In his blog for the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) last month, general secretary Russell Hobby used the then imminent Bett technology show to express doubts about whether schools were getting real value in terms of learning from the £716 million they are projected to spend on technology in the next academic year.
He said: “...as education leaders, we must guard against fads and panaceas. Technology has no value in itself, only in relation to the problems it solves. We need a reason, a goal, not a glossy brochure or shiny gadget.”
It’s a reasonable, commonly expressed thought that attracted attention for whence it came, and is difficult to quarrel with. Technology leaders themselves will say much the same; certainly Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s global education vice-president has a constant theme whenever he speaks which can be summarised as: “Start with the learning, not with the device.”
Mr Hobby is also correct when he suggests that what looks new and exciting might, on closer examination, be merely helpful: “...an animated presentation on an electronic whiteboard or a lesson plan on an iPad are not transformative in terms of standards. Nice, perhaps, time-saving, maybe, but remember the cost.”
Remember it indeed, because it is far from trivial. A school, often with the help of its parents, might spend several hundred thousand pounds on a big bang “tablet for every child” programme that may not return commensurate benefit, at least for the current cohort.
Now Mr Hobby is no Luddite. As a life member of NAHT myself, I know that well enough. He points out that there are plenty of examples, beyond education, of technology taking a long time to provide real return on investment. He also invokes academic and writer Clayton Christensen in support of the idea that true transformation comes from the margins, rather than from wholesale shifts which are top-down driven.
In the case of education, these “margins” include SEND, provision for exclusion from the mainstream, and the developing world. In such environments, conventional methods are ineffective or unavailable to a degree that forces radical alternatives. Ultimately, though, I feel that, intentionally or not, he provides a little too much comfort for the hardcore technology resisters. The sentence, “To date, I think we’d be better spending the money on recruiting and training great teachers and sticking them in front of old-fashioned blackboards”, is hardly a 21st century clarion call.
I suggest that it is no longer possible to separate good teaching from the use of technology. The very fact that they are good teachers means that they won’t take, or stick with, jobs that “put them in front of old-fashioned blackboards”. And so I’d rather go with Bob Harrison, of Support for Education and Training, whose own mantra is expressed as: “Technology will never replace good teachers, but teachers who use technology effectively will replace those who do not.”
Increasingly, for example, good teachers want to use seamless peer-to-peer and teacher-student feedback and collaboration, and finding that with tablets and the right cloud-based tools, they already have what it takes to make it happen, and, furthermore that it doesn’t have to be restricted to their own classroom or their school.
A collaborative group can have members from other schools, in other countries and have a life beyond the school timetable. It’s transformation of learning driven by good teaching and made possible by technology. And that’s just one example. There are others – the possibility of genuinely personalised learning, for example, or the blurring and ultimate removal of the distinction between school work and homework.
Think it through and you see just how technology will support and empower those teachers and students who wish to go beyond using technology to make the current task easier, and question some of the historic, taken-for-granted structures within which they have to work.
Is it any longer necessary for learning to be restricted by rigid timetables and class groupings for example? The implication, at least for me, is that somewhere at the end of this road – just how far away I cannot possibly guess – the current idea of what we mean by “school” will be seriously called into question. But if that’s a bridge too far, then what is certain is a growing conviction that it’s becoming possible to think the unthinkable.
I also believe that this change of perception is happening quickly, not as a marginal trickle but as a rising tide. As it happens, I was only able to visit Bett 2015 on the last day, but what struck me was that the stands and presentations that attracted the biggest crowds – standing room only in many cases – were those that dealt not so much with shiny gadgets as with creative and previously unattainable approaches to teaching and learning. That being so, it’s no surprise that one of the most popular, quoted and retweeted messages from the show was contained in a presentation by Ian Stuart, of Islay High School in the Hebrides. “Drop the pilot,” he urged, “we just need to do it. Make change in your school!”
Further informationRead Russell Hobby’s blog at http://bit.ly/1tosmWm Photo: iStock
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1