'Plato wanted to ban books from the classroom. Should we ban technology?'

Educational technology can be transformative, but only in the hands of great teachers, writes former schools minister Jim Knight

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Children are born learning.  Adults teach children. 

Often adults teach children using the tools that are part of everyday life. Some tools can be dangerous and adults learn to teach children about how to use the tools safely.

Books and pens are tools. Once they were technology. At some point they became so everyday that they ceased to be technology. 

Today we call computers and mobile phones technology. As I go about my day-to-day existence almost everyone I see is using technology. 

It seems logical that we should teach children how to use the tools of technology and how to use them safely.

But on Tuesday I woke up to headlines like Frequent use of school computers impairs learning, finds international OECD study, or Research strikes another blow to computer use in lessons and Computers in schools may do more harm than good

I’ve followed this issue for some time. Maybe this was a great new study telling us something new. The long-standing research says that technology can significantly improve education outcomes if pedagogy is changed so that the tools are used effectively. Teachers need training in new technology, and its strategic implementation needs to be well led at a school level.

So I looked at the report, using my technology. I read the executive summary and the foreword written by the OECD's director of education, Andreas Schleicher.

The report looks at Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) performance by country and compares it to the intensity of computer use in education. The core finding is the “Pisa results show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education.”

Hence the headlines.

However if you read on there are four “critical observations”:

  • The foundation skills required in a digital environment can and should be taught.
  • Improve equity in education first – prioritise reading and maths over digital skills.
  • Teachers, parents and students should be alerted to the possible harmful aspects of internet use.
  • To improve the effectiveness of investments in technology, learn from experience – ie, learn how to best teach using the technology.

I can’t argue with these observations and they reflect other studies.

The summary concludes with:

“One interpretation of these findings is that it takes educators time and effort to learn how to use technology in education while staying firmly focused on student learning. Meanwhile, online tools can help teachers and school leaders exchange ideas and inspire each other, transforming what used to be an individual’s problem into a collaborative process. In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.”

Having discovered that the OECD report simply confirmed what we already knew – that just putting new technology in classrooms is useless without good CPD and good leadership – I could relax and enjoy my breakfast.

The next day I went along to the launch of the National Science Learning Network's report to mark 10 years of helping teachers improve Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) education. Funnily enough it finds that sustained, networked CPD that is well led has an impact on attainment (it also finds that it helps recruitment and retention of science teachers). 

Maybe there is a pattern.

My favourite section of the OECD report is in Andreas Schleicher’ foreword. He says:

“Still, the findings must not lead to despair. We need to get this right in order to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st-century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world.

"Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. Why should students be limited to a textbook that was printed two years ago, and maybe designed 10 years ago, when they could have access to the world’s best and most up-to-date textbook? Equally important, technology allows teachers and students to access specialised materials well beyond textbooks, in multiple formats, with little time and space constraints. Technology provides great platforms for collaboration in knowledge creation where teachers can share and enrich teaching materials.

“Perhaps most importantly, technology can support new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants with tools for inquiry-based pedagogies and collaborative workspaces.”

It is a shame that this positive message doesn’t fit with the prevailing media narrative that is anti-science and technology. 

We have schools, expectations of teaching and assessment methods based around paper and books. When this technology was introduced it wasn’t universally welcomed. Plato wrote about reading:

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

If Plato had been schools minister he may well have banned books from schools. 

Even though some of the earliest books were pornography and they are used to spread dangerous ideas, the ancient Greeks did the right thing in embracing that technology.

We shouldn’t be scared of the future. We must change and prepare our children for it.

Jim Knight is chief education adviser to TES Global 

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