Don’t blame the technology

Technology can help a good teacher do wondrous and wonderful things – but bad use of technology is worse than no use of technology, in my opinion. There is, possibly, one exception to this general rule, which I will get to in a moment. What has brought on this sudden dazzling insight (well, it isn’t really instant, and it probably isn’t dazzling, but this is my blog so I can say what I like). An anti-ICT dogma diatribe by the behaviour guru, aka Tom Bennett.

In his article, Tom says:

… it is unthinkable for any classroom now not to possess one [an interactive whiteboard], and any that do are in the process of being kitted out. It is now the telos of every classroom to have one. It is the altar and font of the learning space. Teachers deprived of one will write angry emails to their line manager about how it's impossible for them to teach any more, because the magic white rectangle of learning is silent. I used to be one of them.

He goes on to say:

Due to a BSF [Building Schools for the Future] rebuild, I was given a room outside the school which, for a few weeks, was IWB free. I mean, OBVIOUSLY it was getting one, because my human rights would have been violated otherwise, but until then I was solo. It felt like someone had cut off my arms. But in a few days something odd happened: I remembered what it was like to teach without an electric dummy-board. It was liberating, especially in sixth form lessons, as I explored non-linear structures, taking new approaches as the lesson progressed, and abandoning tasks as soon as they became redundant.

The thing is, although parts of the article read like an anti-ICT diatribe, Tom is, on the whole, correct. He states, incorrectly in my opinion, that there is no evidence that pupils learn better when technology is used. There is actually plenty of evidence showing that technology can enhance learning and achievement, but it is almost impossible to separate out the effect of the teacher in the process. I have always believed that you can give a good teacher a box of paper clips and he or she will use it brilliantly to teach a particular topic. Tom himself acknowledges this by saying:

Give me a basketball and an onion and I'll give you a dozen thinking tasks or starters. Give me a pair of scissors, a lava lamp, a Sultan's slipper and an Angora goat and I'll give you a lesson that would make an Ofsted inspector whistle La Marseillaise.

In my opinion, a management dictat that all rooms must have interactive whiteboards, and that all interactive whiteboards must be on at all times, is at least ludicrous and probably counter-productive – although it could be argued that such a rule might be necessary in some circumstances to fully transform the school into the state referred to by Becta as “e-enabled”. But for me, it leads to low-level, unimaginative use of technology, sometimes where no technology would be much more efficacious.

This issue is far wider than a discussion of technology. We live in an age (perhaps all ages were like this) when to decide not to follow the official “guidelines” puts the teacher in a position of being guilty until proven innocent. This was shown quite clearly during school inspections, when the Ofsted inspector would ask a primary school what scheme of work they were following for ICT, and expect the answer “QCA’s”. A similar situation prevailed in relation to the Key Stage 3 Strategy. Both the QCA scheme of work and the KS3 Strategy were non-mandatory, but that didn’t seem to make any difference in practice.

Even the need for a lesson plan, with objectives precisely stated, can prove to be stifling. If you hear something on the radio on the way into work, something that is dramatic, relevant and pertinent, and which you will be covering or have covered at some point, is it not actually your duty to abandon your lesson plan in favour of this news? Surely one way to make ICT come alive is to use real situations from real life events, including the news (a point convincingly made by Mick Waters in his talk at the Naace Conference 2012)?

None of this has anything to do with technology really. It’s about whether we trust teachers, ie the professionals, to get on with the job. Certainly, have parameters of what needs to be covered in the school curriculum, have guidelines on lesson planning and evaluation, and examples of good practice. But let the teacher use his or her professional judgement to make the final decision of what is covered in any particular lesson, and how.

And where you are expected to use technology, whether by the senior leadership team or Ofsted, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate, please bear in mind that it’s dogma you’re up against. Don’t blame the technology!