Every few years a movement to abolish schools, or schools as we know them, arises. Recently I was listening to a radio programme espousing the virtues of every child learning at their own pace through computer programs and the internet, with little, if any, face-to-face contact with a teacher or any need to go to a school. The programme was examining such a set-up in America, rather than the UK, but the same issues arise here.
It is certainly true that some learners are more comfortable working on a computer and testing out their own knowledge and skills in relative privacy, rather than exposing their perceived shortcomings to others in a class. But where is all this leading us?
Repeating a 10-minute maths program on the internet over and over again until perhaps the concept is fully understood, may work for some students on some occasions, but asking questions and understanding the answer are a little more complex. Talking to a computer or another person using a computer, even via some sort of video software, is not the same as dealing with the subtle nuances of interaction face-to-face with a human being.
Social isolation, be it for the elderly or the unemployed or the immigrant mother whose grasp of English is limited, has been identified as an increasing issue in our society. Bringing up a younger generation whose main form of contact is via technology can only exacerbate this problem.
Everyday contact, on a bus or a train, in the street or a shop, with your extended family or a partner’s family and friends, requires social skills. These cannot be gained from sitting in front of a screen or endlessly jabbing one’s finger at an iPad. Some readers may now be dismissing me as a luddite or someone whom technology has passed by. This is not the case, but I am genuinely worried about the suggestions being made that computers and technology in various forms should replace humans in the teaching and learning process.
University lectures are now freely available online – does this mean that there is no need for anyone physically to go to an actual university any more? One can argue that unless they go, they will not benefit from the interactions with other students, the opportunities to challenge and build on one another’s ideas. But, online communities can be vibrant places, with quick-fire exchanges and the benefit of the crowd working together to solve problems. However, we are all of us aware, I hope, that not everyone online is, in real life, what they may appear to be. Learning to deal with real people, to respond to them and understand them is not something that comes from sitting alone with one’s electronic devices.
There are many other areas where we are being deskilled by use of technology. Can most people read maps any more or work out where they are on a journey without a “sat-nav”. Sailors from recent generations have learnt to navigate using GPS and no longer understand the relationships of the sun, the moon and the stars. The art of writing letters is disappearing. We write to one another far more often, but it is mostly ephemeral in a way that letters were not. All that information about life in the past, which historians and sociologists have derived from letters and journals, may well be lost from our generation as new forms of technology rapidly supersede one another and documents become unreadable and obsolete.
Does all this matter, you may ask? We do all have to live alongside one another and if we want to do so in the most harmonious and productive way, helping and supporting one another and avoiding conflict, then the skills which most young people derive from their interactions with other young people and adults in school are very important.
Technology may appear to be complicated, but human beings are far more complex and more unpredictable. School is a great place to discover this and to learn how to deal with it.
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.