What kind of ed tech house is your school?

At the Learnit World conference in London, in January 2019, I attended a talk by A J Crabill, Deputy Commissioner at the Texas Education Agency. It was very interesting, not only because of the central message (more of which in a moment), but because of the analogy he employed.

He started off showing us a picture of a beautiful house, such as the one shown below.

Photo by  Julien Mussard  on  Unsplash

“What would you do”, he asked the audience, “if you lived in this house, and then one morning you woke up and there was a broken window?”

The answer was obvious: we’d get it fixed.

So far so good. But what if you lived in a house like the one shown below?

Photo by  Julien Mussard  on  Unsplash

The answer is equally obvious: why would you bother to fix the window when the house is so dilapidated that it wouldn’t make any difference anyway?

He then went on to say that the house represents the education system we work in. The trouble is, we all behave as if the house we live in is like the first house. So we fix things here and there, but don’t address the fact that the whole thing needs overhauling and rebuilding.

The upshot is hat student behaviours don’t change until adult behaviours change, and also that the house your children live in is revealed by the ‘why’ we create for them.

This reminded me of a comment MItch Resnick made when I interviewed him at the Bett show (and which I will write up and publish in my newsletter, Digital Education). He said that we should focus on goals rather than methods, and that ‘ordinary’ teachers were aligned with new (perhaps radical) approaches, but that thy are constrained by the school system in which they work.

I was cogitating on all this in the context of education technology. Around ten years ago I visited a school where half the computers in the classroom were broken, they were covered in graffiti, and the students were allowed to do pretty much what they liked because the alternative was having them run riot.

“There’s no point in getting in nice equipment”, the Head of ICT told me. “They will just vandalise it.”

This seemed to me a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s also my experience that if students think they are being treated as if they are not worth spending money on, they will act accordingly. People tend to live up or down to other people’s expectations.

In another school I visited to look at and then advise on making their technical support more efficient, one of the classrooms had an old broken down printer in the corner, along with a box of old scratched CDs, bits of wire, and a couple of broken monitors. Apparently they had been there for months, and of course the students treated the equipment as carelessly as they had been ‘taught’ to by the adults in charge.

It’s hard to break the cycle in situations like this, but if you take over the education technology in a school where the circumstances are similar you have to start somewhere. Here’s what I would suggest:

  • First, create a great curriculum and brilliant lessons. I strongly believe that nature abhors a vacuum, and that if the work is boring then students will misbehave.

  • Allowing them to do what they like on the computer merely serves to reinforce the idea that computers are toys and therefore not to be treated seriously. If you think you must give them something to do that will keep them entertained, then think about what constitutes entertainment, or what could constitute it. When I was training to be a teacher, I had an unruly class which I finally got under control by posing the following question for discussion (I was teaching Economics at the time):

    ”If the balance of payments always balances, what’s the problem?”

    I think you’ll agree that that’s not exactly prime time Saturday night TV material, but it got the students so engaged that when a couple of the usual culprits tried to hijack the lesson the others told them to shut up. The moral being, I think, that once I set them interesting and challenging work, that in itself was ‘entertaining’, though not in the usual sense of the word.

  • By the same token, stop anyone from using the equipment as a way of keeping the kids quiet for an hour. I banned the Foreign Languages department from using the computer labs unless they could guarantee that the students would be given proper work to do in them. That came about after several lessons in which a supply teacher, who knew nothing about computers and cared even less, took the students in the computer labs and let them do what they liked for an hour while he read the paper. The room always looked like a bomb had gone off by the time they vacated it.

  • Make sure broken equipment is moved to a cupboard or anywhere as long as it’s out of sight.

  • Ideally, have it repaired or replaced as soon as possible. When I was Head of ICT and Computing I had a couple of spare printers, so that if one stopped working — even for something as trivial as a paper jam — it could be easily and quickly replaced.

  • Get equipment cleaned at the end of each day; if that’s not feasible, then as frequently as you can.

  • Get rid of torn posters on the walls, or displays that were put up before you even arrived.

  • Make the students pick up their discarded print-outs and any other rubbish they are inclined to leave behind.

  • Ensure that equipment to be loaned out is clean, fully charged, and with easy-to-follow instructions, presented nicely.

To return to Crabill’s analogy, you have to:

  • be honest with yourself about what kind of house your ed tech is;

  • if it’s like the dilapidated shack, fix it — but not just by tinkering at the edges (I regard moving broken stuff out of site as important, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, so in a sense it’s just tinkering), but also deciding what the purpose of the ed tech is, and how you can make it more engaging.