District Leaders: Focus on Content First, Tech Second

Much has been written about districts and schools “going 1:1,” issuing tablets, computers, or other electronic devices to every student. As the quantity of devices in the hands of students grows, many leaders like me believe these changes cannot succeed without supporting transformative change in student learning experiences. Namely, I’d like to see a focus on content first, tech second. It is far more important to enhance learning via high quality content and instructional transformation than it is to simply replace a pencil with a tablet and hope for the best.

There are numerous recent blog posts in the wake of #pencilchat on Twitter, where educators and others discussed the popular “pencil analogy” regarding technology in the classroom. The points made (no pun intended) in this discussion are varied, but an important theme emerged that I feel warrants attention: simply putting a pencil in a child’s hand won’t make them a great writer. However, if you give a student a pencil coupled with powerful, meaningful content and exceptional instruction from an energized and committed educator—a great writer may just emerge. When that occurs, is it the pencil or the content that deserves the credit?

As Andrew Marcinek writes in his book, The 1:1 Roadmap Setting the Course for Innovation in Education: “Technology is more than just ‘Computer Class;’ it is a literacy that must be threaded throughout the fabric of a school. In a 1:1 environment, you’re preparing students to be responsible citizens of the physical and digital worlds. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed with devices; you have to have a plan for technology that keeps learning at center stage.”

Marcinek’s point regarding keeping the focus on learning cannot be lost in the rush to embrace ed tech as a panacea. Though I am a strong advocate for instructional change as the catalyst for a substantive change in student outcomes, content is as important as instruction in the classroom. Content is curriculum, content is resources that support curriculum, content is the “what” being taught in our classrooms.


In the recent era of No Child Left Behind, accountability has been “king.” Many who advocate for the Common Core State Standards or other Learning Standards believe content is “king.” I believe that transformative instruction combined with exceptional content is “king.”

In the 1:1 Transformative Learning Environment era, it is incumbent upon leaders to insist on a new instructional focus. One that is student-centered with supportive, rich, and dynamic content. We must also be certain we are teaching actual digital content, rather than merely digitized content. Simply taking a standard textbook and making it available as a PDF is not digital content—it will not transform our schools or help students achieve.

True digital content is accessible on the myriad device options in classrooms and supports progressive instructional practices that focus on the student as the driver. Digital content changes, updates, and links to real people and current events as they are happening. Textbooks are decades old in many places, making content outdated and stale. Tech books and truly digital content is updated, revised, refreshed, and real. This allows for and supports a concept of content rich and instructionally fresh approaches to learning.

These devices are often revolutionary. But a device does not magically create innovation, nor does a device magically increase student engagement. What we need are devices deployed in an environment rich with dynamic content and full of engaging instruction. Only then will we produce outstanding results. I see it every day and my aim is to support every classroom’s transformation into an engaging, motivating, challenging learning space for our nation’s most precious assets – our children!

lubelfeld_4About Mike Lubelfeld

Mike is a public school superintendent who believes in the writings and messages of Michael Fullan, Thomas Sergiovanni, John Maxwell, and others in the field of leadership. They give clear guidance in areas of leadership like culture building, relationship building, servant leadership and effective change agency. Mike finds great value in both the boardroom and in the classroom as all decisions for his superintendency are based upon what’s best for students. Conscious of the impact on staff as well, his aim is to cause enough disruption as needed to move the “organization’s needle to the right” on its transition and transformation into becoming a highly disciplined school system whose focus is on excellence at all levels. The motto Engage, Inspire, Empower is alive and well in this superintendent.

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  1. Don Lee said:

    Very good article. We have to remember that technology is just a tool. Like any tool, if technical devices are not used well or used to meet specific educational goals, they will be useless.

    • Mike Lubelfeld said:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment! You are spot on with the assertion that tools must be used in a relevant manner. I also believe that the greatest asset in an 1:1 environment is and will always be the teacher.

  2. Jan Abernethy said:

    One change I feel technology has changed in my classroom is students desire to ask and answer their own questions. For example, when we are having a discussion in reading, science, social studies or any subject (I teach 5th grade), students wonder about things. If a student wonders aloud, invariably half a dozen students grab an iPad or go to a computer to find the answer. When we were kids, we wondered and asked questions. Our parents told us to look it up. We never did, because it involved digging through a bulky set of books not written at our level and usually not up to date enough to give us the answer. Eventually, we gave up wondering. Today’s kids, if allowed, are willing to find the answers to their “wonder questions.

    • Mike Lubelfeld said:

      Thank you for taking the time to post a comment! I am a huge advocate for project based and problem based learning activities in the classroom so that the “wonder” will remain. The students today have “Siri” for low level knowledge acquisition, they still need us to guide, inspire, seek wonder, and provide them meaningful and engaged learning environments.

      • Deanne Edman said:

        I am in complete agreement with you about the role of teachers in guiding, stimulating and inspiring students (especially in science and math) to meaningful discovery. In problem based learning, too often I see situations where students are not given clear guidelines to follow in their problem solving. They are left to flounder on their own and often come up with erroneous conclusions. Guidance as to where to find accurate information online must be provided by teachers in addition to stimulating inquiry and problem solving; it is only then that learning can be optimized and students enjoy the journey.

  3. Teri said:

    Personally I am very excited to see the pendulum swinging back towards more problem solving and project based learning.
    As a teacher it was the experiences of life my students worked with that engaged them and set the wonder in motion. Before I went into leadership the shift in our district was to create a uniformity in curriculum due to our large district and the transient nature. This included, in my opinion, to many Workbooks/worksheets. This is not to say that a teacher could not get creative if they chose to. However, this seat work no longer engages our kids. It is those rich meaningful experiences where students are interacting with content that gets them excited.
    Now, the technologies we have allows our kids to interact with astronauts and engineers, scientists near the Artic circle, as well other classrooms across the globe to name a few.
    I agree, technology and rich content paralleled create an optimum engaging learning experience our students want to be part of!

  4. Lisa HC said:

    I found your article very timely as I am ending my first year in a 1:1 environment. I am now ready to step back and sort out how to not get caught up in the excitement of the technology and use it as a pathway to rich content. For much of this year, it was the content, however, because most of my 4th/5th grade students had never done much more than use it to access a few approved sites. However, as the year progressed, I discovered that once they had some basics and were past the novelty of the technology, I could drive student projects that required much more expansive research than before, because we were not restricted by the books in our classroom or library. As wide as our imagination could be, was the extent of the topics students could select. After reading two novels (Charlotte’s Web and Because of Winn-Dixie), students selected research projects to expand their understanding of anything they could connect to from spiders to how to set up a fundraiser for animal shelters. These projects fulfilled the promise of the tablets to be engaging as students were sharing information with each other, and willing to try new ways to present information. Even those students who were quick to do the minimum, were willing to go back to research more information and revise their presentation after our writing conference. Your article helped frame what I’ve been thinking: how do I identify rich content that lends itself to leverage the technology benefits for students. I just need to find answers now.

  5. Saif Ammar said:

    You are right , technology is improving day by day, Apple inc is working on more develop apps of education, which is great impact in technology advancement in education.

  6. Accpeted said:

    Technology changed the environment of the classroom. I feel student are showing more interest after we introduced a technical device in the classroom. I think it is a great step but if these type of device will not use properly it will not useful.

  7. web design services in Pakistan said:

    Technology play a great role in our life and it makes our life easier and the side of business all the thing all doing through websites like an online business and there are many benefits of online business.

  8. Coworking space said:

    Technology is running over the entire world and every new day there is born a new technology. it is very helpful for human life to save our time and have the opportunity to work on new technology learn more and gain more. thanks for this great article.

  9. dedi said:

    In these days the quality content is the main thing we must focus on. If some one is expert in writing quality content then he will be successful in these days.

  10. happy wheels said:

    These projects fulfilled the promise of the tablets to be engaging as students were sharing information with each other, and willing to try new ways to present information.

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