The spirit of General Ludd

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Schools are not ‘still’ important despite IT, they are even more important because of IT, argues Alex Wood.

I’ve always bridled at the unthinking use of the insult “Luddite”. The smashing of machines used to lower wages in the late 18th century was an act of defiance against a ruling class which made a fetish out of the rights of property and viewed the toiling masses as less than human. 

And I’m no latter-day educational Luddite. I would not smash computers in schools.

That said, I have huge reservations over the value placed on them. I have even greater reservations about the educational values and purposes being displaced, often unwittingly, by the ubiquitous, uncritical adoption of IT as the answer to every pedagogic challenge.

I was reminded of this on reading an excellent Australian educational blog which I follow. The piece in question was admirable in intent. The blog, usually written by a leading academic, had been written by a high school student, a laudable attempt to provide a learner’s perspective on contemporary schooling.

Entitled Schools are still important, it extolled the virtues of IT as the educational tool which provided a versatile, effective, useful education. “Students literally have the world at their fingertips – our keyboards can take us anywhere.”

It was a wonderful, optimistic piece of writing, of a quality which only the young can produce. It reflected that enthusiasm among learners which is the best reward any teacher can experience.

The young man was entirely justified in extolling the values of systems which have, in a brief few decades, made knowledge almost universally available. When I entered teaching I could not have envisioned such potential and, alas, even now, many teachers fail to utilise and exploit that potential and the enthusiasm for it which their learners display.

The young writer did say that “schools are still important”. He developed that theme. “Maybe it’s time for open learning, where students could harness the power of technology to communicate, discover and develop their understanding and their awe of the world at equal rates and harness the power of school to discuss and consult with peers and teachers.” 

In other words, acquire knowledge on the net and test and sharpen that knowledge with peers and teachers.

I have always held that knowledge is the essential foundation of any higher order learning. I stand four-square with Bloom and his taxonomy but the IT-obsessed perspective, enthusiastically extolled by our young Australian learner, starts and stops with knowledge. He recognises that knowledge needs to be tested and validated in discussion with peers and with those (ie, teachers) whose knowledge base may be more developed than that of the learners. The purpose of his educational world remains however the acquisition and refinement of knowledge.

And that is why in my most despairing moments I fear technology: for education, particularly schooling, is about far more than knowledge.

Education is about relationships, communication, health and wellbeing, ideas and ideals. IT can support the development of all of these but they are essentially human tasks which require emotional responses, and although emotional responses can be learned, and even modelled, they cannot be taught.

Education is about meeting and interacting with those who do not share our interests and backgrounds, with those of different gender, ages, sexualities and outlooks, sometimes about the individual but also about the twos and threes and even the great crowds.

Schools are not “still” important despite IT. They are of even greater importance than ever because of IT. They offer the possibility of making us more human when the world of IT has precisely the potential to dehumanise learning itself.

When teachers are being replaced by computers, the spirit of General Ludd may need to be recalled.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.

 


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