Beware the ’silver bullet’ approach


A trip to the Bett Show reminds Gerald Haigh of the dangers of a ‘stuff first, silver bullet’ approach to education.

We keep saying that we know that technology isn’t a silver bullet. But we act as though we believe it really is.”

In January, I made the trek down to Docklands to the Bett Show, the annual educational technology event that used to be held, conveniently for me, at Olympia (number 10 bus from Euston). Now, it’s at ExCel London, so far East I swear that if you could get on the roof, you’d see the Dutch coast.

The show, as you’d expect, is packed with interesting devices -– what Microsoft’s global education boss Anthony Salcito calls “stuff”, as in his complaint about the school leaders whose approach is: “Get the stuff, then use the stuff to help us do what we were doing before.”

As the quote at the head of this piece, by Harold Levy, former chancellor of New York City schools, says, we all know full well that we shouldn’t work “stuff first”, but we still do. There’s something about those silver bullets that’s distracting to the point of being hypnotic.

It’s not a recent phenomenon, exclusively about technology. For example, long ago, there was a fad for “Outdoor Activities” in secondary schools, where it was sometimes labelled as such on the curriculum. So what’s the best first step to introduce children to the great outdoors would you say? Take the blighters out for walks? Far too boring. 

What you need, said the gung-ho staff in more than one school I knew, is a fleet of canoes, a canoe trailer and a minibus to pull them. Which is okay until life moves on – a key PE teacher leaves, replaced by someone whose heart is in gymnastics, minibus running costs escalate, test and exam requirements bring out-of-school activities to heel. Then you’re left with what I have actually seen – forgotten canoes mouldering sadly on the roof of the music block, the “must do something about them” phase passed long ago.

I observed the same “get the stuff” approach when an engineering firm in a northern town decided, from the best of community-minded motives, to give each local primary school a large metal cabinet full of science equipment. Support for actual teaching was not included, and not all the equipment was suitable for primary, so the cabinets were underused and the impact on science teaching was minimal.

Now, of course, technology has opened up untold opportunities for rushing out and “getting the stuff”. Twenty years ago, we saw schools eagerly reaching for their cheque books to buy expensive single-purpose computer systems for taking the register, seduced by what was trumpeted in some media as the long-awaited answer to truancy. One of these systems, I remember, involved each child “swiping” into school at the door with a personal card.

Before long, each card reader had, for all the obvious reasons, to be carefully policed by a member of staff. That, to say the very least, took the edge off the supplier’s claim that massive amounts of staff time would be saved once they were freed from the drudgery of the paper register.

Then came whiteboards. I forget the number of times I heard the proud boast “an interactive whiteboard in every classroom”. On the other hand, I do remember the school I visited in the summer where they have decided not to replace the ones coming to the end of their lives.

And please, please, don’t get me started on the iPad horror stories, all of which boil down to the same one really: “School buys an iPad for every child. Teachers not ready for them. Consequently, iPads lie about unused, or used for trivial tasks that do not exploit their capabilities. Some devices are lost and broken (surprise!) Local press has a field day under the ‘waste of money’ headline.”

What is so sad about all these stories is that they end up bringing all teachers and all curriculum innovation unnecessarily into disrepute. Quite obviously there’s nothing wrong with school canoeing, or a science equipment scheme, or electronic registration, or interactive whiteboards, or tablet computers. 

I’ve been around long enough to see how, in action, they can help teachers make real improvements to the education and life chances of children. So nobody has to convince me, indignantly, of how well their deployments have gone. No, the mistake lies with that “silver bullet” , “get the stuff” assumption that leads to their inappropriate and hasty adoption.

Make no mistake, and with Bett in mind, the siren call of shiny gadgets displayed in glittering surroundings can be well nigh irresistible. I’ve called it “gadget allure” – the physical pull that leads to someone falling for a device (car, 42 inch television, brushed aluminium tablet) and then trying to think of a reason for buying it.

Introducing any device – tablets, for example – into school is a subtle business. So while the “learning comes first” rubric is right, that doesn’t mean it’s possible fully to prescribe in advance how to use devices in the classroom. The capabilities of any technology will only fully emerge with use. One answer is tread carefully, with a few, perhaps different devices, in the hands of a range of users – enthusiasts, doubters, geeks, anti-geeks, students, teachers and support staff, collecting and sharing continuous feedback on learning that will inform any further investment. 

Do support the Bett Show though. It’s a glimpse of the future, optimistic and heartening. Just be sure to see it through the pair of glasses you wear in class.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship.

Further reading
Why Schools Make Bad Buying Decisions, Harold Levy, October 2013:


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