Nothing replaces a great teacher: this is the premise which stands behind the recent comments by Dr John Vallance, Head of Sydney Grammar School, that computers in schools are a waste of money and have done nothing to improve grades. Teaching, he says, is about “interaction between people, about discussion, about conversation … If you’re lucky enough to have a good teacher and a motivating group of classmates, it would seem a waste to introduce anything that’s going to be a distraction from the benefits that kind of social context will give you.”
He is right – the power of human relationships lies at the heart of successful learning. Children learn from the experience and knowledge of wise teachers, but – perhaps more importantly – children are inspired and guided by their teachers so that they can develop fresh understandings and create new knowledge, so that they in time will surpass their teachers. Teaching is highly complex, nuanced and deeply responsive to the individual needs of the students – so much so that teaching is not readily reduced to a series of actions, but rather is better seen holistically in terms of what it actually achieves: broadly, ‘outcomes’ – although this term often fails to communicate the true breadth and long-lasting, empowering effects of teaching. Teachers teach by using every fibre of their being, and successful students will concentrate on absorbing the messages that their teachers communicate – verbal, non-verbal, intellectual, emotional, philosophical … with calls to action and calls to reflection. When a great teacher is at work, and where the school and class environment supports space for thought, learning and growth, then the draw of an open computer screen, taking attention away from the human interaction taking place, is more than just a distraction – it is a positive hindrance.
Ah, but what of the importance of technology in the wider world? Surely schools should be ensuring that young people are able to work fluently with all sorts of technology, so that they are not disadvantaged when they leave school? Indeed, young people do need to develop technological fluency – research skills, communication skills and a deep conceptual understanding of how computers function, so that they are not limited to using applications which go out of date every couple of years, but rather can see – and use – the potential of technology to invent answers to problems that face our world. This kind of technological fluency demands an experiential approach to learning – hours spent playing with technology, and finding out what it can and can’t do. Guidance is important, and schools can certainly provide this, but not all learning can and should take place in schools – there simply aren’t the hours in the day. Partnerships between school, home and wider social networks are often under-utilised in ensuring that all young people have the means and support to access this kind of wider learning. Sydney Grammar expects all of its pupils to use computers at home, for instance: schools can be enablers of learning about and through technology without requiring its use in the classroom.
Dr Vallance notes that the (expensive) drive in schools and education departments to bring computers into every classroom has contributed significantly to lining the pockets of tech-giants such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Apple, and he is ascerbic in his observations on this: “I think when people come to write the history of this period in education … this investment in classroom technology is going to be seen as a huge fraud.” Whether it is fraud or misplaced enthusiasm, it is certainly the case that technology is often perceived as a panacea to the ills of education; and panaceas, of course, are usually illusory. Successful education needs – and always will need – successful teachers and educational leaders who are able to work with young people to give them what they need at that moment in time to help them grow and develop. It is an interesting thought – if the money that was currently spent on computers in schools was diverted to recruiting, educating and supporting teachers, what might we be able to achieve in our schools?
We are where we are: we cannot go backwards, but only forwards. We cannot change past education policies. This does not mean, however, that we have to remain committed to programmes which drain resources to little effect. Technology is unquestionably a potentially amazing tool: a strong and robust technological infrastructure in schools can help facilitate learning through effective administration, intelligent tracking of students, and opens the school to global communication, with all that this can bring for students and the whole school community. Any technology used at any time in any school must, however, be shown to be of real value – not simply because it is the latest technology, but because – demonstrably – it enables greater, deeper learning. We are wise if we challenge our current assumptions in this regard.
And we are wise, too, if we remember that nothing – nothing – replaces a great teacher.
Decoding Your 21st Century Daughter: Available here.