of school books as they are written today.’ (Edison in Cuban, 1986, p. 9)

Many of the claims from the early 20th century were focused on the radio, with television being hailed as the next transformative force in the 1940s and ’50s; but with the advent of computing devices in the 1960s, the notion of ‘teaching machines’ began to emerge and so did a narrative of technology as not just augmenting traditional education structures, but replacing them altogether.

Techno-evangelists and have sold us the internet as a form of emancipation, freeing us from the ‘factory model’ of education.

A common trope in the ‘education is broken’ narrative is a sinister call for the annihilation of the teacher. A 1981 book – School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow) – makes the claim that:

‘If we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer.’ (Ardley, 1981, p. 54)

The advent of mass digital technology and the internet in the last 20 years led to ever more sensationalist claims that the fundamental enterprise of education is in some way in need of wholesale change or ‘disruption’, a term coined by Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. The term refers to radical approaches, often cheaper and technology-based, which challenge and ‘disrupt’ existing structures and eventually supplant them with innovative alternatives. Companies like Amazon, Netflix and others are examples of disruptive technologies that have supplanted traditional ones like high street retail and video rental services, and have provided consumers with higher-quality products at a cheaper rate. However, as Martin Weller argues, the disruptive model is one that has been applied ‘much more broadly than its original concept, to the point where it is almost meaningless and rarely critically evaluated’ (Weller, 2014, p. 125). Just because Uber offers consumers a cheaper and more efficient alternative to cabs, it does not follow that the same model will work in education. Education’s stakeholders are not ‘consumers’ for one thing and the ultimate goal of education is not efficiency.

In his 2008 book, Disrupting Class, Christensen and his co-authors argue that ‘disruption is a necessary and overdue chapter in our public schools’ and would later claim that half of all high school classes would be taught online by 2019. Other disruptive enthusiasts like Michael Staton have claimed that the traditional credential of a higher education degree are in crisis, writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2014 that university degrees are ‘doomed’ because employers can learn much more about prospective employees who use cheaper alternatives using online apps to aggregate created content and skills:

‘In these fields in the innovation economy, traditional credentials are not only unnecessary but sometimes even a liability. A software CEO I spoke with recently said he avoids job candidates with advanced software engineering degrees because they represent an over-investment in education that brings with it both higher salary demands and hubris.’

Many of these sorts of claims are focused on higher education and argue that those institutions are now bloated, anachronistic monuments to the past. In a 1997 interview in Forbes magazine, management consultant Peter F Drucker noted that: ‘Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.’

However, despite these grandiose claims there appears to be scant evidence in which to ground them. In fact, there is an emerging picture of technology as a highly distracting influence on student’s attentional capacities and their long-term ability to focus. A recent study (Ruest, 2016) showed that children who spent up to four hours a day using devices outside of schoolwork had a much lower rate (23%) of finishing their homework, compared to children who spent less than two hours using digital devices. A 2015 report from the OECD surveyed millions of students about the use of technology and correlated then with attainment scores and found that use of technology had a detrimental effect on overall student achievement.

‘Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after controlling for social background and student demographics.’ (OECD, 2015)

Many studies in technology are correlational or based on self-report; however, a more recent study (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, Fenn, 2017) sought to address these issues by objectively measuring students’ use of laptops during lectures through the use of a proxy server that monitored and tracked precisely what websites were used during class. The central finding was that non-academic use of the internet in classes was highly prevalent and inversely related to performance in the final exam, regardless of interest in the class, motivation to succeed, and intelligence. In addition, using the internet for academic purposes during class did not yield a benefit in performance. The results showed that participants spent a median of 37 minutes per class browsing the internet for non-class-related purposes with their laptops and ‘spent the most time using social media, followed by reading e-mail, shopping, watching videos, chatting, reading news, and playing games’ (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, Fenn, 2017, p. 174) while they spent a total of four minutes browsing class-related websites.

A recent wide-ranging empirical review of the literature (Bulman, Fairlie, 2016) evaluating the impact of technology in terms of classroom use in schools and home use by students found that many policies promote investment in computer hardware or internet access and that the ‘majority of studies find that such policies result in increased computer use in schools, but few studies find positive effects on educational outcomes’. A 2015 report suggests that the reason for such findings is that technology in the classroom has both positive and negative effects resulting in an overall null effect:

‘Classroom computers are beneficial to student achievement when used to look up ideas and information but detrimental when used to practice skills and procedures.’ (Falck, Mang, Woessman, 2015, p. 23)

More worryingly, the work of Jean Twenge suggests that the ubiquity of phones and the ‘always-on’ culture of social media is having a detrimental effect on the mental health of the ‘iGen’ generation, those born between 1995 and 2012:

‘Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.’

It’s a bleak view of the future, often described as dystopian; but for Neil Postman, there is an interesting distinction between the dystopian visions of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World. The former portrayed a bleak vision of oppressive state control in the form of Big Brother which sought to actively ban expression and limit human agency; however, in Brave New World there is a far more horrifying phenomenon at work:

‘In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.’ (Postman, 1985, p. 10)

It must be said that technology has afforded us some incredible opportunities for education, such as comparative judgement or the JSTOR Shakespeare digital library where every line in his plays is hyperlinked to critical commentary. Used judiciously in a purposeful and well-structured environment, there can be many benefits for SEN students; but increasingly, we are suffering from what Sartre called ‘the agony of choice’ as we become more and more connected to the internet of things. Until relatively recently, you had to sit down and use a computer to connect to the internet but now even your central heating is online. Allowing kids to browse the internet in a lesson and then expecting they will work productively is like bringing them to McDonald’s and hoping they’ll order the salad.

Techno-evangelists and have sold us the internet as a form of emancipation, freeing us from the ‘factory model’ of education but often technology seems to represent a solution in search of a problem. (Interestingly, the model they seek to disrupt has in fact led to unprecedented improvements in educational outcomes. From 1900 to 2015, rates of global literacy increased from 21% to 86% of the global population.) What’s notable about many of these claims is that they usually come from outside education, often from entrepreneurs with little or no experience in education and with significant financial investment in a digital utopia devoid of teachers. Perhaps the most liberating and empowering thing educators can do for young people today is to create a space for them where they can read the great works of human thought undisturbed and where we can ‘disrupt’ the current culture of distraction.

Carl Hendrick is author of What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? and the Head of Learning and Research at Wellington College where he teaches English. He is also completing a PhD in education at King’s College London.


Download a PDF version of this issue.


Ardley, N. (1981) School, work and play (world of tomorrow). London: Franklin Watts Library.

Bulman, G. and Fairlie, R. (2016) ‘Technology and Education: Computers, Software and the Internet,’ in Handbook of the Economics of Education, ed. Eric A. Hanushek et al. (Elsevier), 239–280.

Christensen, C. (2011) The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Cuban, L. (1986) Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920. New York: Teachers College Press.

Falck, O. Mang C. & Woessmann, L (2015) ‘Virtually No Effect? Different Uses of Classroom Computers and their Effect on Student Achievement’, CESifo Working Paper No. 5266, March 2015

Lamont Johnson, D. & Maddux, C. (2003) ‘Technology in education: a twenty-year retrospective’, Computers in the Schools, 20 (1/2)

OECD (2015) ‘Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection’, PISA, OECD Publishing, available at: accessed 05.12.2017

Postman, N. (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

Ravizza, S. M., Uitvlugt, M. G., Fenn, K. M. (2017) ‘Logged In and Zoned Out: How Laptop Internet Use Impacts Classroom Learning’, Psychological Science, 28:171-180

Ruest S, et al. (2016) ‘Digital Media Exposure in School-Aged Children Decreases the Frequency of Homework’ Abstract 319984. Presented at: AAP National Conference and Exhibition; Oct. 21-25, 2016; San Francisco.

Watters, A. (2016) The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology. Tech Gypsies.

Weller, M. (2014) Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: