There are powerful tools already available in schools. Staff must realise they don’t need to upgrade, they need to maximise the use of what they have
I went to the Bett Show recently. Four days – and half a mile – long, bigger than ever, stand after stand showing the latest educational technology. The show is genuinely exciting and unmissable, but then there was the teacher who said to me: “The trouble is, technology moves on, but the teaching stays the same.”
You hear that sort of thing quite often. Here’s Andrew Howard, the former principal of Sandymoor School in Runcorn, quoted in a case study of technology in his school: “Schools are in desperate need of a revolution. The slow pace of innovation we’ve seen in the past is no longer sufficient. Without significant, systemic change, we’ll be letting down future generations.”
As a rule, any new technology is first used to add speed and convenience, together with some bells and whistles, to things we already do. That’s certainly been the case with educational IT. Consequently we have seen sophisticated digital whiteboards used to deliver lessons that could have been done as well, perhaps better, with chalk and a blackboard, or tablet computers limited to tasks that hardly begin to touch the capabilities of the device.
Schools need to hang back from being seduced by the next shiny gadget
That was understandable so long as users were feeling their feet. Now, though, as Andrew Howard suggests, education has stayed too long in what should be a passing phase. Look carefully at some technology-aware, well-equipped schools, and what you see adds up to little more than streamlining of what they have been doing for years. The conventional school environment, with classes, an elaborate timetable, a burdensome marking regime, established pedagogy, homework and all the rest, is somehow inviolate, and technology just has to fit in.
One result of this is that users of educational technology find themselves on the defensive, facing suggestions that there is no evidence of learning benefit, or that expensive devices sit in cupboards because teachers don’t know what to do with them. It is all poor value for money, say the doubters.
The criticisms can’t be shrugged off; there’s a wakeup call to be heard, and for me what it’s saying is that schools need to hang back from being seduced by the next shiny gadget, and concentrate on extracting maximum value from their under-employed existing IT. Or, as a technology supplier at Bett put it to me: “Sweat your assets!’”
There are signs this is happening. I spent some time at Bett eavesdropping on stands and it was common to hear teachers and IT leaders asking how they can do more with the technology they already had. They know they have powerful tools either available, or, in many cases, actually installed, which open up far greater possibilities than anything they have so far attempted.
When that point is reached, it’s probably time to stop tinkering and start questioning those deeply embedded, taken-for-granted fundamentals.
Take, for example, the ubiquitous rigid timetable, which both describes and defines everything that happens in a school, particularly at secondary level. It was obviously developed to impose orderly and fair access to the curriculum, but the difficulty of making it work means that its designers frequently have to ride rough-shod over any notion of creating the best conditions for learning. As a result, what emerges is usually remarkably learning-unfriendly. For any individual child a lesson can be too long, too short, too infrequent, too hard, too easy or at the wrong time of day, problems which teachers have always had to work around but long ago ceased to notice.
The good news is that where school leaders and teachers have the will, they can do something about that, using, in many cases, technology already in school. There’s some irony, I’d say, in the way schools use powerful software to create their fearsomely complicated timetables when they might be better off using the collaborative and connective possibilities of their technology to blur those timetable boundaries, and add fluidity to the organisation of teaching and learning, crossing year group and ability boundaries and time constraints, and allowing student access to a wider range of teachers and other adults. All is possible, given the vision and the will.
The key, though, always, lies with teachers rather than with technology. As Andrew Howard, enthusiast for technology, says: “Technology will not transform learning, but without it learning will not be transformed.”