Technology in the classroom: A tale of two schools

In this Principal Speaks column, Cristian Rodriguez reflects on the evolution of teaching and learning, and the important role of technology.

Free the brain…

I have always been fascinated by the impact that technology could have on education.

The story starts back in my original country of Argentina around 1996, when I came across an article by Roger Chartier discussing the idea that the digital text revolution is greater than that of Gutenberg. Digital texts, he argued, “enable an open, fragmented, relational articulation of the reasoning, made possible by hypertextual connections” (Chartier, 2004).

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I remember thinking that this was like plugging the human brain into the internet. This idea was reinforced when I moved to New Zealand and ended up teaching at a high performing school. I could see students constructing ever more complex technological assemblages to organise their class notes or complete pieces of work. 

So, I went back to University thinking that the solution was freeing the brain into this digital galaxy; letting it do its thing and then being able to re-trace that journey. The whole question of digital integration was, I thought, how to articulate technology effectively around these cognitive processes. 

However, a big surprise awaited me.

Cristian Rodriguez | Image supplied by Whangaparāoa College

What you know about knowing might not be that correct, after all. 

The more I read about cognition the more I realised that the ideas I had about learning were wrong. I learnt that those foundational concepts that we so closely follow as teachers were mostly based on a cognitive paradigm that is ever so slowly giving way to a new one. 

The cognitive paradigm is also known as a computational theory of cognition that argues that our brain works a bit like a computer, which processes inputs to build representations of an ‘external’ reality, where the body plays a peripheral role. 

However, back in 1991, Varela, Rosch and Thompsom published the ground-breaking The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human experience, intending to bridge the gap between the empirical study of the mind and our lived experience. The book offered a vision of cognition that is more active, embodied and embedded. In other words, “cognition takes place, not only in a central system (Fodor 1983), but in the perceptual and motor systems as well” (Adams, 2010, p619). Knowing, therefore, is not something that happens in-spite of the body but, on the contrary, something intimately linked to body and brain actively interacting with the outside environment.

…and there were also the red flags. 

On top of this shift to our understanding of cognition, particularly in relation to the role of the body and the environment, some cautionary tales relating to digital implementations started to emerge.

The 2021 EOCD report, 21st-Century Readers Developing literacy skills in a digital world   looked at the relationship between reading performance and the type of school activities done on digital devices. “All countries/economies showed a negative relationship between playing simulations at school and reading performance even after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profiles (, , , ). The rest of the digital activities (. . . ) also presented negative relationships with reading performance across the vast majority of countries/economies” (p 133).

And some concerning papers were coming out of one of the top-performing PISA countries. In 2018, an article in YLE News, researcher Aino Saarinen pointed out that “the more that digital tools were used in lessons, the worse learning outcomes were”. Saarinem also aimed at Finland’s curriculum phenomenon-based learning strategies, introduced in 2016, saying that “Proponents of this method have claimed it would even-out the differences between students with various [academic] backgrounds. But in light of the research it looks like exactly the opposite has happened.”

The two schools

The 21st-century movement invited re-thinking of the traditional roles of the learner, the teacher and the environment. It not only challenged the notion of knowledge transmission, but replaced it with one of knowledge creation and brought into the classroom the idea of an interconnected world in which mobile technologies have a great impact on individual learners and blur the boundaries between formal and informal learning. 

However, although emerging technologies can create a seamless, engaging integration between school and home life, therefore offering opportunities to learn outside the education, there seems to be a tension between that old Industrial school and a new 21st Century one.

Image supplied by Whangaparāoa College

Learning to thrive in a transforming world (Hannon & Peterson, 2017), requires moving away from a model in which students are merely qualified to enter the next step of their academic or working life, and into one in which the focus is on subjectification (Biesta, 2009), educating socially aware and committed individuals capable of adapting to changing environments.

This is only possible if we think of schools as ecosystems rather than systems, because “[n]o vision of learning that is lifelong and deep can be realised without radically reconnecting institutional systems that currently act in silos” (Hannon & Temperley, 2022; p. 81). 

What are we trying to do at Whangaparāoa College

In 2022, we embarked on a year-long Curriculum review. We gathered voice from learners, teachers, leadership and the community to understand what our stakeholders were requesting from us. 

At the same time, we looked into what was out there that could help us redesign our practice. We looked at different pedagogical models, the NCEA curriculum refresh and what was being done in other schools in Aotearoa and the world. Out of all of this, we came out with 4 foci: CRP (Culturally Responsive Pedagogy), Learning Agency, Personal Excellence and Literacy.

From this complex scenario, a digital strategy emerged, weaving an updated understanding of cognition, a redefinition of the purpose of learning and a clear understanding of our community’s needs.

The plan

Our plan focuses on offering an articulated vision for technology. It comprises 4 areas: Curriculum, culture and infrastructure, classroom and citizenship.

Technology and the curriculum, in turn, has two subsections. Technology as a subject area and Technology as a supporting structure for teaching and learning. Each one  requires a different approach. Whilst Technology as a curriculum area allows for a more exploratory, trailblazing approach, when it comes to supporting teaching and learning, we have opted for a more conservative one. 

Our vision statement: “thoughtful integration of digital technologies with effective teaching practices which can significantly improve learning outcomes” (Greaves, 2010 ), highlights the supportive aspect of EdTech. A focus on TPACK enables teachers to make informed decisions about their inclusion of technology in the classroom as they navigate technological, pedagogical and content knowledge. 

Culture and infrastructure refer to creating a culture of perception and accessibility around technology. It also contains two sub-areas: coherence and accessibility. The culture of perception relates to aspects of how “things are done” at Whangaparāoa College. This includes a preference for digital communication, the use of digital signage, a BYOD policy and optimised Wi-Fi access. Coherence, though, looks at vertical and horizontal equality of application. That means looking at ways in which different Faculties apply these principles (horizontal coherence), but also considering the implications of transitions between the junior and senior school (vertical coherence).

By Classroom, we refer to the use of EdTech in the classroom and its linkages to pedagogy. The school pedagogical approach (CRP) requires that we consider not only the student linguistic and ethnic identities, but also their global ones. This global identity includes not only personal history but also preferences in the way they see and interact with the world (digital vs analogue, for example). However, an important aspect of technology in the classroom has to do with our understanding of cognition and its links to action. Therefore, we are starting to explore with the use of VR and AR in the classroom as a way to bring back the body into learning.

Image supplied by Whangaparāoa College

Finally, Citizenship is oriented towards developing an understanding of the implications of living our lives digitally. This extends from basic Digital Citizenship conversations about aspects of cybersecurity, safety and cyberbullying; to moving towards an understanding that de-virtualises that digital existence (realising that there are real people behind the screens). Another essential aspect is developing a sense of balance between plugged and unplugged activities, from learning to socialising to sports. 

But we are just starting…and the road might be bumpy. 

We have made some progress. We are focusing on setting the foundations for this vision. That means making sure that the infrastructure is there, and that slowly we are introducing new aspects of practice in the classroom (like VR and AR), supporting teachers to see the potential and providing PLD options.

We have also partnered with HP and are the first Reinvent the Classroom school in New Zealand. Together with HP and Using Technology Better we hosted the Delivering the promise conference on 14th March where we discussed the possibilities of these technologies in the classroom. 

In order to activate our VR Hub and bring AR and the Metaverse into the classroom,  our ICT PD has been organised into three strands: Digital Ecosystem (Google); VR & AR; and the Metaverse. Teachers can select the area they want to explore, and in order to support them, Sam (our wonderful Librarian) has become a VR expert that comes into the classroom to help teachers adopt the technology.

Undoubtedly, there is still a lot to do. Staff are now asking for more opportunities to discuss what they are doing and seeing; to think about the ethical ramifications of including AI in the classroom… and that is exactly the way we wanted to go: empower teachers to make their own informed decisions in regard to meeting the students’ learning needs, whilst creating a frame of reference that better resembles their everyday lives. 


Adams, F. (2010). Embodied cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9(4), 619-628.

Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1), 33-46.

Chartier, R. (2004). Languages, books, and reading from the printed word to the digital text. Critical Inquiry, 31(1), 133-152.

Hannon, V., & Peterson, A. (2017). Thrive: Schools reinvented for the real challenges we face. Innovation Unit Press. 

Hannon, V., & Temperley, J. (2022). FutureSchool: How Schools Around the World are Applying Learning Design Principles For a New Era. Taylor & Francis.

1OECD (2021), 21st Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Varela, F., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (2016). The embodied mind : cognitive science and human experience (Revised edition. ed.). MIT Press.


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