Have tablet, will learn independently: An investigation into iPads in the classroom

Mobile, one-to-one technology – such as lightweight tablet computers and smartphones – have given new focus to the “independent learner” debate. Some say it puts the student at the centre of their learning, others that the new technology is little more than a “sweet syrup” of distraction. Jess Staufenberg reports

The independent learner debate is not new – the idea that learners teach themselves was discussed in English schools in the 1920s – but many teachers who began on blackboards 15 years ago are today considering giving the “progressive” style of teaching a new lease of life. And a lot of it is to do with the development of tablets.

Conversations with teachers and experts might suggest that this rise of technology has boosted the “active learner” philosophy, which chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has repeatedly emphasised is no longer a favoured Ofsted teaching method.

Around 2012 when Sir Michael first made this announcement, schools began to make large-scale investment in iPads, Chromebooks and other mobile devices. Distinguishable from PCs by being light enough for students to hold in their hands, these devices can be customised by downloading education-themed applications – “apps” – that focus on spelling, animation and so on, as well as shared drives where students can access worksheets and courses. In many schools one tablet is shared by several children; in others, particularly primary and SEN schools, there is one for every child.

“Swiping screens is a placebo activity”

Many educators say a key advantage is the ability for learners to be “independent”. Liz Keen, assistant headteacher at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, says: “I’d say introducing iPads has reduced the amount of teacher talk in lessons. The children are a lot more active in their learning. They’re doing the finding out and reporting back, rather than sitting and listening.”

This idea has become known as “flipped learning” – as it “flips” around the idea of pupils listening in class then doing activities as homework. Its implementation is not dependent on technology, but fits nicely with it.

Liz Keen
Liz Keen

Sharon Maskell, librarian and IT coordinator at Queen’s Hill Primary School in Norwich, says it’s about offering different learning opportunities. “You are allowing them to access the lesson in an independent way, so you don’t have to give them so many other resources for them to feel engaged.”

An ICT coordinator at a SEN school in London says many children are frustrated by pen and paper tasks. Using tablets “is really helping the level of engagement of the children, and once you have that, you can really push their learning”, he says.

All these educators believe that academic improvement is achieved secondarily or as a consequence of a tablet computer’s primary effect: the enjoyment of pupils in their activity. Unhappy, disengaged children do not learn, they say.

This creative, non-directive approach, reminiscent of Sir Ken Robinson, does have opponents, though. Tom Bennett, chair of the Department for Education’s behaviour group and a teacher in Dagenham, is one of them. As a new teacher 15 years ago, he was told that new technologies would transform teaching by enabling “active learning”. But so far, “that revolution just hasn’t happened”, he says.

“There’s no substantial evidence of any formal sense that suggests that using interactive whiteboards, tablets and iPads and so on has made a significant addition to children’s academic performance.”

Sharon Maskell
Sharon Maskell

Are confidence and enjoyment, rather than A grades, improved by tablets? Children need grades to enter college or university, Mr Bennett says, “and if there isn’t a discernible impact on that from these technologies then you have to question a state institution spending millions and millions of pounds on them.”

There do appear to be cases where new devices are rolled out across schools like an ideology. The Royal Masonic School for Girls, an independent school in Hertfordshire, requires every student to bring a tablet to lessons, where they are used to film PE lessons, compile e-booklets of texts, make annotations on worksheets and follow courses. Desmond Cox, assistant headteacher, says audio voice notes especially allow for learning in the manner recommended by the “flipped learning” model – where students educate themselves at home in their own space, rather than predominantly by a teacher. “They take far more control of their learning,” says Mr Cox. “It puts the student at the centre of their learning”.

But Mr Bennett has concerns over such assumptions. “The notion of children owning their own learning is spurious – what does that mean? There are loads of kids who trust the teacher as being an expert in what they’re teaching.” He agrees that tablets could be effective with marginalised and specialised learners, as has been emphasised by several primary SEN staff, but teachers should be careful this does not transform education into the sour medicine for which tablets are the “sweet syrup”. This supports the problematic idea that children must always like what they learn – and could replace true learning with a mere imitation of it, he says. “Swiping screens is a placebo activity. Sure, the children are doing something. But those lessons are not necessarily about genuine active learning.”

So what is the right of children to “enjoy” their learning? For Graeme Whiting, head of The Acorn School in Gloucestershire, the super-stimulation of tablets for able pupils is hugely problematic. His students do not use computers until they’re 16, because, he claims, medical studies link the devices to addiction and hyperactivity.

“The environment of a school where the children are plugged in – it’s stark, it’s white, it’s whiteboards, it’s computers, it’s screens, its hyperactivity and so on. It is detrimental to human beings. The children at my school are enjoying being children, they’re climbing trees. Twenty-five years ago, everyone was doing that.”

Tom Bennett
Tom Bennett

Teachers who laud the use of technology often mention taking the frustration out of learning. Dictionary apps allow children to find words faster, they say. Story-writing apps allow poor spellers to have words finished for them. Writing apps allow them to erase words but keep their work “looking polished”.

But for dyslexic children, or those using picture exchange communication systems, deriving any kind of enjoyment from academic learning can take all the effort of staff. Demanding “resilience” from them, despite their tears and frustration, would seem misplaced. Mrs Maskell says one teacher had to print every lesson out in Russian for a new pupil who could speak no English. Now the pupil enters words he does not understand into Google Translate and appears more involved in lessons. The idea that children must suffer to learn seems indefensible to her when technology is there to alleviate difficulties.

“A dyslexic child should never be hindered. Why should I be forcing this child to try and spell something?” she says. “Why should he ever have to fill out an application form without audio speech text? He shouldn’t.” The query raises a point: who decides whether a student has a right to a technology that he feels makes his learning better? The problem is the lack of substantial evidence to prove many of the benefits that teachers claim.

As for tablets being used as a “sweet syrup” of distraction, Noel Gardner, ICT coordinator at an SEN school in Tower Hamlets, east London, says the school would never use tablets as a reward. “They’re not used as any sort of motivator. If you start giving them as a reward, then maybe we’d have behaviour difficulties. They’re purely an aid to academic learning.”

But Mr Bennett and others are perhaps right to challenge thinking that casually merges what children appear to enjoy, with active and engaged learning. It is a battle with age-old roots, but tablet technology is now the new centre for the tussle.


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  1. Interesting bipolar approach to pedagogic development including new ways of working. Our experience with Chromebooks highlights there is a middle ground; sensible keyboards linked to universal software permits collaborative learning in which children are not left behind. Yet plenty of lessons are around the text, argument, discussion and analysis of the facts, or enabled by practical apparatus. It’s not either or and never has been.

  2. The usual suspects are all here: the anecdotal connection to “progressive” teaching, the unsubstantiated link to a perceived loss of rigour, the standard fear-mongering caused by most tenuous links to a variety of medical conditions, the non-expert opining vociferously and, lest we forget, the traditional headmaster harking back to a time when children were allowed to climb trees unencumbered by their mobile devices.

    Most interesting is how Mr Tom Bennett’s opinion is given such prominence, especially given that Mr Bennett, lovely as he is (which he really is) knows as much about teaching in a one-to-one school as I know about teaching RE to underprivileged children in Dagenham.

    Now, I am usually as amused and entertained by Tom’s witty soundbites as anyone, but, on this occasion, his “swiping screens is a placebo activity” or that tablets are a “sweet syrup” shows him up as having a considerable lack of knowledge and understanding in this area. Simply put, the way he fears tablets are being used is not how tablets are actually being used. So what is he on about?

    Curiously too, the piece rightly emphasises the need for evidence to support the use of technology in schools, but is then happy to quote Graeme Whiting, founder of The Acorn School in Gloucestershire, as saying that computers and screens are “detrimental to human beings”. Presumably this gentleman thinks he is so obviously correct that he feels no need to proffer any evidence for such a claim. Yet we appear to swallow this hook, line and sinker.

    Mr Bennett’s and Mr Whiting’s non-expert opinions are presented as valid a counterbalance to the insights of teachers and school leaders who know and understand how these devices can be put to good use in the classroom, and, in doing so, the myths are perpetuated that tablets are only used for fun and engagement; that they are bad for children’s health; and that they are, somehow, incompatible with academic rigour.

    Clearly to anyone who is exploring the use of tablets from an evidence-informed perspective, this is nonsense. Of course tablets can be used inefficiently – as most things can – but it can also be reasonably argued that they can support many of the processes and interventions which we know work to raise achievement.

    Next time Schools Week would like an opinion on the quality of the provision of RE in state schools in the Dagenham area, please let me know. As I know next to nothing about it, I seem to be perfectly qualified to opine.

    • and, in doing so, the myths are perpetuated that tablets are only used for fun and engagement; … and that they are, somehow, incompatible with academic rigour

      You might be able to combine the idea that “Why should I be forcing this child to try and spell something?” with not avoiding rigour, because I can’t.

  3. Any valid pedagogy should stand up to rigorous discussion and critical debate, to this end I believe this article is valuable. I am however of the belief that when used skilfully by teachers the technology discussed engages learners of all abilities effectively, (just as low tech worksheets and handouts can support effective learning when skillfully crafted but also add zero value when poorly produced). Technology also equips students with skills they are required to posess in the world beyond school walls.Bottom line…tell technology is a tool and will only ever be as effective as the teacher is skilled. Sweeping generalisations on its value have little real value when arguing either for or against.

    • Though I agree with your first comment, I think the rest of your comment repeats many of the common fallacies about education technology.

      1. The use of technology to improve instruction is a completely different purpose to teaching students the skills they may need in a technology-dominated world. We must stop conflating the two.

      2. It is not true that tools are only ever as effective as the user is skilled. Desktop publishing software requires less skill to use than hot metal printing; the mechanised spinning and weaving machines that the machine breakers of the 1810s attacked required less skill to use than their artisanal equivalents. This is a pattern that is reproduced across most technologies (although new technologies may replace the old skills with new ones, of course, so the worker is not ultimately “deskilled”, but rather the reverse). And where you have a large population doing something already (like teaching), you can assume that the skill level of the practitioner is pretty much a given (good, bad or indifferent). What changes, what makes the difference, is the technology – see my

      3. There is no such thing as “the” technology. Every sector must create its own technology. Education has failed to do this (which is why it is left to to use other people’s technologies, with such little success).

      4. There is nothing wrong with what you call “sweeping generalisations”. That is what all research, all scientific principle and therefore all technology (defined as the application of science to a practical purpose) is based. “e=mc2”, for an example, is a sweeping generalisation – and correct for all that. The successful application of technology to education requires that it is effective most of the time and across multiple contexts.

  4. “There’s no substantial evidence that tablets impact student academic performance” says Bennett, yet has he looked at the transformations Essa Academy, Hove Park and De Ferrers academy have achieved through 1:1 iPad projects?

    This whole technology debate is focused on the wrong things. Schools have and are continuing to use tablets to positively impact on student achievement,so we should be asking how are the few doing this so we can replicate it with the many. I agree that on the whole technology hasn’t impacted schools, but this is because of the processes and strategy of its deployment, not it’s lack of potential. The strategy of most schools is to buy as many tablets as the budget allows and hope for the best. There’s no strategy, no plan and often nothing more than a single INSET training day to give teachers all the pedagogical and technological skills and knowledge they require to transform their classrooms. Surprising that it doesn’t work? Not really. Surprising that no one in the media is focused on asking the right questions? Yes, but then I guess that doesn’t make for good headlines.

    Planning, leadership and teacher development are the important factors. Let’s get over this ‘should we, shouldn’t we’ debate about tech in schools.

  5. Tarjinder Gill

    I understand where Jose is coming from but I think he misses the point that all teachers are expected to use ICT and digital devices in their lessons. Therefore in terms of experience/training, etc the views of all teachers are valid.

    When was the last time Jose had to include RE in a lesson?
    Sit through a meeting about RE from a consultant who then throw a load of ideas out there relating to integrating RE in his lessons, with few resources and even less training?
    When was the last that any teacher who is not an RE teacher been pulled up for not including RE in their lessons effectively?

    It is not a fair comparison to make at all.

    I say this as someone who loves technology, has used it extensively in their own class and would love a 1:1 environment. However, I also know that I have not used ICT or technology in the way that it is popularly advertised (flipped classrooms being everywhere), it has not been about advocating a knowledge-rich curriculum or how technology can be used to enhance such outcomes. Even more, to the point, the learning lost due to a very one-sided agenda being pushed by many consultants/trainers/tech-geeks out there mean that a lot of people are put off technology and apps.

    We need more integration between different bits of software to stop wasting teacher and pupil time.
    We need more advice on the practical reality of using devices in the classroom.
    We need to stop pretending that ICT is a panacea to ills.
    We need to start recognising that what Tom says about the use of technical devices is true, as well as devices being used to placate badly behaved children.
    We also need to accept that many, many iPads and Tablets are being used a very expensive camera’s in many. many classes because actually we need to think more about the usefulness of different apps/software and their actual uses.
    We also need to realise that many more traditional teachers run a mile from using ICT because they have been let down repeatedly and because the current pedagogy assumes we all want to teach in a particular way.

    Technology and devices need to be in teacher hands for a solid 3 – 6 months before anything should be expected of them in the classroom. They need to be able to take some control over it from the start of their careers where they use software and apps that support their teaching rather than fitting their teaching around an app, or worse still, pedagogy with little to support it.

  6. I think the issues are much deeper than presented in the article. I interviewed many presenters at the recent research ED conference in London – people might like to watch those here:

    I have been cataloguing, filming and archiving this landscape for over 10 years and the whole IT/ computing devices issue is non-trivial.

    Technological change in schools cannot be absorbed and co-opted that easily. There is a broader cultural change taking place and to understand that may need the perspective of an even longer time period.

    • Leon,

      That is indeed the narrative offered by the edtech community. But it represents a deep misunderstanding of what technology *is*. Technology is the *means* by which we achieve our *ends* – so it is not predicated on changing objectives (or culture) – though it might of course precipitate such change of culture. The key question that faces technologists is not “are we aiming at the right thing?” but “are we hitting what we are aiming at?”, whatever that is. And the evidence is clear that the answer to the second question is “no, not with any consistency”.

      The assumption of most of these comments is that Schools Week should do more to defer to the experts. But they aren’t experts – they are just enthusiasts. Expertise requires evidence and the evidence backs Tom.


  7. A newspaper article is dismissed as too superficial. A lengthy analysis of the evidence (see my post at is dismissed as too long. What remains constant is the refusal of the edtech community to engage with the evidence that generic edtech is not having the beneficial effect which its supporters claim for it and which even its detractors (like me, Andreas Schleicher and the recent LSE report) think it could produce if it were done properly.

    It is perfectly fair to refer to an edtech “community” – it is a community defined by its uncritical support for a particular viewpoint and its refusal to engage seriously with opposing views.

    It is also right to note that edtech, as implemented in this country, has been intimately connected with so-called progressive theories of education. Which is a key reason why it has not worked. You only have to browse through the writings of the main advocates of edtech to realise the very close relationship between the two.

    So long as supporters of edtech fail to engage with serious criticisms of their position, they will continue to be ignored by government and an increasingly large majority of teachers.

    I think there is a very important place for Schools Week in addressing this subject – but it should do this by fostering constructive debate, not by becoming a platform for an uncontested (and in the view of many of us, discredited) consensus.

  8. Tony Parkin

    More polarising claptrap as yet again the discussion is apparently reduced to a mythical confrontation between progressive liberal trendy technophiles and Gibbering hardline traditional technophobes? I sometime wonder if the only shades of grey left are on my head? And those are probably caused by repeated exposure to such simplistic analysis? (OK, I know it’s age, really 🙂
    But in among such polarising dross in comments above there are some genuine insightful nuggets by several of the contributors that hopefully won’t be trampled underfoot in the rush to take sides.

    Not all enthusiasts are experts, and not all experts are enthusiasts. And we really are doomed if the ed tech community is defined as those who are enthusiastic for its indiscriminate and ubiquitous use. I know many who are proud to be seen as part of that community and yet are often heard to speak out against a number of technology-led projects. Indeed I would say it was the ed tech community who were most critical of the one to one iPad scheme in Los Angeles that recently crashed and burned. And yet some of the same folk were full of praise for Essa’s one to one iPad scheme? Oh well, I suppose that will just get us accused of inconsistency, rather than praised for expertise in recognising pedagogy-led practice when we see it. TGIF

    • Hi Tony,

      You don’t think that “claptrap” and “dross” is a wee bit polarising, as language goes? Not that I am offended, of course – what is a bit of banter between friends? – just that I think one should try and be as consistent as possible.

      I agree, of course, that we need to find the nuanced middle way and I do not criticise anyone for saying that edtech works in this way but not in that way. That’s being intelligent, not inconsistent, and it is exactly what we need more of.

      On Los Angeles, I would say that the lesson of countless revolutions is that it is easy to bet people to unite in opposition to something, much harder to get people to unite around positive programmes of action. I agree with you that the Los Angeles programme was misconceived – but I suspect that we might have different analyses of how it was misconceived.

      But intelligent debate also means being able to distinguish between right and wrong – that that is intrinsically polarising. Polarising in a good sense. If you take an extreme anti-polarisation view, then you end up advocating a sort of warm consensual soup in which no-one is right and no-one is wrong. It becomes a sort of relativism, in which no-one has to bother to address contrary positions because even to express a contrary position is seen as “polarising”, which places you beyond the pale.

      That is the position that much of what I continue to call the edtech community has got itself into. They went around criticising the authors of the LSE and OCED reports as being biased, talking tosh etc. (no polarisation there then!) – and when I published an extensive defence of these reports, you were the only person who engaged me in debate. When I published an extensive critique of the ETAG report, not a single member of that committee defended their position – they just chose to ignore the arguments that did not suit them.

      Yes, let’s find the nuanced, middle way. But that has to be by open and honest debate and not by the sort of herd mentality that seems to predominate at the moment. All such a position does is to discredit the position of the self-declared edtech experts, who are finding their views carry less and less weight in the media and with government.


  9. I recommend this recent article from the Washington Post by a working teacher, to anyone claiming expertise in this area. When, and only when, Ed-tech sales teams and those individuals procuring technology for schools read and grasp what skilled professionals like Launa Hall have to say, will more educationally judicious decisions about technology in schools be made.–then-wished-i-could-take-them-back/2015/12/02/a1bc8272-818f-11e5-a7ca-6ab6ec20f839_story.html