A Level results came out last week. In a year which has seen the number of top grades reduced nationally for the first time in decades, Nottingham High school – my school – has seen, not only a continuing improvement, but its best results ever (72% A*-A), a feat that saw us move up to the top ten independent schools in the country.
In Spanish – the subject I teach and for which I am directly responsible – our results have also been our best ever (88% A*-A; 100% A*-B). Few of my students would have believed this possible at the beginning of Year 10, when they could barely say their names and where they lived with any confidence at all! Four years on, thanks to their hard work and dedication to the subject, they have done themselves – and me – very proud indeed.
It was during these four years that I began to research the transformational potential of social media and and ICT in general and to apply some of my findings to my teaching practice. Many fantastic things happened during those four years: my wife and I had another boy, my work in technology integration started to be recognised nationally and internationally, I was fortunate to be promoted to Head of Modern Foreign Languages and I gained a Masters Degree in ICT and Education.
However, during that time there have also been plenty of those who have questioned my approach for having the audacity to suggest that social media in general – and social networking in particular – could be harnessed by schools to be potentially beneficial to both teaching and learning.
In the early 1950s, my grandparents leased a humble patch of farming land in rural Andalucía where they were able to grow crops and graze their modest herd of dairy cows. There they built a house and raised their children.
In those days if you needed water, you had to dig a well. So they did. Incredibly they managed with a well and without electricity – using butane and paraffin lamps – for another 20 years.
By the time my dad was a young man, my grandparents had invested in a diesel generator that would allow them to run some electric appliances and watch TV or listen to the radio in the evenings. Eventually, round about the time my mum and dad got married and I came to being in the mid seventies, civilisation arrived and they were able to connect to the mains for both water and electricity.
As you can imagine, the well and the generator, which had so faithfully served the needs of my family all those years, quickly fell into disuse.
I was recently at a conference where I met a newly appointed school leader who had heard of my work in technology integration. As we were introduced, the expression on his face gradually changed from your-name-rings-a-bell to ah-I-know.
He was interested to know what the latest trend was in technology in education and quick-fired some questions about using technology in the classroom, answering quite a number of them himself with a lavish sprinkle of the latest buzzwords.
He was, it turned out, on the look out for “the latest innovative practices”. As if innovation was a product you could purchase wholesale at conferences.
Language is a defining feature of people. We are unique in Nature in being able to turn physical objects and abstract concepts into words and thus share ideas. The Internet provides our innate propensity for communication with means to engage in social interaction beyond the constraints of time and space, allowing us to engage in synchronous or asynchronous discussions that would be inconceivable otherwise.
The potential of this type of communication for education is already evident. Teachers and students had embraced blogs, online chats, fora and social networks to share and disseminate commonly interesting knowledge.
As a learner – and who isn’t? – blogging in particular has been instrumental in my own learning, which is continuously being constructed, modelled and re-modelled by reflecting on the social interaction provided by blogs such as this one and then feeding the newly constructed knowledge into further interaction, enabling me to learn in a divergent manner by providing the stimulus that allows me to pursue new ideas and explore new threads in a creative way.
So far, so good. But there are some problems. Firstly, linguistic communication relies on a plethora of visual and non-verbal cues and clues – a slight change in intonation or the raising of an eyebrow – that are simply absent from computer mediated communication.
My definition of innovation is this: innovation is doing things in ways you didn’t realise you could. In education, as in other fields, innovation is so much more than the application of new technologies. But it must be acknowledged that new technologies have often acted as the catalyst for innovation, not just in education but also in all areas of society.
The realisation that you can do things differently – in ways you didn’t realise you could – does not come suddenly to most of us. Innovation is the progressive development of awareness and the gradual appreciation of an alternative model.
The management of the hotel where the above sign was placed in the 1880s was attempting to help its customers come to terms with a new paradigm: electricity was challenging patterns of behaviour established over centuries and, just like the internet is doing today, it served as the catalyst for a wave of innovation.
I know very few teachers who don’t rely on technology of one kind or another to help plan and deliver their lessons. I know fewer students still who do not rely on the internet to help then learn. Yet both teachers and students often try to use technology to support well-established patterns of behaviour in an inadvertent attempt to perpetuate that with which they are familiar.
Instead I would like to propose that schools embrace innovation, not as a target or a policy, but as a culture, that is to say that schools need become places in which innovation – as defined above – is allowed to grow and flourish. But for that to happen, we need to stop attempting to light bulbs by striking matches.
In our age, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try and solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name. It is provincialism, not of space but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares.
'What is a classic?’ Presidential address delivered by TS Eliot to the Virgil Society in 1944. Published in his volume of essays entitled On Poets and Poetry, 1957.
In this passage, TS Eliot denounces what he termed temporal provincialism, a phenomenon by which we undervalue past experiences in favour of the present and the instant gratification it promises.
Teachers opposed to the embracing of new technologies and the adoption of modern computer mediated means of communication often use similar arguments against those who propose the transformation of teaching and learning by exploring and exploiting the potential these new technologies may have to offer.
The internet is often criticised by teachers for prizing information over knowledge and for being a capitulation to what they perceive as a lack of academic rigour and preference for immediacy among the current generation of students. Similarly, the use of social networking sites is often disparaged and even vilified for infantilising young people’s brains and reducing their ability to communicate face to face , as if social networking were a substitute for face-to-face communication.
Such received wisdom may well be full of common sense, but it is actually unsupported by research and, upon closer scrutiny, it reveals itself to be based on assumption, misunderstanding and preconception. Actual research on the subject suggests that even the humble internet search is a valuable meaning-making activity that supports the acquisition of knowledge, the creation of remote associations and creative development. And internet searches are just the tip of a very large iceberg of untapped potential.
TS Eliot’s temporal provincialism condemns the overestimation of the present’s importance. However, I would propose that today we suffer from a kind of temporal conservatism, whereby undue relevance is being given to present, more traditional methods of teaching and learning whilst the future potential of promising new technologies is being largely ignored by schools that are blinkered by the here and now.