What every teacher needs to know about… Edtech
Here’s my most recent Teach Secondary column:
Technology has been transforming education for as long as either have been in existence. Language, arguably the most crucial technological advancement in human history, moved education from mere mimicry and emulation into the realms of cultural transmission; as we became able to express abstractions so we could teach our offspring about the interior world of thought beyond the concrete reality we experienced directly.
This process accelerated and intensified with the invention of writing, which Socrates railed against, believing it would eat away at the marrow of society and kill off young people’s ability to memorise facts. He was right. The transformative power of writing utterly reshaped the way we think and how we use knowledge. From the point at which we were able to record our thoughts in writing, we no longer had to remember everything we needed to know.
But education was very much a minority sport until the advent of the printing press, when suddenly books started to become affordable for the masses. Before Gutenberg, there was no need for any but a privileged elite to be literate, but as the number of printed works exploded exponentially, the pressure on societies to prioritise universal education slowly grew until, by the mid-twentieth-century education became not only a requirement but a right.
The rate at which we now produce knowledge is staggering. The architect and inventor, Buckminster Fuller identified what he called the Knowledge Doubling Curve. He noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the mid-twentieth century, knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today on average human knowledge doubles in just over a year. Some estimates suggest soon what we collectively know is set to double every 12 hours.
No wonder so many have been persuaded that there is no longer a need to learn facts as we can always just look up whatever we need to know on the internet. This erroneous belief has certainly had a transformative, if largely nugatory effect on education in the last decade or so. I say nugatory because knowledge is only knowledge if it lives and breathes inside of us.
There’s a world of difference between knowledge – the stuff we think not just about, but with – and information. To make sense of the vast swathes of information available to us we need to know quite a lot. If you doubt this, consider what happens when you ask a student to look up an unfamiliar word in a dictionary: they may end up with five or six more they have to look up in order to understand the definition of the first. Some things we just need to know.
But in response to the apparent obsolescence of knowledge, schools started reinventing themselves as places where children would learn transferable skills which would allow them to navigate the shifting, uncertain world of the future. Maybe the tradition curriculum of school subjects has had its day, as tech guru, Sugata Mitra claims. Maybe all we have to do is teach kids how to use Google and they will magically teach themselves all they need to know? After all, most of what schools teach is a waste of time, it seems. According to Mitra, the Chinese and Americans “don’t bother about grammar at all”. Children don’t need to know how to spell, and “the less arithmetic you do in your head the better.”
Not on my Apple watch! Knowing where to find something is not the same as knowing it. What we know makes us who we are. Knowledge is what we both think with and about. You can’t think about something you don’t know – try it for a moment – and the more you know about a subject the more sophisticated your thoughts become. In order to critique the world we need to know as much as possible about its science, history, geography, languages, mathematics and culture.
There is nothing more philistine, more impoverished than reducing the curriculum to the little that’s visible through the narrow lens of children’s current interest and passing fancies. How do they know what they might need to know? And in any case, do we really want to educate the next generation merely in what they will need? Attempts to outsource education to the internet are misguided at best, dangerous at worst.
The one thing we can be reasonably sure of is that technology will surprise us. The Tomorrow’s World visions of flying cars and silver suits can be smilingly dismissed as caricature but we are routinely suckered by the same urge to predict. I have no idea how nanotechnology, virtual reality and 3D printing might affect the business of educating children, and neither does anyone else, no matter what they might tell you. I do, however, feel pretty sure that the current generation of edtech products won’t transform teaching any more than the last generation did. iPads are to laptops what interactive white boards are to blackboards; what data projectors are to OHPs; what photocopiers are to Banda printers; what paper was to the slate. Most technology used in education is just technology. It’s tech repurposed to make a fast buck flogging itself to starry-eyed school leaders. When real education technology eventually comes along, who know what effect it’ll have.
The future is definitely coming, but so far the present is just a quicker, more convenient version of the past. The future will certainly be different, but much of it will also be startlingly familiar.
In a recent post from Greg Ashman, he says
I am not against all Edtech. If it provides an efficient way of doing something and makes your life easier then that’s great. BUT WHEN HAS IT EVER DONE THIS?… We don’t need solutions in search of a problem. We need solutions to problems that we actuallyhaveand that are better and quicker than what we’re doing at the moment.