For me, the idea of traditional teaching always evoked terrifying images of Miss Trunchbull locking up an ill-disciplined child in the Chokey, or Professor Snape casting a steely glare across the class as they all turned to page 394.
The progressive teacher was more like Professor Lupin, bringing in a prop – in his case, a wardrobe of Boggarts – and trying something new. Or Mam'zelle Dupont, enjoying the rambunctious atmosphere in her classroom, while the more austere Mam’zelle Rougier looked on disapprovingly.
If these fictional characters were real-life teachers, it would be the Professor Lupins of the world asking the senior leadership team for funds to implement a new tech scheme, sneeringly rejected by the Snapes of the education world: “What these children need is discipline, not a new app for their timetables”.
Keeping them in their seats
During my PGCE, I dreamed I would be more like Lupin, and all the children would love me. But, after my first attempt at group work, I soon started to value the more traditional, disciplined and direct-instructional style of education. My focus was on getting them through the exams and keeping them in their seats, not impressing them with flashy new tech.
If someone had tried to get me to use tech in my classroom, I would have battled my way across the piles of yet-to-be-marked exercise books strewn across the floor to wallop them over the head with my folder of lesson plans. On the rare occasions that computers were involved, I was happy if the machines didn't die mid-lesson.
However, having worked in two of the most traditional state schools in England, I came to realise that actually a little bit of tech goes a long way – even for those wishing to educate the more traditional way.
In my first school, euphemistically known as School 1, the experienced teachers might have indulged a novice teacher’s attempts at innovation in the classroom in the way that a mother might impatiently indulge a child’s wobbly first steps along a road when she knows there is a train to catch.
However, in truth, as teachers grew in experience, they began to adhere to the school’s expectations of good old-fashioned teaching. The culture of the school emphasised the teachers’ supreme subject knowledge, and this was to be respected by the pupils. Poor behaviour was dealt with quickly and efficiently.
School 1 has come consistently in the top five in the national league tables for Progress 8 scores and, therefore, it is understandable that they might be reluctant to try anything new. Why fix what isn’t broken? How could tech improve a near perfect record?
Britain's strictest school
My second school, School 2, is well known for its traditional ethos and was even dubbed “Britain’s strictest school”. We had silent corridors, pupils would respect their teachers or else find themselves swiftly in detention and, if you walked into any lesson, you would see teachers leading from the front, tables set out in rows. Like School 1, it excelled at what it did, and parents continue to flock to it.
However, despite being amazing schools, both struggled in a few areas (particularly with essay subjects) – keeping on top of homework, giving absent or detentioned pupils something meaningful to do, and assessment for learning.
Firstly, in both schools, homework was dished out more frequently than any teacher could possibly keep up with. And pupils knew this, with many finding ingenious ways of exploiting the system.
School 1 did not succeed in getting pupils to complete homework consistently, because it simply was not possible for teachers to keep up with the amount of work being set. In School 2, compulsory homework clubs took place until 6pm, exhausting the teachers on duty, who were often in school from 7am.
In short, without tech, it is near impossible for teachers to simultaneously expect independent hard work while overseeing that it is all properly completed.
Technology can now be deployed in a limited, targeted way to effectively track the amount of time pupils put into their work, feeding back the results to the teacher, already at home and in their pyjamas. Of course, you might not use this platform for every piece of homework, but on those weeks where you just don’t have the time to process it all personally, it might be invaluable.
Now for those naughty or absent pupils. In School 1, the room we used to send pupils to if they misbehaved was called Room 215. It used to be in Room 101, although the irony was lost on many who entered it. At School 2, the room was called "ii" or internal isolation. Most schools have variations of the same system. The trouble is, many pupils actually like being sent out, because they know they don’t have to work in these rooms. What this means in practice is that those pupils who most need to catch up on learning actually end up simply wasting their time.
Technology now exists to allow teachers to assign particular courses for pupils to complete in their absence from lessons. Teachers can see in real-time what their pupils have been up to and make them accountable for their work. Teachers can see the results from the questions completed so they know where to intervene, well in advance of said pupil sauntering in two weeks later, having missed several lessons, raising their hand every two minutes to ask “What’s a subordinating conjunction?” or “Who is Macbeth?”
Finally, assessment for learning (AFL). AFL was the bane of my life at School 1. Our lessons would only be graded as "outstanding" if we could prove that meaningful AFL was happening at frequent intervals in a lesson.
Admirable and well intentioned, I suppose. But the reality of AFL in my classroom was pupils flapping around with coloured cards. Worst of all were the mini whiteboards, immediately turning any bored teenager into Banksy. Even on those days when I didn’t just pretend to read what they had written on their whiteboards, the information I gauged from their responses was not worth the disruption it caused.
None of this sounds conducive to the proper, traditional learning environment favoured at these schools. But what would have definitely helped would have been to ditch a whiteboard for a simple piece of technology that enabled me to flip the learning, allowing me to see what they had understood the day before. The next day, I could walk into the classroom knowing the level of each child’s understanding, with the whiteboards remaining in the cupboard (or preferably, to borrow a phrase recently used by a former education secretary, consigning them to the dustbin of history). If I could have persuaded senior leadership to lend me a class set of iPads for certain lessons, pupils could have done a quick 10-minute task, allowing me to sit regally at the front, eagle-eyed, using the live data to jump in and support or stretch students as appropriate.
The clear risk is that traditional expectations may sow their own downfall if teachers are not provided with the appropriate tools to manage their teaching load. Schools that eschew technology on traditional principles may find, as I did, that those very principles are the first to fall by the wayside when you are pressed for time. Good teaching and well-controlled classrooms will never happen if a teacher is tired, overworked and drowning in Macbeth essays.
These uses of tech can help pupils – the quiet ones who pretend to understand, the troubled ones who miss lessons, the ones who struggle to focus independently – without affecting the traditional models of teaching. Far from abolishing such methods, technology can help it to flourish further in the 21st century and give teachers back some time to do what they do best – teach.
Miriam Baidoun taught for six years in London state schools before joining CENTURY Tech as an English curriculum specialist