Gadgets don't maketh the teacher

17th April 2009 at 01:00

On the last day before the Easter break I walked into a room where earnest young people sat typing into laptops. Their fingers flew over the keyboards with a speed that put my one-fingered efforts to shame. Once the documents were typed, they were saved on tiny memory sticks, then popped into coat pockets ready for regurgitation elsewhere.

Simultaneously, two mobiles rang - colour display models with ringtones like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in full flow. Across the room, a photocopier was automatically copying, resizing and double-siding while a miniature personal laminator impeccably covered some artwork. Somebody else was dictating into the tiniest recording machine I have ever seen.

This wasn't a hi-tech business office; it was my staffroom, and the occupants were teaching practice students using their "non-contact" time. My, how things have changed. When I was a student you sat inconspicuously in a corner making sure you didn't use Mrs Cartwright's chair because she had occupied it for 50 years and God help anybody who sat in it.

Photocopier? Nope. You might have grabbed 10 minutes on a battered Banda, which put a gooey black fluid on your worksheets and your shirt. Laptops were unheard of, but pens and chalk were useful bits of kit. Mobiles ... well, my era was the tin can and a piece of string.

Wonderful though these gadgets are, they don't turn students into good teachers, and sometimes they can be more of a hindrance than a help. Students work harder than ever these days: keeping up with an ever-changing national curriculum is difficult enough, but the amount of planning, assessing and "child studying" they have to undertake would probably have put me off teaching.

Then there's the constant assessment by supervisors. Lessons must be planned in minute detail, and if a student coughs while they're teaching and it's not in their lesson plan, the supervisor will want to know why. There doesn't seem to be room for experimenting, or shifting the lesson in an unplanned direction if something interesting but unforeseen crops up. Every movement, every detail, must be accounted for.

We take lots of students, and I often find them sitting outside a classroom with their practice supervisors, dissecting the previous lesson with a precision usually reserved for a bony kipper. During these sessions, classroom techniques are drummed into students' minds so insistently they come to regard them as gospel, and never to be strayed from. Sometimes I struggle to see the point.

"Learning objectives", for example: you're supposed to write them on your whiteboard at the start of each lesson and ask the children to copy them so that they know where the lesson is taking them. Why? Search me. I thought education was a process of discovery, and if children know what's going to happen and how the lesson will finish, surely the enjoyment is lessened, like watching a film when somebody's told you the ending. And for some children, the sheer effort of copying learning objectives into their books will take up half the lesson anyway.

And why do students always start their teaching practice by asking me for the school's policies, the behaviour policy usually topping the list? I tell students to come back to me in a week ... because by that time they'll be able to tell me that our behaviour policy is simple: muck about, and you're in trouble.

Too often, teacher training techniques aren't grounded in reality. Technology and theory have a place, but there's no substitute for spending a month with a truly inspiring teacher. And they won't be churning out stuff from a photocopier.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary School in Camberwell, south London. Email:

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