In a book that’s more evolution than revolution, Steve Turnbull finds a balanced analysis of edtech’s true potential

As teachers everywhere turn to online learning for solutions to the problems posed by the coronavirus crisis, this book is certainly timely. But does it deliver on its promise to provide a positive vision for educational technology?

The answer is a qualified yes.

You should never judge a book by its cover, but this one is strangely reminiscent of a Russian revolutionary poster. You can almost hear the rallying cry over the smartphone-clutching hand: “Children of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your teachers!” By contrast, its content is measured and academic, and it is firmly grounded in an evidence-based, teacher-led and knowledge-driven approach. The insurrection implied by its cover and title, it turns out, is more evolution than revolution.

Despite the irritatingly binary Teachers vs Tech? title, Christodoulou’s third book is concerned with avoiding the utopian/dystopian polarisation that has dogged the edtech debate for generations. Hence, neither chalk-stained traditionalists nor gadget-obsessed techno-evangelists (among whose number I once counted) will find validation in its pages.

Given that Christodoulou’s first book, Seven Myths About Education, sent shockwaves through the educational mainstream – alienating swathes of more progressive-minded teachers in the process – many might be sceptical of the book’s intent. Yet it is a balanced piece of work that argues strongly for technology’s potential to improve learning, as long as we get the pedagogy right. And there’s no denying the author has done her homework. Drawing extensively on relevant studies, this is a well-researched book that makes excellent use of anecdotes, examples and Oliver Caviglioli’s always precise graphics to explain and summarise key points.

The book actively makes the case that learning can and should be fun

Rightly, Christodoulou questions from the outset the education sector’s huge investments in yet minimal returns from learning technologies. Much of this, she argues, is down to faddish, pseudo-scientific thinking, which stems from a simple-yet-difficult-to-displace “bad idea”: the notion that technology has intrinsic power. In reality, says Christodoulou, teachers have proven as susceptible to a baseless gimmick as the so-called digital-native children they teach.

So how should we guard against these tendencies and ensure our use of edtech is sound? The answer, the author contends, is cognitive science. In recent years, this discipline has begun to shine a powerful light on how the brain learns, illuminating in particular the key areas of short- and long-term memory and cognitive load, and undermining those who would have us “just Google it”. Curiously, however, the book neglects the concept of schema when discussing cognitive architecture and knowledge building.

More significantly, it is questionable whether the science is as settled as Christodoulou claims, not least because the concepts of constructivism and cognitive load are difficult to define and test empirically. Furthermore, many practitioners (among whose numbers I also once counted), effectively blend inquiry-based learning and direct instruction within a carefully scaffolded and differentiated framework. They will be hard-pushed to disbelieve their own experiences, and will find support in Paul Kirschner’s foreword to this book, which includes project-based and collaborative learning in the teacher’s skillset.

Having said that, the book actively makes the case that learning can and should be fun as well as challenging, and shows edtech’s potential to diversify the teacher’s toolbox well beyond quizzing apps and visualisers. Both aspects are refreshing.

The most interesting sections, bearing in mind the increasing influence of artificial intelligence in the educational landscape, are undoubtedly the chapters exploring personalisation (or “individualised instruction”) and the use of adaptive/algorithmic learning systems for assessment. Christodoulou has clearly drawn fruitfully here on her background as a “disruptive” edtech entrepreneur herself, explaining different strategies and evaluating their potential.

However, for me, the author’s strict stance on banning students’ digital devices from classrooms undermines the book’s otherwise balanced approach. And on a purely practical level, the lack of index and very slight glossary make it harder to navigate.

Ultimately, as the conclusion makes clear, “what works” with technology as with everything else in education is relative to pedagogical purpose. It would be wise, then, to approach the book from a critical perspective and test its claims out rigorously. That’s how evolution happens, after all.