Technology as a tool

Technology as a tool

Sydney Grammar School Headmaster, Dr Richard Malpass, addresses the negative effects of too much reliance on technological devices.

I was struck recently by an archived article I read from The Sydney Morning Herald, advocating as it did the importance of computer-centred teaching and learning in the classroom. As it happens, the article was written by a (then) student espousing the value of such technology, claiming that “one of the roles of a 21st century school is to equip students in the best way possible for life outside the classroom. In today’s technology-reliant world, learning how to effectively learn and work with technology is an absolute necessity”.

Certainly, proficiency in an age of ubiquitous devices is essential, and perhaps inevitable, regardless of the approaches adopted in the school classroom. Nonetheless, it seems that those two discrete elements (the ubiquity of devices and the life of the classroom) have increasingly been merged in the forward thinking of so many educational leaders. A somewhat convenient logic has asserted that the existence of unprecedented technological possibilities will ipso facto transform the classroom to achieve unprecedented teaching and learning.

This aspirationally crafted and technologically progressive “classroom” is unsurprisingly termed the “21st century classroom” by many, and its potential is frequently projected as so impressive as to dwarf the relatively limited classrooms of former eras, bereft (as they might now be seen) of our access to instantaneous online information and effortlessly interconnected approaches to work, general communication and limitlessly fascinating diversions.

Consequently, discussions in the field of education in recent years are thus tightly linked to the role to be played by laptops, iPads and BYODs (bring your own devices) in that envisaged classroom. A question facing schools across recent years seems to have been how to integrate the use of laptops, iPads and BYODs into the effective (or rather the more effective) running of our classrooms.

The question less frequently asked seems to be the more important and pre-determining one: how is the introduction of this technology into a classroom going to lead to a fundamentally more meaningful learning experience for our children? A school needs to be clear on what it believes is the best learning environment for its students.

Laptops and iPads are powerfully engaging devices, but that does not in turn automatically amount to them being better tools for children to learn subject knowledge and develop cognitively progressive skills.

We should guard against the risk of losing focus on the essential qualities of a great classroom (whatever the century), and the core dynamic between a fine teacher and his or her students. It has been often said that students don’t in every case easily “learn subjects” but that in so many cases they “learn teachers”, a seemingly flippant but often highly relevant reflection of the primacy of the teacher’s too frequently underestimated role as the inspirer and engager of the young people in their classroom.

Over the years, I’ve been privileged to witness and learn from a very wide range of teachers across five major schools in Australia and the United Kingdom. As an observer of so very many lessons delivered by other teachers, it has become abundantly clear that the most effective lessons were those in which the teacher’s presence, his or her subject knowledge, that palpable passion and communicative warmth in sharing the experience of their topic simply inspired the room.

By contrast, there seems to be a trend in some recent thinking about pedagogy that the teacher should take something of a backward step, and largely cease to be the focus of the lesson; rather, he or she should be a facilitator.

Instead, the focus should move to “student-centred” learning, a branding that seemingly presumes to dismiss other classrooms as monolithic chalk and talk.

Student-centred learning is at its peak, I would argue, when a child is shielded from distractions and utterly focused on the idea-rich classroom that such an engaging teacher has brought to academic life. Thus, I do not think that such student-centric learning can best come through the teacher being limited to a facilitator who takes a back seat to the laptop, instead alerting those students to websites and setting them projects to pursue.

I fear that too little consideration has been given to what I’ll term the “lived experience of the classroom” when educational leaders have seen fit to impose iPads and laptops on every child. When I talk of that lived experience of the classroom, I am thinking of a number of aspects.

First, sustained student attention is essential. Any teacher knows that the very first duty is to have the attention of your students, whatever their age and whatever the topic. What is profoundly sought is the dedicated and uninterrupted communication between teacher and student, free from diversion and unnecessary distraction.

The teacher in decades past who berated the boy for mindlessly doodling in class was bringing him in line for becoming distracted. By contrast, the modern device, notwithstanding its almost incalculable internet reach, is nonetheless the triumph of potentially near-infinite distraction with the temptations of social media and the sheer multiplicity of information on offer instantaneously and ever-temptingly in quick view.

Recent research from the US has offered the following: “Online content is more stimulating than traditional classroom distracters (e.g., passing notes or talking), and interferes even more with the student’s ability to learn material. Results showed that students who used laptops in class spent considerable time multitasking and that the laptop use posed a significant distraction to both users and fellow students”.

Secondly, how much consideration (and indeed meaningful research) has been achieved to assert the cognitive advantages of such devices in the classroom? Much discussion seems to have skated effortlessly over the impact on learning techniques for those children who now click and type as opposed to those who once handwrote and drew. These are fundamentally different experiences, and such experiences are enormously significant to the quality of learning for a student, of any age.

Furthermore, research psychologists, when exploring the move away from traditional rote-learning towards internet-derived factual knowledge, concluded: “The advent of the ‘information age’ seems to have created a generation of people who feel they know more than ever before — when their reliance on the Internet means that they may know ever less about the world around them”.

For some time, research has suggested that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. These correlational studies have focused on the capacity of laptops to distract and to invite multitasking.
Experimental tests of immediate retention of class material have also found that Internet browsing impairs performance. These findings are important but relatively unsurprising, given the literature on decrements in performance when multitasking or task switching.

I think Nicholas Carr of The Wall Street Journal is right to question “what happens to our minds when we allow a tool such dominion over our perception and cognition”.

Thirdly, from an importantly pastoral perspective, what might be the impact on our children and their social experience of school life if all were accustomed to classrooms in which the laptop screen and internet were their essential daily diet? One of the chief delights of being involved with the life of our students is to witness and be part of their inexhaustible thirst for discussion and debate, perhaps the key facet of our collective intellectual life. The opportunities for exciting learning through various computer and device-based approaches will continue to evolve and should be adopted by teachers as they see appropriate.

Thinking teleologically, we should remind ourselves that laptops, iPads and the like were not necessarily designed to further the profession of education. There may well be an intersection between their various offerings and the best of educational practice, but the craft of our teachers and their classrooms together, with their exciting Socratic dimensions, have more than a little life in them yet.