Not revolution but evolution

19th January 2018 at 00:00
We cannot gamble our children's education on folly ed tech, but we need to remember that we're in an ever-changing world, and that the future will not be the same. They key is finding the balance between the two, write two experts

In 1968, a year before the first failed attempt to communicate via an embryonic internet, the pioneering computer scientists Joseph Licklider and Robert Taylor wrote that “in a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face”. That first attempt to remotely type “Login”, got only as far as “Lo” before the connection dropped, but, ultimately, their prediction was spot on.

But while grand visions like that of Licklider and Taylor can act as a driver for the great advances that follow, when applied to the requirements of the 21st-century school, they sometimes induce a fear of missing out that can motivate bizarre educational gambles – the most extreme example being the $1.3 billion (£1 billion) Los Angeles iPad scheme, which was supposed to provide a tablet for every child and revolutionise how the curriculum was delivered. It failed to live up to the hype and ended with the school district asking for its money back.

In fact, we would go so far as to say that inspirational big ideas are perhaps the biggest obstacle to the successful use of technology in education, and can cloud the learning process. With apologies to Karl Marx, we believe that inspiration is the opium of educators, and that only by abolishing inspiration as illusory knowledge can we make clear our demand for real knowledge.

There is an alternative history of technology to that of great men with grand visions. The history of technology from below is one of tinkerers, hobbyists, of billions of tiny advances, of practical solutions.

The reality of this people’s history can be seen in the 250,000 patents associated with current smartphones, and the two billion lines of code that make up Google. When faced with this version of history, we can see that it is humility, not hubris, that is the real driving force.

This humility, this respect for the details, has been the approach to technology at our school. We are the custodians of our students’ education and must not gamble this sacred trust on folly. Yet we are also aware that in an ever-changing world, atrophy is equally foolish – the one thing we do know about the future is that it will not be the same. Finding this balance has been central to whatever success our school has achieved.

We cannot know the future

In The Road to Serfdom, the economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek warns against the dangers of central planning – of “planification”. His argument is based on one key idea: we cannot know the future, and any attempt to force a particular future to occur will lead to totalitarianism and disaster.

In his later work, he describes planification as “constructive rationalism” or “positivism”: in other words, the mistaken belief that human beings can create the future they desire by the manipulation of certain variables. We cannot, for example, conclude that simply by forcing technology use in every lesson, students will be better prepared for 21st-century life.

The alternative is evolutionary rationalism, which, by accepting the limits and incompleteness of our knowledge, seeks to reap the rewards of the freedom to tinker. Hayek writes that “the effect of allowing ourselves to be deluded by [constructive rationalism] has always been that man has actually limited the scope of what he can achieve. For it has always been the recognition of the limits of the possible which has enabled man to make full use of his powers.”

At Caxton College, we have pursued what we would describe as an evolutionary approach to technology in the classroom. No particular software is proscribed for teachers. We replaced lengthy CPD sessions with micro-sessions of 10 minutes, where a particular app or process is demonstrated in a “take-it-or-leave-it” atmosphere. This has been essential to encourage tinkering among staff and students.

We introduce any changes slowly, always ensuring that there is plenty of testing, refining, warning and adjustment time.

Iron out issues on a small scale

There are several phases of implementation that allow us to iron out issues on a small scale. For example, initially a single trolley of iPads was used in lessons in Year 4, followed by a trial period with one class in Year 4 and one in Year 7. Only once we had proof of the concept was the iPad project introduced to whole year groups. From there, the project grew organically.

We have learnt to love redundancy: having the bare minimum of bandwidth or wi-fi antennas is not enough; when it comes to technology infrastructure, redundancy is costly, but the price for not having layers of contingencies can be catastrophe.

We take care of the details, such as the placement of wi-fi antennae in each classroom. The apparent holistic, seamless continuity of our system is, in fact, the product of many tiny improvements over five years. Successfully implementing tech is an ascetic discipline. It is only by not forcing bad ideas that good ideas can flourish.

Thus, sensible use of technology is not imposed but allowed. There can be no denying that we are in a very fortunate position here at Caxton; we are free from many of the restrictions that stifle advances in other schools. Nonetheless, we are proud of our achievements with technology because they are hard won. If you do decide to visit, do not be blinded by what we have got right. Ask instead about the one thousand things that we do not get wrong.

Bernard Andrews is head of philosophy and research lead at Caxton College, in Valencia, Spain. Ahmed Robleh is the school’s ICT learning coordinator

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