Why school is still relevant in the age of technology

I find myself becoming increasingly irritated by people who say that we no longer need schools. The “argument”, if I can so dignify their pronouncements, seem to consist of the “logic” (ditto) that kids have lots of access to technology, and they can teach themselves how to use it, and therefore schools, and by extension teachers, are redundant.
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A 21st century skills paradox

specs-beforeEvery time I attend an educational ICT conference, at least one of the speakers talks about how little we know about the future. The refrain goes something like this:

  1. Kids entering school now will be leaving to join the world of work in around 2030.
  2. We can’t predict what the world is going to be like even in five years’ time, let alone 20.
  3. Therefore we need to teach kids 21st century skills (working as part of a team etc).

This all sounds profound and straightforward, but it really isn’t.

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Didactic teaching or discovery learning?

According to a study reported on by The Economist, 4 and 5 year-olds not told what could be done with an unfamiliar object explored it for longer and came up with more ideas than control groups who were shown, to varying degrees. The Economist states:

The researchers’ conclusion was that, in the context of strange toys of unknown function, prior explanation does, indeed, inhibit exploration and discovery. Generalising from that would be ambitious. But it suggests that further research might be quite a good idea.

Does this imply that the advocates of discovery learning (and their associated preference for “guide on the side” to “sage on the stage”) are right?

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Let's Hear It For The Digital Pioneers

#gbl10 Here's a new game you can play next time you attend a conference: see how long it is before someone quotes Edison or Churchill on the meaning of success. Sooner or later someone is going to show a slide with

 "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."



"Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm."

Having visions?The Games-Based Learning Conference did not disappoint in this regard, with at least two of the speakers using these quotations to illustrate their talk.

But these quotes are not celebrating success, they are celebrating risk-taking. As a community we do not encourage risk-taking, because we do not celebrate it. We celebrate only success.

Want proof? Where are the ICT Risk-Taking Awards? Where is the Edublog Award for riskiest project undertaken? Exactly. We say we value risk-taking, but we don't live it. We should adopt the philosophy espoused in The Rocky Horror Show:

"Don't dream it; be it."

Last year, Leon Cych used the term 'Digital Pioneer' in the context of the usual sort of discussion involving digital natives and digital immigrants (another couple of expressions you might use in 'Conference Bingo'). There are those of us who are too old to be called digital natives, but are not exactly digital immigrants either. We're the people who hacked through the undergrowth of outmoded teaching methods to experiment with these new-fangled devices called 'desktop computers' and 'modems'. We were the digital pioneers of our generation.

There are digital pioneers in every generation. There are probably digital pioneers in every school. But they are acknowledged and recognised only when they have achieved success, however defined.

If we want to encourage progress, we have to find a way to encourage risk-taking. Not just in the purple haze of a conference setting, after which the keynoters ride off into the sunset to prepare for their next inspirational, feel-good, talk, but in the real world of exam grade, parental and Ofsted pressure.

When will a government agency step up to the plate and really encourage people to be digital pioneers?

The Myth of the Digital Native

Angela McFarlane gave a talk at the Naace 2009 Conference which was quite interesting. The full title of her talk was:

"5 year olds never could program the video -- challenging the myth of the digital native".

That's a pretty good title for an opening keynote. Too many people, including teachers, relegate responsibility for learning how to do interesting or exciting stuff because they limit what they ask the kids to do on the basis of what they themselves can do -- a point which was brought out in a recent inspection report into ICT in English schools.

She made some good points, although I'm not completely convinced that she was correct in all she said. In particular, her assertion (or conclusion) that a third of children are not engaged with technology at all seems to me rather suspect.

The key points of her talk, for me, were as follows:

The "techno-romantics" bandy the expression "digital natives" around, but it can actually act as a barrier to learning and can disadvantage a particular section of young people.

Love that description, "techno-romantics"! I think this is largely true, or potentially so. I cannot tell you the number of times I've had this sort of conversation:

Teacher: "The kids know so much more than I do about this technology."

Me: "Well, even if that's true, surely you know more about teaching and learning, and have more common sense and general knowledge, than they do?"

Why are new technologies not always adopted in schools?

They must have the potential for the following:

  • interaction between people and other people, and between people and the technology;

  • it must support the production of something, ie not be merely passive;

  • must facilitate feedback, with gradated content, and play;

  • Personalisation: being able to personalise the technology, and being able to be connected, are key for getting young people to adopt the technology and become proficient in its use.

One interesting thing that McFarlane said was that devices needed to have a battery that would remain charged up for the length of a school day. Pretty obvious, that, once someone has said it!

She went on to say that a third of the kids in the study she undertook are really engaging with the technology, but that a significant proportion are not engaging with it at all. The "low users" don't know how to use the technology, even if they look like they do.

This sparked off quite a discussion with one of my colleagues. As she said, perhaps the reason that the kids were not engaged is that they weren't interested in what they had been asked to do.

Of course, it could be true.  Steve Woolgar, in Virtual Society?: Technology, Cyberbole, Reality , draws attention to the fact that there are sections of society which do not have the slightest inclination to engage with technology in terms of getting online.

Other pressures

Schools are unable to devote enough time, in extended projects, to enable the process of iteration -- production of content, followed by feedback, followed by amendments to the content -- to be exploited to the full. Teachers are under too much pressure to move on to the next item on the curriculum.

I think this is both true and not true. If a project is rich enough, and the teacher creative enough (and the management supportive enough), you can teach quite a lot of a syllabus from a relatively small range of topics.

The importance of the teacher

McFarlane stated that her research indicates a very strong correlation between the teacher's use of the technology in lessons, and the kids' use of technology outside of school. It is essential for the teacher to model not only how to use the technology, but how to learn effectively.

I thought that was quite an interesting observation. It suggests that, as I think she herself went on to say, that whilst running classes for parents in how to use the technology their kids are using is a good thing to do, it is not enough. Parents should also be taught how to help their kids learn from using the technology. An interesting idea.

What also comes out of this is that the kids who are not enamoured of technology will not be persuaded to change their minds only by having a computer at home through the Home Access programme.

Monitoring young people's use of technology outside school

Schools should do so, says McFarlane, in order to identify those who don't make too much use of technology. I'm not I agree with that. By all means seek to find out what your kids are doing and can do with technology, in order to inform your teaching, as Miles Berry and I have encouraged (see this article for relevant links), but why focus especially on those who don't make much use of it? There is an underlying implicit assumption that there is something amiss, something that needs correcting in these cases (her expression in relation to the Home Access programme, according to my notes, was that kids will not be helped by the Home Access programme alone. Why should the concept of "help" come into this at all?)

In any case, I do wonder how many you'd really find who come into that category.

Working together is not the same as collaboration

McFarlane stated that a lot of so-called collaborative learning is not collaborative at all because kids are not taught how to learn together. That's probably true, but whether they are taught it or not they can still do it: they help each other informally quite extensively from what I've read and found out through surveys.


All in all a stimulating talk, though not one I'd agree with wholeheartedly. The video of the first part of the lecture is below.



Wordle summary:

Wordle: The myth of the digital native