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'The thing that has really undermined teachers is not Ofsted inspectors or political instability – it’s technology'

Far from being digital natives, kids are actually flailing around online, looking for guidance. Teachers should take a cold, hard look at the part technology plays in their own lives, so that they can better support the children they teach, argues this consultant and educator

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Far from being digital natives, kids are actually flailing around online, looking for guidance. Teachers should take a cold, hard look at the part technology plays in their own lives, so that they can better support the children they teach, argues this consultant and educator

Like lots of parents, I’m interested in my daughters’ understanding and use of new technology. So I accepted an invitation recently to attend a session run by a popular organisation that advises schools and parents about the risks of technology.

At one point, the disarmingly amiable presenter touched on how important it is that we parents are seen by our children as good, technology-user role models. The mum sitting next to me briefly looked up from the mobile phone that had gripped her since she sat down, nodded eagerly, then resumed looking at emails and Facebook for the rest of the session.

The presenter never asked us to put away our devices, or discussed the astonishing proportion of their waking hours our children spend seduced by a screen of one kind or another. In fact, she didn’t seem to be aware that they did spend so much time in front of a screen. She was more interested in appearing "cool", the favourite adjective of all techno-zealots, in my experience, than in presenting the risks knowledgeably or dispassionately.

Eight hours a day

So here are some dispassionate figures. The only substantial research study on this issue that I know of in recent years, the Kaiser Family Foundation's study in 2010 in the US, estimated an average of five-and-a-half hours of media use for those aged 8-10, eight hours and 40 minutes for those aged 11-14, and just under eight hours for 15-18 year-olds…a day. That excluded technology used in school and mobile phones to text or to speak.

Common Sense Media, which carried out another substantial survey in the US in 2015, believes teens are occupying one third of their days – almost nine waking hours, on average – using media such as online video or music. For children between the ages of 8 and 12, the average is close to six hours per day. Here in the UK, in 2015 Ofcom estimated that youngsters between 16 and 24 spend more than 27 hours a week on the internet.

Now, however much I’d love to think that these kids are doing quadratic equations, enriching their Spanish vocab or reading Middlemarch on a Kindle, they are, of course, watching Made in Chelsea, gossiping and exchanging countless images of each other pouting. Anyone who tells you otherwise, like the mum who sat next to me, is in denial.

But my aim here isn’t to brandish a Luddite loyalty card. Absolutely the opposite. Because I think the one thing that has undermined teachers in the past few decades more than anything else is not Ofsted inspectors or political instability – it’s technology. Both the other two have been as much victims of it as teachers are themselves: Ofsted through its naïve and unchallenged data dependency and politicians because they imagine they can somehow control its effects.

Kids are flailing around

So I want to urge ordinary teachers to take a cold, hard look at the part technology plays in their personal and professional lives, so that they are in a better position to support and help the children they teach. Because, far from being digital natives, these kids are flailing around, blindfolded, in a whirlpool they don’t understand, while even organisations purporting to throw them a rope, like the one I saw in action recently, haven’t the wit to keep hold of one end.

Try this simple experiment. Spend a good half hour scrolling down TES’ Facebook page and actually reading comments made by teachers, and apply two simple tests to them. Firstly, does the comment look like a considered response to the article or merely a kneejerk reaction to the headline? Secondly, if a child you teach had written it and not a teacher, is it something you would be pleased to read?

I agree completely with Neil Postman, the American author and educator, who pointed out that culture always pays a price for technology. I’m not at all surprised that journalists have been commenting on how disrespectful, angry and unpleasant the EU referendum debate became. Just as in 17th-century England, when an explosion in cheap printing allowed any vicious individual with a grudge to distribute their opinions widely, social media has allowed invective and censoriousness to routinely supplant rational debate.                    

I judged an Institute of Ideas Debating Matters competition for sixth-formers not long ago. The competitors I saw displayed a far greater ability to both listen to and respond to their opponents’ arguments than many of those campaigners I’ve seen on television or heard on the radio recently.

The day laptops and internet connections first appeared in schools, teachers should have been the ones not just shouting loudly and clearly about the risks to the children they teach, but interrogating fiercely what the price paid was likely to be, because teachers are nothing if not cultural ambassadors for the young.

Complex and slippery

So I would urge you, next time you suspend those fingertips above a keyboard beneath which some kind of social media platform is lurking, to think long and hard before you type anything at all. We are all at risk of allowing the ease, anonymity and speed of the technologies we use to subvert cultural and moral values we should not just cherish, but should inculcate in the young.

For well over a decade, external organisations have been hustling to advise schools about e-safety, or whatever the latest buzz phrase for this maddeningly difficult issue is, with nothing more than a vapid grasp of what’s at stake. Schools and teachers simply can’t abnegate such a profoundly important responsibility to external alchemists who lack the core educational values and skills needed to try and anticipate cultural and social impacts.

Here is a simple, entirely practical example. I was still working full-time as a teacher when mobile phones first appeared. I spoke to the headmaster I worked under and suggested the school produce some clear guidelines about their usage, before there was a confrontation between a child and a member of staff. He chose not to. A few months later, a wholly avoidable and unpleasant confrontation between a teaching colleague and a child blew up, to such an extent that…the school then drafted a policy on mobile-phone use.

Policies won’t serve in the broader case. The challenge is far too complex and slippery, because technology evolution and fashion dictate teenagers’ habits. The latest product causing concern is going to be supplanted within months. What’s needed is for teachers, as the most appropriately trained professionals, to lead and not follow.

So, instead of employing an external expert to come into your school and inform your parents or your staff about the risks of modern technology, simply because they play with that kind of stuff more and still think it’s cool, get your teaching staff to advise that expert first. Then invite them in to do what you tell them to do.  

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author

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