An alternative view: Changing Paradigms, by Crispin Weston

Crispin Weston, who describes himself as "a controversialist", suggests that our outlook is not progressive at all.

We have a new school year, a new Secretary of State, and before too long, a new government. So this might be a good time to take stock of where we stand with education technology.

The terminology we use has certainly changed. “ICT” is heard less and less, having unravelled itself into “Computing” – which takes care of technology in the curriculum – and “ed-tech” which addresses the use of technology to support teaching and learning. And words matter: defining the conceptual ground on which the public discourse occurs.

We are still in the middle of substantive change on the curriculum front, where everyone is busy developing their programmes of study for the new Computing syllabus and wondering how they are going to teach it.

But when we look at education technology, we find that almost nothing has changed at all. In HE, the hoo-ha about MOOCs (which caused such a stir in HE in 2012-13) is already dying out. In FE, the FELTAG report has come and gone pretty much unnoticed; and in schools, the unpublished ETAG report sits in Minister Nick Boles’ pending tray, where I suspect it will stay until the General Election. Meanwhile, the government continues with its policy of ed-tech laissez faire. Perhaps we should not be surprised when the evidence that ed-tech improves learning is so slight as to be lost in the noise.

Matching this paucity of achievement, also unchanged is the grandiosity of our ed-tech rhetoric, which continues to urge on us a vision of revolutionary transformation. The Education Foundation’s recent Learning Technology Report is a case in point. This insists that “A paradigm shift in the use of technology in education has happened”, based on “clear evidence…on what makes effective schools”. At least, that is the headline claim. Almost in the next sentence, the report admits that “There are still major barriers to the adoption of technology in Britain’s schools”; that one of these barriers is the lack of “a robust evidence base concerning the range of…pedagogies…that make the most difference when used and connected with technology”; and even a lack of “agreement about the extent and depth of [those digital skills that are essential for success]”. What the report initially declares triumphantly to be a paradigm shift that is supposed already to have swept all before it, is in fact a set of eccentric views advocated by the small group of enthusiasts who have produced the report. “THIS NEEDS TO STOP NOW”, the report shouts, apparently referring to the failure of the real world to conform to the plan.

The trouble is that the paradigm shift is not just running behind schedule—it is running in completely the opposite direction. Like Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talk “Changing Paradigms” has attracted over 12 million views, the sort of ed-tech being proposed by the Education Foundation is predicated on constructivist pedagogies. “ICT plays a critical role and the use of a personal device is essential…in a constructivist environment [where] learners are encouraged to explore ideas and share insights using many different sources” and where they proceed to “construct representations of their understandings with teachers supporting and guiding”. This approach to teaching has less to do with some brave new world of “21st Century skills” as with an oh-so 20th century vision of progressive education. It is a theory which has dominated our schools for forty years, a period in which the performance of our schools has seen a dramatic decline when judged against international comparators. It is a theory which has been questioned by a series of writers, including E D Hirsch, Tom Bennett, Daisy Christodoulou, Robert Peal and Dylan Wiliam—and the only counter argument that I see made online is that “we never believed that stuff in the first place”.

The application of digital technology to the business of teaching could be seen as a way of encapsulating an underlying pedagogy—and the digital part of that double-act is unlikely to be effective unless the underlying educational theory is also sound. It is becoming increasingly clear that constructivism, the theory on which the application of digital technology to education has been predicated, does not work. The rain keeps coming through the ed-tech roof because the pedagogic foundations were bodged.

There comes a point in many painful, creative processes, when your desk is littered with scribblings and plans and failed first lines. Sometimes it is better to throw it all into the rubbish and start again with a clean sheet of paper. If this government has achieved anything in respect of ed-tech, it is the clearing away of the detritus of failed first attempts. Now, I suggest, is the time that we should be taking out that a sheet of paper and starting again, working from first principles to establish how technology is going to transform education.

The more we try and persuade ourselves that the paradigm shift is already happening—or even that we collectively understand exactly how it is going to happen—the longer it will take for true transformation to occur. We should recognise that on the ed-tech surface very little has changed, very little has worked. But press your ear to the ground and you will hear the low rumble of the tectonic plates moving. The paradigm shift that is happening right now, and on which new forms of effective education technology will be founded, is the end of constructivism as the dominant theory of learning. That gives proponents of education technology plenty to think about.

About Crispin Weston

Crispin Weston has spent the last 20 years arguing that better data standards are an essential prerequisite for effective education technology. He has worked on a variety of projects with BESA, the DfE, and US-based LETSI. He challenged alleged irregularities in Becta’s procurement of Learning Platforms in 2007, founded SALTIS, and subsequently worked for Becta on a project to improve the interoperability of learning content. He chairs BSI’s committee for IT in education, representing the UK on formal international standards organisations such as ISO/IEC. Crispin is a controversialist. He regularly challenges orthodox views of the role of technology in education in his blog at

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