As a scientists, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords, Baroness Susan Greenfield (CBE) has an extensive and varied education, but her favourite topics include how emerging technologies influence the brain – a subject that is of particular interest to educators.
Due to speak later this year at EduTECH, Baroness Greenfield will present on the topic ‘How the digital world will change the way we think and learn’. Seizing the opportunity, Education Matters put in a call to discuss the future of technology in the classroom with Baroness Greenfield.
One of the topics high on our interview list relates to the push towards promoting STEM subjects in Australian classrooms, and in particular with a number of experts predicting that coding will soon become synonymous to literacy skills. Baroness Greenfield, however, is skeptical about these ideas.
“The word ‘literacy’ is very emotive, I think,” she said. “You can become skilled in coding and many other similar tasks, but literacy implies an understanding and application to a wide variety of life’s aspects. To say someone would be literate in computing and robotics means something much narrower than the way we apply it to reading.”
“Coding doesn’t open up an understanding of the world in the way books do.”
Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that technology is changing rapidly, and often ends up having unintended consequences for the classroom paradigm, but Baroness Greenfield doesn’t think educators need to feel like their losing touch or struggling to keep up.
“The crucial issue that’s often forgotten is asking yourself, ‘What do I want to achieve?’. Until you know that, it’s hard to identify if you’re achieving anything. Most educators would agree that the focus is still very much on teaching kids to give the right answers to specific questions, but I don’t personally believe that’s ever been the real objective of education. Rather, it’s about facilitating students’ abilities to join up the dots in new ways, to foster confidence in new ideas – and that can only be achieved through inspirational teaching.”
Rather than replacing the work of a good teacher in any way, Baroness Greenfield believes that technology fills the role of an “adjunct” rather than an alternative, and that inspirational teachers will therefore find inspirational ways to engage with children via technology. But, she stresses, we’re yet to see the full impact of the digital generation.
“People talk about millenials, but we have to remember that Facebook only arrived around 2006,” she said. “That means the generation that are truly immersed in the digital world are still at school. Once they graduate and start taking part in the workforce, then we’ll begin to see the real impacts of digital disruption, in my opinion.”
While change is inevitable in some respects, Baroness Greenfield is quick to point out that the changes we see are nevertheless mediated by the current generation and how we shape education decisions and policy as a guide for future generations. As such, there are a few key issues she’s particularly keen to address before they become larger problems.
“Teachers continue to be overworked and underpaid in most places in the world, with many leaving the professions as a result. There’s too much regulation and so the career is no longer an attractive scenario. People need to feel relaxed and happy if they’re to do a job well over a long period of time.
“Ultimately, the notional of the teacher/pupil classroom will never change,” she said. “The best way to learn is for someone to teach you. For example, I taught medical students for many years within a traditional Oxford/Cambridge teaching system of question and answer. Just like the Ancient Greek dialogues – that’s how you develop ideas, that’s how you develop teaching that should never change. You could use screens or other technologies to facilitate that relationship, but you can’t move away from what is a very exciting human interaction.”
EduTECH will take place from 30 May – 31 May, 2016 at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre this year. See the website for further details.