iLiteracy Part 2: Of Mice and Moans

9th June 2013 at 21:33


I had a nice reaction to yesterday's post, which is always pleasing because writers famously write for themselves with the door closed, then edit for the world with the door open. It was about an uncritically positive report on the BBC last week regarding a new digitally-driven literacy program used in a couple of Swansea schools. You couldn't have bought the kind of terrific press that this story represented. Read as it was typed, anyone would have thought that two Welsh primary schools had undergone a literacy revolution by the implementation of iPads and other electronic devices throughout the curriculum.

My gut feeling towards this was the same as towards any claim of a magic bullet - where's the beef? What evidence substantiates this claim? In education I find that extraordinary claims are often made without concomitant extraordinary evidence to substantiate it. I particularly find this in the groovy world of e-learning. It's no coincidence: the potential market for educational hardware suppliers is enormous. Better still, it's a market barely mined. There are a lot of very, very interested parties indeed waiting in the wings with order pads.

But like James Randi, the tireless octogenarian sceptic, I'm always happy to be shown proof that ghosts exist. In a way, I kind of want to believe, Mulder. I'd love to be shown that some new method, device or technique could accelerate the learning of children. Who wouldn't want that? The problem is that such innovations are damn rare. Education isn't medicine in the 20th century, rocketing into new stratospheres  of efficacy. Very little that is novel has proven to be especially useful. Claims of the enormous potential of IT in classrooms never fails to excite, but rarely successfully convinces.  

That was what my blog was about yesterday - not the school, not the people working there. I was careful to be clear on this: I haven't seen any evidence to back up the claims, and I don't think the experiences of these two schools has done anything to dissuade me, but that was all.

Some people agreed with me; some took offence, claiming that I was in some way attacking the hard work of the staff. Well, you can read for yourself. The schools received days of uniformly positive coverage; in order to balance and criticise that coverage, I had to point out the subject, and therefore the schools, that I was talking about. It would be an odd piece to write saying, 'Aren't digital classrooms unproven?' and pretend that one of the big edu-stories this week wasn't about digital classrooms, especially given that my opinion isn't exactly the most popular one.

It was also criticised for not being positive enough. I'm not sure I know what that word means when people use it. I think they mean 'you don't agree with me'. To me, one of the big dangers facing education is the unnecessary encumbrance of the classroom by expensive tech. I think it's this decade's Brain Gym, I'm not kidding. To me, when something threatens education of children - and remember, it is always, always poor children who suffer most - I want to contradict. That, to me, is a positive thing to say, and do. It actually makes me feel like writing is something worthwhile, rather than merely enjoyable.

So, I wasn't playing the player, I was playing the ball. No foul, ref. One of my main points was that I think that the reason some schools thrive, why some kids thrive, is down to the passion and skill of the staff, which is what I think the case is here. The literacy levels in these schools are marvellous, something to be proud of. I think the Head and his team deserve medals for what they've done. I just don't think it was the tech that achieved it, because there's no evidence that it was that, and not one of a raft of other simultaneous interventions that caused it. No evidence, no explanatory mechanisms, just gut feeling. My beef is with the uncritical response of the media, who are welcome to give me a tinkle any time they feel like writing up a puff piece. My beef is with the increasingly unchallengeable view that next generation classrooms will be heavily digitalised.

One of the best things about this was the response of the Head, who contacted me this afternoon after having been copied into numerous tweets sent to me (now that's personalising things). His response was, predictably, measured and encouraging. No indication of offence at all, simply a desire to show what his school had done by inviting. me to go see what they do. Now that's confidence: like a teacher happy to be observed at any moment. That's a man who knows his school has nothing to fear from any observer, which is wonderful. Oddly enough I perfectly embrace the right of schools to teach as they wish, as long as the results are great and the kids come out with a demonstrable education.

But when claims are made - and they were in the press - that one method used in one or two schools should be rolled out to hundred of schools and thousands of children, well that's when we need proof by demonstration; data; science in other words. You just can't press the money button on such an enormous project without proof. It is, after all, public money, not a love-in with the estate of Steve Jobs. I am delighted when any school succeeds; their  victory is a victory for us all, and worthy of exploration.

But that's what it needs: investigation, and analysis. And that means critical friends. *points two thumbs at chest* That's me, incidentally.

The digital classroom has yet to convince.