At Surbiton High School we have created an environment where teachers and students use digital technology habitually to support teaching and learning. We have achieved this by investing in professional development, connectivity infrastructure and by providing every member of staff and student with a tablet device. And yet ours is not some dystopian environment where technology enslaves us and dictates how we teach and learn, but rather a technology-infused traditional environment, where great teaching and learning – with and without technology – are the ultimate goals.
When we think about children using technology, we tend to associate their use with leisure. YouTube, SnapChat, Pokémon Go, Instagram and other such services keep our children connected and entertained – mostly with our blessing. From this perspective, it is easy to fail to notice the opportunities that mobile, digital technology offers education. Fears that technology distracts our children from proper, academic learning are very common, as is the assumption that schools who use tablets use them for edutainment, i.e. to play games. This is often reinforced by the kind of negative cultural bias felt by us all that demands we send a child to play outside and get fresh air if we catch her “staring into” a tablet, but not if she is sitting “staring into” a book, even if reading was what she was doing on both occasions.
Like everything, technology too can be used well or badly, so learning how to use it appropriately is equally important for both teachers and students. For this reason, even if the blocking and banning of mobile technologies are still the default option for many schools (sometimes for good reason), more and more schools are realising the importance of exploring and exploiting the opportunities that these technologies can bring to education. As a result, roles such as mine – which focus on the intersection between technology and pedagogy – are becoming markedly less niche and more common place. When looked at through a lens that focuses on pedagogy, the perceived challenges of technology can be more easily mitigated when it is used to support the processes involved in successful teaching and learning.
So, in our lessons, technology is not used to keep children pacified or entertained, but rather it is used to present new topics vividly and memorably; to facilitate and enhance the giving of feedback; to provide opportunities to practise the retrieval of concepts and meaning through frequent low-stakes testing and quizzing; to access more effective audio-visual subject specific resources at spaced intervals; to keep track of class- and homework; to work collaboratively when the need arises; and to promote the learning and working habits that will help students to continue learning and developing personally and professionally well into adulthood, all the while adhering to high expectations of appropriate use and behaviour.
But one of the greatest advantages of technology is as true in the classroom as it is in our daily lives: technology can help us do things that would otherwise be impossible without it. So our students have ubiquitous access to a curated corpus of knowledge that helps them to learn whenever the need arises; they can film science experiments easily for later study and reflection; they can video and edit well-researched films on topics from Shakespeare to the origin of our universe; they can record themselves speaking in a foreign language to fine-tune accent and pronunciation; or they can communicate and collaborate with students in the next classroom or on the other side of the world just as easily.
But none of this is to say that we eschew pen and paper. The whole point of technology is that it is used when there are clear benefits to teaching or learning. To us this means that great teaching and great, effective use of technology when appropriate are indistinguishable – they are one and the same. Therefore, great teachers are able to discern when technology is best and, crucially, when it isn’t. Just because students can use a tablet, it doesn’t mean they should be using it all the time.
Handwriting is still a crucial skill. So, alongside our tablets, our students still rely on older technology that has proven its worth throughout the ages: exercise books, textbooks and lever arch folders are all still there. If anything, handwriting is thriving, as students move seamlessly between printed and digital media. But just because students all have an exercise book, it doesn’t mean they should be using it all the time. In our context, there is always a time and a place. To us, technology does not substitute great, traditional teaching and learning, it enables them.