I was once at a conference where a delegate started chatting to me about iPads in schools. He’d been in charge of the rollout of more than 500 tablets to staff and students in his school and I sensed frustration and a little dejection when he described what obviously had turned into a head-aching predicament. I won’t bore you with his story, but essentially he had ordered a load of tablets and assumed that everything else would be all right.
Only it wasn’t all right. My delegate friend had not foreseen the difficulty involved in introducing new variables into complex systems. He had been persuaded by the transformational, 21st century, digital nativist discourse that, very much like populist politicians, had promised easy solutions to complex problems. Reality was coming home to roost.
He’s not the only one to have such an experience. And it isn’t always tablet related. It might be a new virtual learning environment, a few more interactive whiteboards, another bank of laptops or the introduction of a shiny, easier new way to do X,Y or Z online. The problem is predictably familiar: schools invest readily and heavily in the technology but then fail to invest proportionally in the teaching. I’m not quite sure why schools so often appear to put technology before pedagogy but they’re getting it the wrong way around. And because so many schools get it wrong, it is not in the least bit surprising that we seem to be stuck in a never-ending spiral of mutually assured disappointment, constantly asking ourselves: if technology is the solution, what was the problem again?
Technology, of course, is not the solution.
I was recently discussing the value of technology with a senior leader who asserted, unequivocally, that “technology was a distraction cluttering up teaching”. He proudly boasted that his school was a technology-free area. I know that many teachers would agree with him. And I understand the reasons: they have often had a terrible experience with technology, leading them to the conclusion that technology does not contribute to good teaching; that, in fact, it hinders it.
Dig a little deeper and you often find that these technology denialists appear to have also gone along unthinkingly with the claims that technology in schools is about “transformation” or “engaging” the children and so, when it fails to achieve either of these things in the medium to long term, they quickly blame and thereafter dismiss the technology.
But they are measuring technology with the wrong stick. What they fail to consider is that if technology is not the solution, it isn’t the problem either. The very word technology means “the science of craft”. Technology is nothing more and nothing less than the application of human knowledge to practical tasks. From this perspective, blaming technology for poor outcomes in schools is like a chef blaming his kitchen knife for having prepared a terrible meal.
What technology critics almost always forget is that technology is not a substitute for good teaching. Teachers still need to be good at teaching in the same way that chefs still need to be good at cooking. That’s not to say that some edtech tools don’t well and truly suck, to use the vernacular, but rather that no amount of technology will make a mediocre teacher good. Teachers get better at teaching by studying and reflecting on their craft, and this includes studying how to apply knowledge to achieving the practical aim of engendering rich and successful learning.
Using technology well to support teaching and learning is a feature of great teachers, yet there appears to exist the commonly held notion that digital technology and teaching are mutually incompatible. There’s an element of truth about it. It is true that, for example, technology can be a distraction. There’s no denying it. So, I would understand why you might believe that you’d be better off without it. I might not even blame you. But you’d be wrong.
How to counter the technology narrative
So what should schools do? When it comes to introducing new technology successfully, numerous considerations need to be clearly thought out and weighed up — budgets, infrastructure upgrades, staff professional development, impact on learning — and all the while keeping in mind two very important things: first, that the sole objective of spending thousands on technology ought to be to help children learn and, second, that the outcome of these considerations could well be an unequivocal “we don’t need the technology”.
There are many good reasons why making more technology available to pupils would be desirable for most schools, but the missing ingredient in the sauce is often the lack of a sound educational case for its use. This educational case needs to be built solidly around supporting, facilitating and enhancing the processes involved in teaching and learning. Nothing else will do. Put this on a poster and hang it somewhere where it will serve as a constant reminder because, in the end, the success of any technology initiative will be judged on whether it has had a positive impact on educational outcomes.
A well-informed and hard-headed approach is required to decide whether this avenue is one down which your school should be travelling at this particular stage in its development plan. Therefore, I would suggest that the person put in charge of technology procurement be an expert in pedagogy — an experienced classroom practitioner who can visualise how technology can potentially be put to use in schools from a grounded, pragmatic perspective.
This is why it is so important that the person in charge of teaching and learning keeps an open mind to the adoption of digital technology. A great teaching and learning leader will not dismiss technology out of hand any more than he or she will adopt technology unthinkingly. And if they do either of these things, one must question their suitability for the role because who in their right mind would reject a whole tool box because some of the tools don’t work?
If we know that the quality of instruction can impact massively on learning, let’s look at how technology can help to deliver great lessons. If we know good feedback is essential to students’ progress, let’s consider how technology can facilitate this process. If cognitive psychology is laying the guiding principles of improved classroom practice, let’s explore how the effective use of technology can contribute to making learning more successful.
It really shouldn’t be that contentious to promote the notion that great teaching – the craft – and the application of the most appropriate tool to the task – the science – are irreversibly intertwined; that good teachers will always seek to explore ways in which to be improve their practice; and that, though digital technology clearly isn’t always the answer, sometimes it may well be.
A good workman is able to discern and pick the best tool for a particular task, is committed to improving his craft, and certainly doesn’t blame his tools.
This piece was originally published in the EdTech supplement accompanying the TES on 20 January.