Understanding the Interaction Between Digital Pedagogies and Teacher Routines

A Dual Systems Perspective
Dr Christopher Blundell

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Aspiring to find better ways to activate learning leads teachers to refine existing practices and explore promising new practices. This includes making better use of digital technologies. Researchers and educational provocateurs like Michael Fullan (2013) argue that, when used creatively and purposefully by educators, digital technologies can help to activate deeper forms of learning. However, changes to classroom roles, relationships and actions can be challenging, as illustrated by the following findings from my PhD research (Blundell, 2017).

Classrooms are dynamic environments which means teachers need to quickly ‘read’ and expertly respond to a wide range of situations. Based on knowledge and prior experience, teachers develop routine-based professional practices that help them to confidently and efficiently act (Hattie and Yates, 2014). However, one of the challenges that teachers face when introducing digital technologies is that changes in classroom dynamics can render previously reliable professional routines inoperable (e.g. monitoring engagement). As illustrated above, this can be an emotionally intense experience that can negatively impact on teachers’ confidence and sense of expertise (Blundell, 2017; Blundell, Lee & Nykvist, 2019). 

Dual Systems theory (Kahneman, 2011) provides a useful way to understand the place of routine in teachers’ practice (Hattie and Yates, 2014). This theory conceptualises thinking as a set of interacting unconscious and conscious systems. Unconscious systems of thinking (System 1) allow us to use experience-based routines to quickly respond; these modes of thinking help us to feel confident because they are fast and only require limited effort, which leads to a sense of expertise. System 1 is complemented by a conscious, slower and more effortful system of thinking (System 2) that can analyse and decide how to respond to unknown or unexpected situations. System 2 tires relatively easily and is associated with a sense of unease. According to Dual Systems theory, System 1 monitors all stimuli and if those stimuli match existing routines and heuristics, it executes fast, efficient and largely unconscious responses that do not require the activation of System 2. But if those stimuli do not match existing routines and heuristics, System 2 is alerted for conscious consideration and action. System 1 routines and heuristics are developed through experience and they allow individuals to expertly and efficiently respond, even in complex situations (Evans, 2008).
Within the classroom context, stimuli that match previously established teacher routines can be efficiently responded to using System 1, which means the limited capacity of System 2 is kept in reserve. However, when classroom dynamics change and the stimuli do not match System 1 thinking, System 2 thinking is called into action. This allows for a considered response, but it is a slower mode of thinking that is associated with teachers experiencing loss of confidence and tiredness. The efficiency and expertise associated with System 1 thinking is replaced with the slower and doubt-filled thinking of System 2. At times this can result in teachers questioning the value of the innovations they are seeking to enact. Thankfully, prolonged practice and conscious responses to experience will, in time, lead to formation of new System 1 thinking that can efficiently respond to the changed dynamic (Hattie and Yates, 2014).

By way of illustration, consider the previously mentioned findings about challenges initially experienced by the teachers when ‘personalised digital learning’ changed classroom roles, relationships and actions. Some of the teachers recounted thinking students were off task but on intervention discovered that the students were engaged. When considered using Dual Systems theory, we now appreciate that stimuli received by System 1 were consistent with previous experience and suggested off task behaviour. Further investigation provided additional stimuli were inconsistent and System 2 was called into action to analyse the situation. 

The other more substantial challenge related to the teachers questioning their place in learning during the initial phases of implementation The teachers reported that established routines for leading learning and monitoring engagement became inoperable. This resulted in feelings of uncertainty and doubt. The changed roles, relationships and actions created new classroom dynamics that were inconsistent with previous practice and routines. When considered using Dual Systems theory, in the absence of reliable routines System 2 was activated to analyse, critically evaluate and deliberate. Although this allowed for conscious consideration, System 2 thinking is slower and is associated with self-doubt, which is clearly evident in the teachers’ statements. At the end of the case study the teachers’ confidence with the new roles, relationships and actions improved. The opportunity to discuss and reflect on these experiences with colleagues helped.

When used as part of a design-based approach to professional learning, an understanding of routine can help teachers to consider the implications of exploring promising practices. Dual Systems theory is useful for conceptualising the feelings associated with changing established practices, and creates a common language that teams can use to communicate and empathise with each other. It also helps teams to acknowledge and appreciate that establishing new practices takes time and is dependent on reflection.

For more information, refer to my paper:

Blundell, C., Lee, K.-T., & Nykvist, S. (2019). Using Dual Systems theory to conceptualise challenges to routine when transforming pedagogy with digital technologies. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice (in press). doi:10.1080/13540602.2019.1652161


Blundell, C. N. (2017). A case study of teachers transforming pedagogical practices through collaborative inquiry-based professional learning in a ubiquitous technologies environment (PhD). Queensland University of Technology.

Blundell, C., Lee, K.-T., & Nykvist, S. (2019). Using Dual Systems theory to conceptualise challenges to routine when transforming pedagogy with digital technologies. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice (in press). doi:10.1080/13540602.2019.1652161

Evans, J. S. B. T. (2008). Dual-processing accounts of reasoning, judgment, and social cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, p 255. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093629

Fullan, M. (2013). Stratosphere - integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Hattie, J., & Yates, G. (2014). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. London: Routledge.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Penguin.

Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Toplak, M. E. (2014). Rationality, intelligence and the
defining features of type 1 and type 2 processing. In J. W. Sherman, B. Gawronski & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-Process Theories of the Social Mind (pp. 80-91). New York: The Guilford Press.

It is worth acknowledging that researchers continue to explore the interaction between unconscious and conscious thinking. Within the field, some researchers describe System 1 and System 2 as Type 1 and Type 2 respectively; others call them processes rather than systems. Authors such as Stanovich et al. (2014) argue that schema-based decision making, like those used by experts, occurs in the algorithmic mind, which is a more efficient form of Type 2 process (System 2).

Published: 2 October, 2019
Copyright 2019 by Christopher Blundell

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