Around the turn of the century, I left a full-time teaching job at one of the few genuinely world-class schools in the UK to work in the education technology industry. I did so because I could see that technology was going to have a huge impact on schools, and rather than be on the receiving end I wanted to be in the vanguard, making sure that what was designed and sold to schools was educationally credible.
I failed. Fifteen years later, a hat-trick of straws in the space of a week broke this weary camel’s back, so I’ve decided to give a firm blast on the whistle about that experience.
The first straw was witnessing the most mawkish and expensive video imaginable from an education technology company marketing its classroom monitoring software. It devotes almost five minutes not to teaching anyone anything, nor even to monitoring a classroom, but to depicting a lengthy sentimental farewell to a science teacher on his last day. Ersatz Mr Chips for the bog-standard generation.
The second straw came when I was preparing for a meeting with an organisation that, in my opinion, propounds the widely held fallacy that technology must always be good for education. Nesta was the quintessential “education, education, education” project, immoderately funded with a £250 million endowment from the National Lottery. In less bountiful times it has reinvented itself as an equally affluent charity.
It has always had a major interest in the education sector, and one of the current projects Nesta is especially proud of is an online literacy resource called Movellas. In Nesta’s own words: “By creating a community of exclusively teenage writers, Movellas aims to improve literacy skills, and increase enjoyment of both reading and writing.”
Even a cursory read of Movellas’ most popular stories suggests to me that the project does little to enhance literacy and everything to nurture lurid fantasy, teenage obsession and nescient writing. While it is possible that the scheme may go some way to achieving the stated aim of increasing enjoyment of both reading and writing, Movellas looks to me rather like what might happen when you take professional, skilled teachers out of the education technology equation.
This is, of course, just the subjective opinion of an experienced teacher and educationalist, but to my mind the teenagers who use it in all innocence deserve better. I urge you to have a look and form your own opinion.
The third and final straw was when my daughter came home on the first day of term and explained how all her teachers now had iPads with every child’s photo on them so they could easily manage their new classes. And the reason why it was the final straw exposes perfectly what is wrong with the education technology industry.
On the face of it, to anyone who doesn’t teach it might seem a terrific idea to give every teacher an iPad preloaded with photos of new pupils and any other information they might need. But the reality is that by doing so, especially with newly qualified teachers, you are actively undermining their ability to teach.
All due respect
Almost 20 years of teaching in schools, and almost as long as a consultant around the world, have taught me that there is no one way to be a great teacher. You can be a disciplinarian or as gentle as a lamb, hilariously funny or even marginally barking and do the job equally well. But all great teachers share one quality that is utterly non-negotiable, because without it they will never teach effectively: their pupils respect them.
So how do you quickly and effectively gain children’s respect when you’ve never met them before? I learned very early in my career that knowing who they are really matters, which is why, whenever I taught a new class, I would make sure that by the end of the first lesson I had memorised every child’s name and face. I would finish the lesson by going around the room and demonstrating to the children that I had done so, and I can assure you that they were always appreciative and impressed, because, sadly, only the best teachers ever bothered. The best headteacher I ever worked for interviewed every single child at his new school. It took him months.
So when you give a teacher an iPad with all those useful photos on, what you are really doing is giving them an excuse not to command the respect they need to be a good teacher. How many in my daughter’s school, I wonder, will still be relying on that iPad to match a name to a face in six months’ time? And what does that communicate to the child who has to sit there knowing that their teacher doesn’t remember them?
In the 15 years since I left full-time teaching, I have seen this scenario acted out again and again in the education technology business. On one side of the equation, a canny sales or marketing team doing their job and, on the other, the gullible purse-holder. Yet the one professional whose views are never, ever factored in is the genuinely knowledgeable, highly skilled teacher.
Technology businesses and techno-lobbyists have long appeared to recruit technology zealots rather than professional teachers because they better serve the needs of their marketing strategies. Until this practice is abandoned, technology investment in schools will continue not just to waste millions but to actually erode great teaching.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author