Why going back to basics is dangerous


Effective education uses tools that engage and reflect the modern learner. The current drive to go 'back to basics' risks losing learners on the journey, argues Karen Sullivan.

The bells of change are becoming an all-too-familiar sound in education these days, and the suggestions that we drop (or at least sideline) advances in technology in favour of a back-to-basics approach in education are starting to ring in the ears. 

However, a host of studies has shown how technology can support learning in school. For example, a recent meta-analysis of the research on the effects of educational technology on mathematics achievement found fully in favour of technology. 

Other studies have found that the ability to use computers over and above a simple pen and paper has not only created new ways for students to present information (and express themselves), but led to a greater interest in and understanding of the subject matter – and all types of learners (including SEN) benefit.

Studies have found that students who use the internet to find information develop scanning skills and partake in more extended reading than those who depend entirely upon traditional books. Both of these things improve vocabulary, cognitive skills, memory and self-expression in written work.

And then there is the spelling test/spell-checker debate. A return to the traditional method using spelling tests has been proved to be inferior to teaching spelling cues. Children with good memory skills can perform well on spelling tests, while those who have SEN or find memory work more difficult don’t learn well. A spell-checker is an invaluable tool for learning spelling by seeing a word in its written context, which is much more useful than memorising the spellings of words that may differ according to the sentence in which they are being used.

Through technology, education has gone from being a passive and reactive science to something that is engaging and interactive. Students who may have lost enthusiasm, attention and, indeed, any understanding of key subjects now have different tools at their disposal for learning them. 

They can play games, perform quizzes, view online tutorials, listen to and watch demonstrations and practical applications (over and over again), and practise within an elastic timeframe.

This not only puts the learner in charge of their own learning (thus providing motivation and a sense of empowerment), but also provides potential for engagement on many more levels. As we know, engagement is crucial to the understanding and retention of information. What’s more, learning becomes individualised, thus ensuring that every child has an equal chance, not just those who work well with traditional methods (i.e., memory work).

Add to this the fact that students who embrace and can use a large range of technology are better placed to find jobs in the current and future marketplace, and there can be no argument that these methods are not only relevant and forward-thinking but practical. 

Technology offers students opportunities to self-test, with immediate results. The word immediate is important, too. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that our age of quick-fix solutions and bite-sized information requires an “instant access” approach to education.

Children can learn as and when the desire strikes them; they can check a fact, build a case, elaborate a theory or just pad-out knowledge at the flick of a switch, long before they’ve potentially lost interest in the pursuit. What’s more, learning can take place at any time, in any place, allowing students to work at their own convenience.

A good education system involves using tools that fit the profile of the modern learner. Times change and so do the people that populate those times. Going back to basics prevents progress on every front and loses learners on the journey.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com


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