‘School is, by its nature, sedentary. And so far ed tech has only reinforced this’

But will the latest wave of educational technology challenge the age-old problem of children spending too much time sitting down, asks a leading educationist

Kevin Stannard

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Schools could harness more effectively the pedagogical power of digital devices. Nobody expects education to be ahead of the technological curve, but we should at least try to stay within vague sight of it. That said, there is one aspect of the modern digital lifestyle that schools can justifiably claim to have pioneered – sedentariness, or the art of sitting still for protracted periods of time.

Mass schooling started out in large part as an essay in socialisation, or – more bluntly – discipline, regimentation and obedience. The design and layout of 19th-century schools and classrooms reflected those imperatives, and while the purposes of education have been modified by the ebb and flow of social change, the structural settings in which education happens remain all too often antediluvian. As a result, there is some truth in Tom Chatfield’s recent characterisation in the New Philosopher of schools in which students adopt attitudes of “unmoving intellectual absorption”.

Teachers work hard to bring learning to life, but often they have to work in and against unreconstructed environments, with lessons typically taking place in rooms where the furniture design and layout still reflect the function of facilitating the passive reception of knowledge.

Time spent sitting in a classroom is at a premium. When educational impact is measured in terms of test outcomes, "seat time" – a revealing phrase commonly heard in US education – is increasingly privileged over any form of movement, including PE, sport or anything that passes for recreation during an increasingly hectic and congested school day.

So much of the external educational environment encourages an individualistic "me against the world" mentality. Group work, enquiry and collaboration are not encouraged by the way we test and examine pupils. In promoting these ways of working, teachers are going against the grain. So much of institutional schooling presupposes a pupil sitting still and working alone.

'The great challenge'

Ed tech’s first wave seemed to underline rather than undermine perennial pedagogical patterns. The whiteboard and the data projector anchored pupils to their desks, facing the front, beholden to the tyranny of the "teaching wall". Classes relocating to the computer room every now and then merely added a bit of icing on to an otherwise unchanged curricular cake.

The latest wave involved one-to-one digital devices within wireless-enabled schools, linked to Web 2.0 tools, applications and resources. This new constellation has great potential to change the game educationally. It has the capacity to alter the rules of engagement in the classroom, and could facilitate a progressive pedagogy that enhances learning rather than just making teaching a bit snazzier.

But we need to guard against the less desirable side effects. Does the use of digital technology encourage pupils to remain relatively inactive and intellectually isolated? The breakthrough comes when digital devices are used routinely to promote flexibility of movement and thinking, supporting interactive, enquiry-based and collaborative forms of learning.

Ed tech’s great challenge is to support forms of learning that require pupils to combine and collaborate – and move about a bit.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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