What Comes First: the Curriculum or the Technology?

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when handing a student a calculator to work through algebraic equations caused many teachers and parents great consternation. It makes you wonder what type of pushback the creators of the abacus faced! In both cases, while the tools students were using may have been more advanced than previous generations’, the goal remained the same – to enhance classroom learning.

But before moving forward with technology integration, every school must first have a great, robust and adaptable academic curriculum. Only then can you begin to find ways in which technology can help to elevate it. It’s important to never force fit technology – if it’s not supplementing what’s already happening in the classroom or a teacher’s goals for the school year, the addition will become more of a barrier to learning than a catalyst.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons by Brad Flickinger

A Few Questions to Consider

We live in an era where schools are praised simply for putting iPads in the hands of their students. While familiarization with new technologies can certainly benefit students, ask yourself the following questions before implementing any new tech into the classroom:

  • Regardless of the technology, what’s the most important lesson for students to learn?
  • Why do I need to use technology in my daily curriculum?
  • How are these tech tools enhancing what we’re doing?
  • What will the students do with these tools – during and after class?

Think Curriculum Enhancements, Not Technology Implementations

Even if you feel ready to utilize tech in your classroom, you need to be confident that the implementation will enhance your curriculum, not hinder it.  Here are five ways to ensure you’re putting the curriculum before the technology:

1) Learn How Students Are Using Technology at Home

It’s important to understand what kind of technology students are already familiar with outside of the classroom.  Ask them what they’re currently using, what they’re interested in learning more about, and how much screen time they’re allowed at home. These conversations will help you determine the opportunities and challenges you’ll face when implementing tech into the classroom. It can also spark inspiration for your in-school tech solutions.  For example, if all your students are familiar with tablets and how they work, you can tweak your lessons plans to more heavily rely on tablet utilization.

2) Don’t Use Technology for the Sake of Using Technology

Tech needs to be used for a practical purpose, not just because it’s the “cool” thing to do or because everyone else is doing it. If you do not truly understand how and why to use tech as a learning tool, you’re not ready to implement it just yet.

3) Focus on Just One Tech Implementation

When you try to implement too much technology at once, you can lose sight of its true purpose, which is to elevate learning in the classroom.  Technology is ever evolving and it can be challenging to keep up with the new tools and solutions that are popping up almost every day. Trying to leverage too much tech at once can be overwhelming, not just for teachers, but for students and their parents too. Feeling overwhelmed can lead to frustration, and then defeat. That’s why I recommend to all my teachers to focus on one tech implementation at a time, and to learn it and learn it well before moving on.

4) Utilize the SAMR Model

The SAMR model, developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, represents the stages of tech integration: Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition. This model challenges us to assess and reflect on not only how we integrate technology into our curriculum, but also how we modify, redefine and transform our classrooms through its use. Many schools have implemented the first two stages, but still have not mastered the final two. This is important because the Modification and Redefinition stages are where technology is being used most efficiently and truly enhancing the learning experience.

5) Actively Seek Out Professional Development Opportunities

Being current on how others are implementing technology is critical. There are infinite free, online educational resources for both teachers and administrators to read about tech experiences, and learn from them. This works especially well when schools are tapped into larger networks, through which colleagues can learn from each other and share best practices.

Once you’re confident your school offers a robust curriculum that provides an unmatched educational experience, the possibilities for technology integration are endless. For example:

  • Younger students utilizing QR codes to add a challenging yet fun element to learning to spell.
  • Older students creating digital books or movies to demonstrate a deep understanding on a topic, rather than simply discussing or assessing it.
  • Video conferencing with other schools in your area or network to research, discuss, debate and develop potential solutions to globally significant problems.
  • Skyping with local leaders and guest speakers on specific topics such as coding or programming, networking and composing music.

In Short

Integrating technology into the classroom can be exhilarating, fun, and at times a little scary. That said, I’ve often found that teachers are hungry for more information, and welcome the chance to bring new ideas to the classroom.

In the end, if teachers and their administration are ready to embrace the messiness and the risks that sometimes come with technology, the reward is that your school’s curriculum – which must be strong to start – can truly be taken to the next level, and beyond. Otherwise, we’ll all be still left trying to figure out how an abacus works.


Elise Ecoff is headmaster at North Broward Preparatory school in Coconut Creek, Florida. North Broward Prep, whose Lower School’s iLearning program was recently recognized as an Apple Distinguished Program, is part of the Meritas International Family of Schools, a network that provides personalized education to more than 11,000 students across the globe. Meritas schools have more than 300 years of collective and proven experience and have educated more than 50,000 students.


  1. Carrie Leon

    February 13, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    The debate on whether or not technology can be beneficial in a classroom has always intrigued me. I never used technology while I was in school, but I now work with elementary students who produce work on chrome books and tablets daily. One of the points you made in your discussion really stuck out for me. The subtopic “Don’t Use Technology for the Sake of Using Technology” follows right along with part of a study I read by Larinee Denis about the effect of technology on the type of learning students partake in learning with technology. During her experiment, Dennis concluded that the use of technology reduced the percentage of higher-order thinking the students were partaking in which would normally require a significant amount of cognitive engagement. Higher order thinking involves things like abstract concepts or learning new information and relating it to previous knowledge in order to come to complex conclusions. With this evidence, your point of making sure technology is used for a practical purpose can help guide teachers to the kinds of tasks that should and should not be paired with technology. For example, technology can be extremely helpful when student’s are learning basic, rote skills such as math facts or spelling words. There have been multiple programs created for this exact purpose such as Raz Kids and Reflex Math that strictly focus on improving fluency and accuracy of math and reading skills. However, Larinee showed that more complex problems such as algebra or abstract concepts such as reading comprehension should still be instructed in traditional ways, whether through lecturing or doing the work by hand. Technology seems to stunt the ability for students to absorb the new information and connect and store it in ways that help them reach conclusions and solve difficult problems. In conclusion, I agree with tools and guidelines you proposed in your article. Technology can definitely be beneficial in a classroom setting, but the ways in which it is integrated are key to distinguishing it as a wonderful addition or a harmful introduction. It is best to pair technology with basic aspects of education as they provide a new and creative way to get students excited about learning. However it should never be a replacement for traditional learning especially in the more complicated aspects of a curriculum. Technology is a wonderful supplement, but classic teaching should be the main method of educating.

    • Jack Horan

      February 16, 2015 at 8:21 am

      Excellent and thoughtful article and response, but the title drove me nuts. Too much of our thinking is driven by questions phrased as false dichotomies. I began teaching long before PCs (never mind tablets), and I am now a Technology Director for a school. We have been a laptop school for about ten years.

      I feel that the relationship between technology and curriculum is symbiotic. When we began, we had a short course for students in how to use the machines and the basic productivity apps, but hardly any other changes in curriculum. I agree fully that classroom technology (from pencils to tablets and interactive projectors) should be mainly used as a tool to spark and deepen learning, but it is not a mere handmaiden to the curriculum, as if the same curriculum could be delivered without it. Computer technology has enabled new possibilities in curriculum, and will continue to do so. Also, that technology has changed the world around us, and school curricula have to adjust to fit the needs of students for the world they live in, now and throughout their lives. Curriculum and technology feed each other, and will continue to do so as they both develop.

  2. Stacy Greathouse

    February 19, 2015 at 6:04 am

    This is one of the questions in the Teach Thought 30-day blog challenge, which I highly recommend. The prompts can be found here: http://www.teachthought.com/teaching/reflective-teaching-30-day-blogging-challenge-teachers/)

    Essentially, I ally with Jack on this one.

    Original response post to this question: https://drpyrate.squarespace.com/blog/d28-caltrop-peglegs

  3. Brian Kelley

    February 24, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    A curriculum is a document much like a script for a play. Without a teacher, and without sound conditions in a classroom, the document is little but paper and ink or 1s and 0s.

    If technology helps the conditions of my classroom more productive for learning–great. If observing another teacher at work once a weeks make me more reflective about my practice–great. If becoming active in professional organizations encourages me to grow outside of my building–great.

    What is first may be debatable, but I’d caution anyone putting curriculum over anything. It can be written and studied and assessed but it can’t teach itself.

    Technology is always an and/with prospect not an either/or. First, second, before, after…whatever it takes. At one point, a pencil and paper was technology. Teachers used to slate and chalk bemoaned “but will happened when we run out of paper!” It isn’t a villain anymore than a curriculum is a magic wand.

  4. Jen

    March 16, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Nice article! I completely agree that technology shouldn’t just be introduced to the classrooms for the sake of having it, there should be a clear plan of how to implement the technology in a way that will enhance the learning process and make the lives of teachers easier rather than more difficult.

  5. Or Winfield

    March 23, 2015 at 12:42 am

    Nice article! I completely agree that technology shouldn’t just be introduced to the classrooms for the sake of having it, there should be a clear plan of how to implement the technology in a way that will enhance the learning process and make the lives of teachers easier rather than more difficult.