Book review: Teachers vs Tech?

This meticulously researched book makes a case for an education system assisted by computers – but it must be grounded in teacher expertise, says Sean Dagony-Clark
5th March 2020, 11:26am


Book review: Teachers vs Tech?
Teachers Vs Tech Front Cover
Teachers vs Tech?: The case for an ed tech revolution

Author: Daisy Christodoulou
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Details: 232pp; £17.99
ISBN 978-1382004121

Every educator should read this book. Not just those involved in educational technology: every educator. 

In Teachers vs Tech?: The case for an ed tech revolution, Daisy Christodoulou conducts a masterclass in learning theory and its application. Its breadth, depth, and nuance make it relevant, regardless of an educator’s field or their current use of technology. 

Christodoulou builds a meticulously researched and reasoned case for her vision of an educational system grounded in teacher expertise and supplemented by the analytical powers of computers. It is a vision we all should follow. 

The gap between learning research and educational practice is a major theme of the book, and rightly so. Much reform in education ignores scientific research, instead focusing on what Christodoulou calls the “intuitively true”. 

This results in well-intentioned but misguided educational approaches that confuse “the end goal of learning with the method of learning”, and lack of adoption of other techniques that have been repeatedly proven valuable. In other words, it means some popular educational techniques actually work against learning. 

The trap of intuitive best practice

This trap of intuitive best practice is endemic in education. The notion of a “constructivist pedagogy” is appealing: if constructivism is the most accurate description of how people learn, why not apply it in a classroom? 

Christodoulou references a 2006 meta-review that quashes that notion, and argues in favour of the combination of guided instruction and directed practice that has proven most effective for learning. And yet,14 years later, such compelling research has not sounded the death knell of student-directed classroom learning. Perhaps this book will help. 

Christodoulou devotes some time to examining big-business educational philosophies, such as those from Google, which have become widely adopted in schools. Google guides teachers to avoid teaching facts and instead focus on helping students to learn techniques for finding and validating facts. 

This seems intuitively to make sense: in an increasingly digitised world, isn’t our ability to find and think critically about information more important than any set of facts? 

Christodoulou skilfully deconstructs this idea: critical thinking requires seeing connections between facts. Looking up new facts creates a high cognitive load and overwhelms working memory; deep thinking and complex learning rely on information already in long-term memory to reduce the load on working memory. 

Therefore the road to creating critical thinkers starts with factual knowledge, not an awareness of how to find it. It is a complex argument, but absolutely valid.

Christodoulou’s work covers so much useful ground that it is difficult to mention it all. 

Important topics include the differences between novice and expert learners, and what that implies for education. There is a thorough debunking of “learning styles”, the incorrect notion that individuals have personal best methods of learning and that their education should be tailored to meet those needs. 

There is also a compelling argument against “authentic” learning experiences and in favour of more focused practice, as well as many examples of technologies that support research-based learning. Everything she discusses is thoroughly backed by research, and her insights are clear and compelling.

An awareness of the capacity for distraction

I have a few disagreements with this book. While they are minuscule compared with the immensely valuable information in it, a couple are worthy of mention. 

One arises from a section on smart devices and our difficulty controlling the distractions they carry. The evidence Christodoulou cites against multitasking is certainly well researched and valid: numerous studies show that humans are terrible at it. 

But her suggested solutions - to ban devices or build ones with less distraction - overlook a third possibility: teaching students to manage their current devices to reduce or eliminate distractions. 

This does not mean mastering one’s attention or becoming better at multitasking, each of which Christodoulou rightfully dismisses. Rather, it means inculcating in students an awareness of the capacity for distraction and helping them learn how to protect their ability to focus. Teaching this to our children could save us (and them) from the constant digital task-switching that plagues today’s adults. 

It will not be learned by banning technology or by using single-purpose devices; it must become an intended outcome of our educational system. 

A second issue is related to Christodoulou’s discussion of computer algorithms as a means of supplementing teacher expertise. 

It is true that a teacher’s evaluation and assessment of students can be subjective, and that combining teacher judgment with algorithmic analysis could make evaluation and assessment more consistent. 

But consistency is not necessarily objectivity; algorithms themselves can be biased. This can arise from biases of the programmer or from machine learning based on biased data. I am in full agreement that relying on algorithms to aid consistency in evaluation is a worthy goal, but it is a goal we must pursue cautiously. 

As we become more reliant on computing to supplement teacher expertise, we must also learn to evaluate and counter the bias that can creep into computer algorithms.

These are minor issues with an overwhelmingly important - and useful - book. Christodoulou’s research and logic are excellent, and her vision for educational reform is well worth adopting. 

Her central thesis of supplementing teacher expertise with computing power is backed by an exhaustive survey of research on learning, and illustrated by numerous examples of current technologies that support her vision and can be adopted immediately. 

She depicts teachers providing guided instruction and expert judgement, and computers assisting through diagnostic evaluation, pattern recognition, adaptive learning and broad and consistent analysis, which enhances the evaluative abilities of the teacher. And throughout, she highlights effective teaching methods by connecting educational research to educational practice. 

Her book is a roadmap to better learning. I recommend it to any educator at any stage of their career.

Sean Dagony-Clark, a former teacher and educational technologist with 14 years of experience in a K-12 school, is the director of education at HackerUSA. He tweets @dagonyclark

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