The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh, who ponders the way in which schools can more proactively embrace the current capabilities offered by technology. Too often technology is merely used to automate existing processes and working regimes, when in actual fact there are opportunities to positively change the way in which teaching and learning happens for all concerned.
Geography in the Physics lab? Just do your best.
Sometimes a single Tweet – 140 characters, three or four seconds – is packed with enough food for thought to keep you going for days. So it was when I read this, from José Picardo, Pearson Teaching Award winner and Assistant Head for Digital Strategy at Surbiton High School (@josepicardoSHS)
Was told yesterday by visitor we're bringing in the future into our school. No, we're not. We're bringing in the present.
— José Picardo (@josepicardoSHS) November 12, 2015
The tweet caught my attention, I guess, because it resonated with a theme I’ve pursued here on more than one occasion, which is that although educational technology is pretty well established as a classroom tool, the next step (surely becoming overdue) is to see it as a means of pushing on into truly 21st Century pedagogy and learning.
On the whole (and I go back to the start, if you take the early Eighties ‘Micros in School’ project as the baseline) we have consistently missed breakthrough opportunities offered by technology, seeing it, consistently, within the given limits of the here and now. We can be forgiven, because we were trying to learn the basics of the kit as well as struggling to see what it could do for us. Teaching has never been easy, and if a computer could help by motivating children, or making life a bit easier, then we would settle for that. Visions of something better would have to wait a bit.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
Who remembers what it was like to construct a secondary school timetable in pre-technology days?
In the big school where I taught for six years in the Seventies, building each year’s timetable was a long and arduous task, involving a huge wall chart and many coloured pegs. The work took two senior leaders out of circulation for a significant amount of time during the Summer term. They were good at it, but the manual process had its limits, and September always revealed occasional errors – two groups heading for the same room, a teacher anxiously searching the building for an elusive class. There were known difficulties, too, that we just had to swallow – consecutive lessons in widely separated teaching blocks, specialist subjects scheduled in unsuitable rooms. (‘Just do your best, eh?’).
But still we always got our timetable – a mind-bending masterpiece covering a whole wall. From it were extracted personal timetables for teachers, departments and students.
Did I say ‘masterpiece’? In a sense it certainly was. But it was also a straitjacket, confining students and teachers to an endlessly repeating sequence of fixed-length single and double periods. As teachers, most of us took it all for granted. It was the world in which we lived. Only a few had a half-formed wish-list of things they would like to do if only the timetable wasn’t in the way. Here are a few:
Continue a good and productive lesson to a natural conclusion rather than having to stop at the bell.
Allow students to work at different rates until all are finished.
Make it easy for students with similar needs and interests to work together regardless of age or teaching group.
Match students to particular teachers for specific purposes, perhaps for varying lengths of time.
Allow teachers to collaborate across subjects and age groups.
Loosen traditional structures and hierarchies so that teachers, other staff and students could form action groups and teams in response to learning needs.
But you get the idea. Anyone working in a school will think of a dozen further examples – aspirational teaching and learning strategies that are either difficult or impossible to implement against the background of a conventional school timetable.
And then, along came technology and what was our first thought? Did we immediately see that here was an opportunity at least to try to achieve some of those more flexible working practices?
Not a bit of it. That dream, if it existed, was blotted out by the prospect of being able to turn out a beautiful, error-free but entirely conventional timetable in double-quick time. So what we now have, thanks to technology, is pretty much what we had before – a complicated document setting out exactly what is to happen anywhere in the school at any time. It doesn’t just describe what everyone is doing; it actually tells everyone what to do. A teacher who downloads their own personal timetable is effectively receiving his or her daily orders.
That, I suggest, is rather sad, and not what technology ought to be about. Rather than reinforcing bell-driven, move-when-I-tell-you structures, technology should be in the business of loosening boundaries and barriers, promoting flexibility and allowing freedom of choice.
So, imagine a school where a student can:
Stick with a task long as it takes, supported along the way by a teacher, perhaps with other teachers and students chipping in with ideas.
Tackle a piece of set work by finding partners with complementary ideas, and tackling it together. The group will also meet face to face when necessary, and ask their teacher to join them.
Or imagine a school where a teacher can:
Give differentiated, challenging individual tasks in the knowledge that the students can be coached along by online interventions.
Set up a lecture/demonstration at short notice for students who are showing a particular weakness that has to be corrected – or a strength that needs to be developed.
Could technology enable all of that? It certainly challenges some structural assumptions. Terms such as ‘lesson’ , and ‘class’ take on different meanings, and there have to be changes of mindset.
But now I’ve seen for myself what can be done with Windows 10, one-to-one devices, Office 365 with OneNote, Class Notebook and everything else, in terms of collaboration, personalisation and anytime/anywhere learning. In it I see the beginnings of something very new and very exciting. Many schools are already moving forward into what José Picardo regards as ‘the present’, fully prepared to stay with it as it becomes the future. Turning the vision into daily reality falls to teachers with more expertise and up-to-date experience than I can imagine, but I know, beyond doubt, that they are out there, fully capable, ready to go.