Many journalists have responded to aspects of Matt Richtel’s Sunday article in the New York Times, “In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores,” because it raises so many different issues about the effective use of technology in our schools and our over-reliance on test scores as a measure. My concern with this article and this public debate in general is the lumping together of all technology. Imagine if we talked about books this way—all books are good, all books are bad. The use of books increases or decreases standardized test scores. Clearly some books are crucial to learning, while others, say a romance novel, not so much. We’d never lump together a book of Sudoku puzzles, a spy thriller, a Shakespeare play, an elementary math book and a chemistry textbook, so why do we lump together technology so often when we make sweeping judgments?

Or insert tools into the debate instead of technology—all tools are good, all tools are bad. The use of tools increases standardized test scores. A surgeon, for example, needs researched and tested tools to perform his or her job well, but the best surgical tools cannot replace the knowledge and experience of the surgeon. Technology should be thought of similarly—as a set of tools to be wielded by experts. Not the be all and end all to itself.

Any technology that claims to replace the wisdom of a talented teacher is immediately suspect to me. I’ve written before about my issues with edtech companies who know little about education foisting products that don’t solve real issues, and that often argue that they can work around or replace good teachers. It’s an entirely different conversation to discuss tools that help teachers use their expertise to target the specific needs of students or even that help them amplify their wisdom so that other teachers may benefit.

Richtel incorrectly concludes that the fact that some classroom studies show increases in scores while others show decreases with the use of instructional software should, “not surprisingly, give researchers pause about whether big investments in technology make sense.” The issue shouldn’t be that there’s inconclusive evidence that instructional software is effective, but rather which instructional software is effective and under what conditions.

The research I want to see is an analysis of the effectiveness of specific kinds of technology—sensors used in science classroom rooms should be evaluated completely differently than games that reinforce arithmetic skills or programs that claim to improve reading scores. A document reader is a different kind of tool than a mobile app. In a former job where I oversaw English language arts for a county with over 100,000 students, I reviewed a great deal of useless instructional software, but I did see some great technological innovation as well, always designed by former teachers.

As Cathy Davidson writes in her response, we’re not preparing our students for the digital future—it’s the “digital present: it’s here, it’s now, like it or not.” Our job as educators is to arm our students with the skills they need to function successfully in a digital age. I’m a firm believer in education as a way to level the socioeconomic playing field; if we limit the use of technology in the classroom, then those students who have wide access at home to technology will continue to be more competitive in college and the workforce. Students need hands-on experience with a wide range of technological tools—the issue is which tools best prepare students? And when I say best prepare students, I don’t mean to take standardized tests, but rather for the real challenges they’ll face competing in the global workforce.

Davidson also wisely points out that missing in Richtel’s article is a discussion of where teacher training fits. She argues that “no school should invest in technology without investing in substantial, dedicated retraining of its workforce—which is to say teachers.” She shares that IBM spends the equivalent of $1700 per employee each year to keep them up-to-date on new technology, tools and methods. Anyone who works with educational technology in a school setting recognizes that the success of any technological innovation or tool lies with professional development, yet money and time are rarely allocated here.

Knowledge acquisition and knowledge production are also completely different tasks, and the use of technology should be reviewed differently for each. Students should be able to do more knowledge acquisition independently so that teachers can spend more classroom time helping students make sense of what they’ve learned. Tom Vander Ark, a vocal advocate for blended learning, argues that Richtel’s article leaves out online learning entirely. Richtel only cursorily discusses the shift from “sage on the stage to guide on the side” without untangling when this approach is appropriate. Do teachers need to waste precious time pushing knowledge acquisition on their students? No, their time is better spent working with students in analyzing the information they’re learning, and helping students share their own knowledge. Using instructional software to guide at-home reading and reporting that understanding (or lack of) to the teacher so that she is better prepared to respond to her students the next day could be a great use of technology. However, do I want a chemistry teacher to be the “guide on the side” the first time students interact with dangerous chemicals? Of course not. If great technology exists though that helps students understand the data they analyze during this experiment, then I want that teacher to use it.

The debate about the use of technology in the classroom should be more focused on what we want students to be able to do and to know, and then which tools are worth the time and money spent to achieve these goals.