Over-engineered

8th May 2015 at 01:00

What the hell happened to toilets on trains? Somewhere in the past couple of decades, the design of inter-city water closets appears to have been outsourced to a group of people who apparently don't possess bladders, or shame.

Last week I had the pleasure of pressing the button to open the train toilet door, only to reveal a poor grandmother, sitting purple-faced and with her undercarriage tarpaulins quite at half-mast. The poor thing nearly had a fit. Frankly, I didn't feel so great either.

She hadn't locked it, you see. And who could blame her? Our backwards ancestors merely had the option of a snib, or a turn key. But we citizens of the futurist utopia can enjoy the electronic descendant of that impoverished past: a button to close, to lock, to unlock, to call the maid, to summon bats and bees and so on. Oh brave new world. It's a pity that no one can work it properly. Even I, a confident digital semi-native, use the services on a hair trigger, ready to fasten and bail if it turns out I somehow haven't selected the right code.

It reminds me of the virtual learning platform (VLP), the interactive whiteboard (IWB), the flipped classroom. These gorgons now roam freely in almost every school I visit. Ten years ago they were impossibly hip and cutting-edge. Now they are ubiquitous, yet some people still treat them as if they were the iPhone 8.

One reason for this is that uptake is still slow for many teachers. I've seen school leaders scratch their heads and fret about how to make sure that all staff members are posting homework on Frog, or wondering how to make sure everyone uses IWBs full pelt.

When did it get so pointlessly complicated? I've watched schools try to drag themselves into the shape they believe they're meant to be, without realising that shape isn't right for them. To counterbalance what might be interpreted as Luddism, I've been in schools that use VLPs and IWBs in useful and powerful ways. I've seen many individual teachers make gold out of these opportunities. But the same could be said of any tool or opportunity. When all the clamour and trumpets have died down, what does a teacher need to teach? A brain full of wisdom and a voice. Anything else is a luxury. Maybe even an affectation. Socrates taught in the Agora with nothing. The practice of teaching, stripped bare, begins there. Which isn't to say that other things can't supplement it, but it is an important fact to remember.

One of the most powerful lessons I learned was years ago. My school had decanted to temporary premises and a mix-up meant that we had no ICT for three weeks. It was like waking up on a desert island after a lifetime in the matrix. Suddenly everyone had to remember which marker pens were dry-wipe and which ones would make Banksys of us. I felt the hand of the ancients on my shoulders. What at first felt like a privation became liberation.

"Just teach them," they whispered.

And I did. Tools are fine things. But just because we can build toilets that lock electronically doesn't mean we should.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference

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