Computers in schools: a scandalous waste?

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a deep conceptual understanding of how computers function, so that they are not limited to using applications which go out of date every couple of years, but rather can see – and use – the potential of technology to invent answers to problems that face our world.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.

6 comments

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    • Danny Bielik on March 29, 2016 at 7:39 am
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    It’s easy to scream “luddite”, but at the same time you can’t imagine history will be kind to the view that computers have no place in the classroom. If nothing else, this should stimulate a proper discussion on appropriate combinations of teacher interaction and technology.

    In NSW, I’m pleased to say that the Digital Education Revolution spawned an IT infrastructure that will stand the test of time and last much longer than the obsolete laptops that stole all the headlines.

    Danny Bielik
    The Courses and Careers Show
    Every Wednesday night at 9:20pm AEST radio 2GB, 3AW, 4BC, 2CC and 53 stations around Australia and streaming at 2GB.com

  1. Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner was one of the very first to raise alarm over information overload, stating that such overabundance of data was “confusing and harmful” to the mind. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Gessner’s theory, it may be because he exclaimed this in 1565 in response to the printing press. Perhaps he was just wanting to echo Socrates’ sentiments, who, when lamenting the advent of the written word, warned how it would “”create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.”

    I have the upmost respect for Dr Vallance and one cannot deny his credentials in the field of education. I preface my criticism of his initiative (if that’s the right term for retracting a previous initiative) with such praise to acknowledge that Vallance’s work is evident in the sustained results of Sydney Grammar.

    However, for a school to address the needs of the 21st Century learner, one must surely acknowledge the tertiary world and workforce that schools are charged to prepare them for. As nice as it would be to turn the modern classroom in to an incubator of traditional pedagogy, where vigorous debate and the fountain pen reign supreme, immune from the glow of the tablet screen, I believe it would be a disservice to the student of 2016 and beyond. If students are prohibited from using laptops (beyond the lab) whilst at school, then schools are not given the opportunity to teach young people how to use their devices for learning in an effective and meaningful way. If we create a barrier between work and recreation, with technology on one side, then how will students manage technology effectively once they leave the school gates?

    Should we deny students access to immersive learning opportunities such as collaborating with students from across the globe, accessing rich data and information from a wealth of resources or working out how to develop and realise ideas creatively with software?

    I have focused my career on the impact technology has on adolescent learning. When I commenced this journey, I was in the camp of ‘laptops are ruining our classrooms’ and, through research and consultation, have continued to evolve my perspective to one that now acknowledges that technology integration is all about balance. I concur with Danny Bielik that a discussion about the combinations of teacher interaction and technology is needed. We certainly should not assume that great technology will ever replace a great teacher, as Dr Wright highlights. However, we should also not assume that the absence of technology makes a great student.

    Karl Sebire
    Ed.D Candidate | Educator | http://www.karlsebire.com

  2. Your title is very provocative and could easily lead to someone assuming computers are bad for schools, but fortunately the message is not really “anti-technology”. After all, how can we ignore the world of instant information/communication and phenomenal tools to synthesise information and concepts now so easily available to all?
    Greg Whitby’s book Educating Gen WiFi raises the point that students are already arriving to school with their number one tool for communicating and learning in their handbag or pocket – only to hand it over for ‘safe keeping’ while they are at school. He poses the question to all schools about how appropriate it is to ‘ban’ technology when it is all around us. I agree we must raise a call for caution about the over-use of technology in schools, but not to the point where we pretend to live in the past. As Dr Wright (and Dr Valance) points out, the guidance of the teacher is an important point along the pathway of learning, and indeed learning extends beyond our classrooms. Taking a stand against technology is not really going to lead students to use it more wisely. Instilling a love of learning that is appropriate to their interests and needs should be the impetus in curriculum design and learning strategies in schools. If the computer plays a part in this, then let it take its rightful place.

    Schools should never see themselves as trying to keep up with the world. We have an important role to play as we consider the real and perceived needs of the future and step up to the immense responsibility to follow the child rather society trends. Technology is there for the older students who are ready to connect with the world and learn through a variety of methods. That does not require BYOD programs, but access and recognition of the immense possibilities in technology should be embraced as part of our offer to the students of our schools. For the younger children (preschool and primary) let them touch, build, feel, talk and explore this incredible world.
    Bill Conway
    Principal
    Montessori East

      • hmw on April 28, 2016 at 10:53 am
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      • Reply

      Thank you, Bill, for these thoughtful comments. I look forward to our paths crossing again – do keep in touch! I am actually out in Sydney again for a couple of weeks soon, and will be talking at St Mark’s Darling Point, amongst other places. Best wishes Helen

  3. Somehow we can computer is waste but in some context it makes the education more modern and interesting. Also I also support your fact that School education is about discussion, lectures given by the faculties.
    – Jeni

  4. Yeah I agree with you. It makes the education more interesting but we cannot deny the fact that nothing can replaces a great teacher.

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