What every teacher needs to know about… Edtech

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 21.48.23

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.

waves_of_innovationThe 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.

Coda

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.

Seconded.

13 Responses to What every teacher needs to know about… Edtech

  1. Adam says:

    My personal anecdotal evidence is that when students find “facts” (for example to answer question x) from the internet they interpret the rhythms of a paragraph on the internet to figure out which sentence they can lift to answer the question. That isn’t understanding. It isn’t knowledge. It is pure syntax devoid of semantic meaning. John Searle’s chinese room argument is prescient here.

  2. Hmm, I mostly agree with this but there are advantages technology can have over teachers. An imidiate answer to a student question for example. No need to waste time searching a book, only to find it doesn’t have the answer. The teacher is too busy talking to other students, the question is lost and the knowledge goes unformed. I don’t really agree with Sugatra Mitra’s views either but with detailed quality content, better structure, more relevance to the curriculum technology can free up teacher time and enhance learning. I am speaking from the perspective of science learning, maybe different in other subjects.

    • David Didau says:

      If you’re point is that technology can help us better store and organise knowledge, then yes, of course, you’re right. This can be a boon. My issue comes with the idea that the internet helps us learn.

  3. Technology has been transforming education for as long as either have been in existence.

    I think you are describing evolution, not transformation. Is using the term transforming accurate from this perspective?

    Yes, there may have been some key moments such as the invention of writing or the printing press that had a huge impact over time, but I think that, in practice, the impact of technology is better described as gradual development and iterative improvement. Think more paper improving on clay/wax or fountain pens/ballpoint pens improving on ink-wells and quills. I think you make a similar point in your penultimate paragraph, which therefore appears to contradict your opening two paragraphs. Which is it that you don’t like esolution, revolution or both?

    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 is indeed an erroneous belief. I agree entirely. But you appear to suggest that this is how what all advocates of technology use in schools think. Mitra’s theories are simply not representative of most of us who think knowing when and how to use tech effectively and how to teach well are one and the same thing.

    I understand it suits your thesis to tarnish us all with the same brush, but I think your readers need to understand that the vast majority of us simply advocate a better understanding among the profession of how and when to use technology effectively and appropriate to support teaching and learning both at school and beyond. Hopefully this is not too contentious.

    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.

    There is no obsolescense of knowledge. It remains as important as ever. Please name me a school that thinks knowing stuff is not important and actively promotes the acquisition skills but not knowledge.

    In any case, technology can support the acquisition of knowledge as much as it supports the acquisition of new skills. Polarising the debate surrounding the use of technology along the knowledge/skills philosophical divide is not even accurate to begin with, never mind helpful.

    Most of us who use technology regularly and effectively do so not because we think we’re preparing children for an uncertain future, we do so because it prepares them for the present, by supporting them in the acquisition of knowledge and, yes, skills. Otherwise, what is the point?

    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.

    Your rhetoric here is high on pathos but low on logos. Suggesting that this is how technology is solely used is simply wrong. Yes, some may do this. And yes, they are wrong to do so. As you are fond of saying “anything can be used badly”. On the other hand – and I hope I’m not being too controversial here – maybe, just maybe, it could be that technology can be used well to support teaching and learning in more pragmatic ways.

    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

    .

    Precisely. I couldn’t agree more. Lack of knowledge is where critics of technology in schools often fall down.

    David, I’m not for a minute suggesting the use of technology schools is great. There is much we can do better. However, linking technology to the ‘obsolescence of knowledge’, the surrender to children’s ‘passing fancies’ and corporate greed (God forbid companies try to come up with products and profit from their sale!) is probably a bit philistine and impoverished. Might I suggest it is probably a little bit more complex than that? It’s just a thought. 🙂

    • David Didau says:

      More complex? Yes, of course. This was a 900 word article for a magazine.

      And of course technology can be used well. My gripe is that usually it’s not and even when it is, what is the cost? What’s the cost of the choices unmade and the decisions untaken?

      I’m not against evolution, obviously. That would be like being against tides. But history has taught us that often revolution results in something worse than what is over thrown.

  4. David, your last comments show clearly that you are not against the use of technology in teaching. I agree – how do we know of the impact of these things unless more studies can show the effect and impact? We can all find literature which will prove the one or the other: success and/or failure of edtech. The difficulty is that studies will always need to take into account a particular cohort, a particular teacher etc. in order to repeat the results. I’m aware that we’re often currently relying on learning with edtech to engage students, to give them just in time access, and to give opportunities for learning at a level where students operate on a daily basis. That said, I’m off to construct a topic brief for my critical study on an aspect of edtech!

    • David Didau says:

      I take your point Kerry but there are plenty of things we’ve decided are too expensive, impractical or theoretically unsound to research. All I’m suggestings is that because edtech is plausible and exciting-looing, we overlook the expense & impracticality.

  5. […] på 100 år. Midten av 1900-tallet lå den på 25 år. I dag ligger den på noe over 1 år (http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/8909/). Vi skjønner derfor at noe kunnskap må lukes bort. Elevene kan ikke lære alt […]

  6. Lucy Pilkington says:

    I agree with your points about knowledge, but I think you take a very short sighted view of what technology can be used for. You seem to be limiting your comments to children using technology only to browse the internet for information. If that is all it is ever used for then I take your point completely; it’s pointless. However, technology when used properly and thoughtfully can make learning really worthwhile. You just need to use your imagination a little…

  7. […] 9th January – What every teacher needs to know about… Edtech […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: