SAMR: Have we missed the point?

I’m a big proponent of continua theories of change simply because change is complex and doesn’t happen quickly. We progress and grow in stages over time. It’s not like today I’m not fluent at Spanish but tomorrow I will be. Or bowling. Or particle physics. Developing expertise with anything takes time, especially technology.

Different continua have been used to describe the ways teachers and other educators develop technology proficiencies. Probably the first, or at least one of the most well-known early continua theories, was developed through the original ACOT (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow) project (Dwyer, Ringstaff & Sandholtz, 1991). In the late 80s and 90s, teachers were observed learning to use the new Apple personal computers, and the observers described patterns of how teachers routinely developed proficiency across five stages.

To date, I believe the ACOT project resulted in the only continua of proficiency based on evidence from practice. It was observational evidence, which is not like conducting a research experiment, but there was still sufficient evidence to make generalizations about how teachers develop proficiency.

And I use the word continua, not continuum, because the ACOT researchers developed a multi-dimensional look at technology proficiency. The ACOT continua describes ways that technology proficiency can develop across five stages by considering

  • What the teacher is doing
  • What resources are being used
  • What the students are doing
  • And the learning environment

ISTE (the International Society of Technology in Education) has also published continua related to their National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers. While not based on observations of a known set of teachers, the standards and the continua are based on expert practitioner advice. In ISTE’s case, that’s 10s if not 100s of thousands of expert practitioners across the globe. It’s still not an experiment, but pretty good advice.

And ISTE took the continua idea to a new level, developing continua for all five of its NETS for Teachers and the substandards that support them. The ISTE continua also describe how teachers use technology to help promote student learning—and learning in complex ways—like communication and collaboration, and critical and creative thinking. Again, the focus is not just technology, but how teacher use of technology supports student learning.

These standards are under revision and will be announced this summer at ISTE’s annual conference. I look forward to see what the new continua look like as they will have to address the new NETS for Students released last year.

Sometimes, Simple is Not Best

This brings me to the current fascination with a popular continuum: SAMR. It’s the current darling of the EdTech world, especially for EdTech departments in districts and teacher preparation programs. I have no personal vendetta against SAMR, but I’ve come to realize why I don’t find it very helpful. One of those reasons is, perhaps, the primary reason for its appeal: it’s simple. For me, it’s too simplistic. Or perhaps the way we interpret is.

The acronym stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition. So, on the surface, it’s a continuum, right? Yes, but a continuum of what? What’s the focus? During conversations I’ve had in the districts that have adopted SAMR, usually the focus is the technology. The most common interpretation is that Modification is better than Augmentation is better than Substitution because of the technology teachers use.

But I counter, what’s the purpose of school? Why do teachers get up every day and go to work? Why do we send a nation of young people to school every year? Why is schooling a core expectation for the citizens of our country? Ask these questions and most people will say, “it’s for the kids.” Which, for me, is the best answer. We have schools so our kids can reach their potential, academically and otherwise. It’s not about the technology.

It’s not that the continuum idea is a bad one, and I’m sure the intentions were well meant. But you can oversimplify complex concepts and lose sight of the real purpose of promoting student learning. Any one technology is likely to have very little impact on changing practice and impacting student learning without some work on building teacher capacity. This can often mean tackling deep-seated philosophies of a teacher’s role and even the role of students in the learning process. No technology alone is going to do that.

Consider the level of Substitution. Many of my tech compatriots suggest that teachers replacing paper-based worksheets or multiple-choice tests with word processing or quizzing software represents Substitution. But not for a veteran user of PBL, or expeditionary learning, or inquiry-based learning who never used worksheets or multiple-choice tests. I never did. What does Substitution look like at that level of student-centered teaching? Interpreting that Augmentation is better in some way because the teacher used a different tool misses the point.

I highly support the use of a continuum of proficiency—or tech proficiency development. Let’s just be careful of what they really mean and keep our sights set on what’s important: improved student learning. Tech is cool. Tech is fun. But tech is not what it’s all about. In the words of one of my favorite quotes by organizational theorist and professor Russell Ackoff…

“You can’t simplify a complex problem or complex situation into a simple situation with a simple solution. Solutions must address the complex parameters of the situation.”


Dwyer, D. C, Ringstaff, C, & Sandholtz, J. H. (1991). Changes in teachers’ beliefs and practices in technology-rich classrooms. Educational Leadership, 48(8), 45–52.