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‘Finding credible ways to nurture teacher talent may be more empowering to school staff than any amount of ed tech’

Last week’s Bett education conference benefited from a practical dose of reality, writes a former schools minister, but we should also look to adopt other ways of empowering teachers

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Last week was a blur of ed tech talk. The Education World Forum kicked off on Monday with education ministers from around the world meeting for three days. Tuesday offered Founders’ Factory’s more business-focused discussion on ed tech in Westminster, and then Wednesday saw Bett open at the ExCel. 

Did any of it offer anything new?

Bett itself was the usual staggering display of hardware. Last year’s 3D printer infatuation has given way to artificial intelligence and robots. By contrast, discussion seemed to focus on practical use of technology, rather than devices themselves.

The appetite for practical application of technology is strong from teachers. This was reflected in the discussion on ed tech business at Founders’ Factory. Entrepreneurs have naturally responded to demand to make teaching more efficient or easier. Many products seem rooted either in data insight to ease personalisation, or in self-directed knowledge recall by learners.

In a continued system of high stakes accountability and intense pressure around summative testing, this tech-based efficiency will be welcomed by many. But does it improve teaching?

Ministers at the World Forum that preceded Bett told me that they had been shocked at the antipathy to technology communicated by UK education ministers in their private meetings. If technology is not actually modifying or redefining pedagogy then those ministers may be right that the return on investment is limited, although that doesn’t excuse inviting ministers to London and then telling them it is all a waste of money! 

But is a more long-term view needed from the ed tech sector?

When I look at other industries, I see phases of technology adoption which move from efficiency – doing the same things more easily, quicker and cheaper – to personalisation. Data allows a tighter relationship with consumers, and products to be targeted more precisely at their need. Both of these are happening in ed tech. But in other sectors I also see co-production between consumers and producers of services, for example with the growth of social networking and the sharing economy.

Is ed tech doing enough to empower teachers? Resource-sharing sites are the beginnings of an answer to this question and as such I was delighted to be part of the launch of the Shakespeare super collection this week that will allow teachers to significantly augment and modify their teaching of these 400-year-old texts. 

The site brings together the teachers on TES’s resources site with the expertise of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the British Film Institute, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. If teachers simply want to augment their existing approach then content is available by play and by genre.  But if they want to look afresh and interpret through design or though themes across the canon, then that avenue is available too.

I would love to see more ed tech to empower teachers in this way, to connect and to enable them to find their own ways that suit their own needs and professionalism. All professionals need to keep learning, and normally that is best achieved by learning from each other.

In the same vein, this interesting article on teacher training in high performing jurisdictions caught my eye. In the UK we have moved to a teaching school model with mixed success. It would appear, however, that this is the right direction of travel if we look at success elsewhere.

However, we are yet to move to a full model of “master teacher”. Career progression in teaching is characterised by moving out of the classroom and into leadership. Isn’t it time that we embedded a new career option by accrediting and rewarding “master teachers” alongside teaching schools?

We all know that struggling schools include great teachers. We know that schools may become outstanding in part because of some great teachers, who may then move on. Rewarding mastery and deploying it in ITT and CPD offers credible and practical ways of nurturing teacher talent. That may be more empowering to teachers than all the ed tech at Bett.

Jim Knight is chief education adviser to the TES’s parent company, TES Global, and a former Labour minister of state for schools

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