If you want to improve education, get rid of all the computers! —Are classroom teaching and technology incompatible?

Americans  love the Finnish education system. But they’re puzzled by it. It tops them in international rankings and they just can’t figure out why a tiny Nordic country is so much more awesome than they are.

They don’t view the Finns with quite the same hostile suspicion they reserve for Chinese or Russian athletes who do better than them in the field of sport, but one gets the feeling they definitely reckon these pesky Finns are up to something and they just need to know what the heck it is. If I were a Finnish entrepreneur, I would seriously consider opening a chain of burger joints to cater exclusively for the hordes of American educationalists and journalists that travel to Finland every year after the OECD publishes its PISA results in search of the Finnish secret to a good education.

Earlier this week Caitlin Emma, in an article for Politico titled Finns beat U.S. with low-tech take on school, and flaunting a quote from a Finnish minister who says they’re not interested in iPads, appeared to claim after her obligatory visit to Finland that she had discovered said secret, which, apparently, involves not using technology and using a lot of “good old-fashioned pen-and-paper note-taking”. Her opening salvo goes like this:

At the start of morning assembly in the state-of-the-art Viikki School here, students’ smartphones disappear. In math class, the teacher shuts off the Smartboard and begins drafting perfect circles on a chalkboard. The students — some of the highest-achieving in the world — cut up graphing paper while solving equations using their clunky plastic calculators.

From the start, Emma establishes a direct correlation between good academic results and lack of technology use. But there is a problem: there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. It’s just a spurious correlation. She might as well have said that Finns do better at school because they eat more reindeer than Americans.

To be fair to Emma and to Finland,  she concedes later on that Finns have plenty of technology at their disposal (Smartboards, mobile devices, laptop computers – they’re even developing an educational cloud-based service in collaboration with Estonia) and that they are actually making good, discerning use of it. And this is perhaps where her criticism ought to have been focused.

You see, like her, I expect smartphones to be safely put away for morning assembly and I even think that pen and paper are the best tools in many circumstances. But I also expect, most of all, that technology be used appropriately and effectively when its use is justified by improved educational outcomes, which, by the way, encompass but do not consist solely of examination results.

Despite all this, the implication is clear and the connection is made in the minds of many. Finland is not doing better than the U.S. despite the lack of technology, it’s doing so because of it. Diane Ravitch, influential educationalist and Research Professor of Education at New York University, who is deeply suspicious of the push to integrate technology in the U.S.,  blogged about Emma’s article and echoed her message writing that, in Finland, “teachers are not depending on educational technology. By contrast, American schools are spending billions of dollars on tablets, laptops, and other devices.”

In a brief twitter conversation with me after he tweeted in support of Emma’s article, popular educational author Doug Lemov repeated the mantra that results are driven by good teaching. Again, the implication was clear. It’s good teaching stoopid, not the technology!

And this is where, given the number of authoritative figures from both sides of the Atlantic who are lining up lately to contribute to the smorgasbord of anti-tech sentiment, I appear to be missing something. It is, of course, true that good teaching is one of the most important contributing factors to improved educational outcomes, but it would, in my view, be naive and shortsighted to suggest it was the only factor or that technology and great teaching are somehow incompatible.

Surely what we all want is great teaching supported by effective use of technology, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be great teaching or use of technology, does it?

Perhaps I should pack my bags and head to Finland to find out. Does anyone know of a good Tapas Bar in Helsinki?

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  1. Acabo de leer tu articulo Jose! no sabía que lo habías escrito tú! me había salido en facebook porque “todoele” habíá compartido tu link 🙂
    Sólo queria anadir que cada país tiene una mentalidad diferente en cuanto a la educacion que a su vez esta relacionado con las tradiciones y maneras de pensar, lo que funciona en Finlandia no tiene por qué tener los mismos resultados en Estados Unidos. Yo también abogo por la tecnologia usada en la ensenanza para apoyar el aprendizaje pero como has mencionado y como la autora del otro articulo indica, hay cosas que son mejores ensenarlas sin la tecnologia. Además los resultados de PISA tambien son unos resultados politicados. Por supuesto que en paises como en Corea las matematicas son mucho mejores, pero cuantas horas dedican al dia para las matematicas y como ensenan con el abaco? las jornadas academicas son mas duras, por otra parte si las jornadas academicas son mas duras y largas donde queda tiempo para la familia y el juego? (aunque ese es otro tema).
    Lo que si que es cierto es que tanto gasto en tecnologia como esta haciendo EEUU no tendrá resultados si no ponen parte del budget a ensenar a los profesores como utilizarla en clase, ya que como se ha puntuado en tu articulo, el factor mas importante en la ensenanza aprendizaje es un buen profesor. Otro dato curioso que me gusta de Finlandia y los paises bajos es que son dos profesores los que dan clase en el aula, apoyandose, hay menos alumnos por aula y sobretodo no tienen tanto enfasis por los “resultados” en forma de test (masificado en Inglaterra) sino en los resultados finales de cada anio, sin tener tantos examenes publicos. Un cordial saludo. Gracia (SHS)

  2. Of course there is more to it than just not using computers…There are other factors, such us the background and expertise of primary school teachers in Finland, who have to study a lot in order to become teachers. This is a crucial factor to me, well trained educators. Also, the parents’ involvement in the education of their children, with family visits to libraries. As a community, they take education very seriously, so school becomes more than just a “deposit” for children, as it happens in other cultures. The children are encouraged to respect teachers, teachers are commited to their profession, and where there is respect and compromise the results are nothing but good.

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