Teachers are Teachers; Apps are just Apps: the Role of Technology in Education

If you missed it last night on Radio 4 you can listen to it on the BBC website –  “My Teacher Is An App – The Classroom of the Future


The essential premises of this programme are:

  • The way we teach hasn’t changed in 100 years.
  • A teacher with a stick of chalk can’t compete with modern technology.
  • Technology is allowing us to create a world of engagement.
  • We’re now asking profound questions about how children learn.

An obvious example put forward by this documentary is the online ‘academy’ founded by Salman Khan – “Bill Gates says he started the learning revolution.” Sal Khan has said his aim is to create a free world class education “for anyone anywhere”.

khan academy

“What made sense 200 yrs ago is not what we need any more. We need personalised education.”
The Khan academy is “effectively the largest school in the world” – with its 10 million users.

Does all this sound pretty wonderful? Er, not quite.

The way that most teachers teach and most learners learn certainly has changed, especially  in Primary schools and early years settings, where learning through play, through activity and through first-hand experience is extremely common. The programme does itself no favours by not mentioning this fact. It’s true that Michael Gove and others before him have tried to recreate the teacher-focused methodology of the 19th Century, but here and elsewhere in the world there have been huge changes in very many schools, especially those that have already embraced information technology and the notion of children being active rather than passive learners.

So what else did the programme have to tell us?

  • Computers can make suggestions to students as to their future learning.
  • Computers can enable children to learn at their own pace.
  • Individual learning via computers ensures that there is no embarrassment about learning at a slower pace.
  • Traditional teachers are becoming excited about these initiatives
  • Computer-assisted learning can give immediate feedback to teachers about children’s  strengths and weaknesses.
  • The teacher’s role can be recast as a learning mentor.
  • Computers can make learning fun and addictive.
  • Learning can be up to 10 times faster if done with computers.
  • A great deal of learning can be done through the power of games.

So what are parents and non-professionals to make of all of this? Sadly most of them are likely to get completely the wrong message. Yes it’s true that the Khan academy gives amazing support to many individual learners, especially in maths, which is a subject in which logic and abstract concepts are predominant. Computers can help to ‘drill’ facts and ideas into memories. But is this what true education right across the curriculum is really about?

To go down this road to the exclusion of all else is to end up with individual learning booths and isolated individuals being programmed with whatever ‘facts’ and ‘knowledge’ are on offer from governments and the makers of software and so-called apps. This vision of course has many giant corporations salivating at the thought of selling such wares into entire education systems. Mega profits are potentially at stake here, and children may become pawns in a different type of game that we still call schooling.

IT boothes

This type of ‘personalised’ learning is actually no more than programmed learning to a specification decided by remote individuals, aided and abetted by profit-driven private enterprise, whose idea of good education is little more than raised standards in standardised tests and exams.

Equally dismal and distressing is the intention of some systems and some schools to employ fewer teachers to be ‘learning facilitators’ and through ‘performance related pay’ to pay higher salaries to those teachers who apparently use the technology to best effect since their students achieve the highest grades in the standardised tests. Can anyone spot the flaw(s) in this logic?

As the programme itself eventually concludes, there is “something of a gold rush going on” and “it makes you wonder who is driving this revolution”.

pearson education

So what are we to do? The programme came up with some critics of information technology who insist that computers should be kept out of the classroom for the most part, at least during primary or elementary education. Such people maintain that education should consist only of “free play, drawing, reading and whatever comes from inside of them”. They also maintain that it’s vital to develop creative thinking and creativity in general. They see positive relationships in the classroom as essential to learning about self and others. They are concerned about children who are “constantly wired, online, never relaxing, never satisfied.” They say that the role of schools is to “light fires” (i.e. not just fill students with information) in order to support children’s “incredible curiosity and creativity.”

Which is all very well, but we know from our own past experience that even very young children are fascinated by the power of computers, and many of them can quickly learn to use the Internet to do precisely what academics in universities do – to seek out information for their own ends and enjoyment, to create, to write, to publish and to share what they know and what they can do. Working with partners and in teams they can do much more than they could if left to their own devices – to solve problems, to do in-depth research, to create presentations, to make slide shows and video programmes and so much more.

And so we arrive at our own vision for learning in the future – to empower individual students and groups of students to co-create their own learning journeys through the wealth of knowledge, activities and experiences that are now available to them both on and offline; to enable them to learn how to learn and then to enjoy all of the benefits available to those who love learning for its own sake.

This may sound somewhat utopian, but those who have read our blog posts about other countries and their systems of education will know that this is precisely the philosophy and the aims that have been adopted in high-achieving countries elsewhere in the world.

We should not and cannot allow those with a much narrower and profits-driven ideology to come out on top of this particular debate – for the sake of all our children. The right blend of personalised and co-created learning using the powerful hardware and software now available can and should enable all of our children to develop high levels of all their multiple intelligences, in order to maximise their growth and their enjoyment of life both in the present and in the future. Is this too much to ask?

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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