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Glue sniffing and classroom technology

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Hands holding an iPadPaul Davies, co-author of Solutions second edition, takes a look back at when technology first appeared in the classroom and offers a warning about its use in today’s classrooms.

Visiting my children’s primary school the other day, I picked up a bottle of PVA glue from a table and gave it a little sniff. I’m not a habitual glue-sniffer, but I’d noticed that it was the same type of adhesive we used to have at my own primary school decades earlier and I knew the smell would be evocative. For a moment, I was reliving my schooldays.

I left secondary school in 1984, around the time when computers were beginning to have an impact in education. That year, the eminent British semiotician Daniel Chandler wrote: “The mirocomputer is a tool of awesome potency which is making it possible for educational practice to take a giant step backwards.”

What did he mean? Chandler was no Luddite: he embraced new technology and worked to develop early educational software in collaboration with the BBC. His fear, however, was that educators might be so beguiled by the novelty of the latest classroom technology (in those days, a PC the size of a fridge) that they failed to pay enough attention to the underlying pedagogy. He warned that computers should be viewed not as potential teaching machines but as aids to student expression because, put bluntly, computers can’t teach. They deal in information, not knowledge.

More than a quarter of a century later, Chandler’s warning still applies. Even today, many on-screen language games are basically stimulus and response, often with canned applause or some other audio/visual reward for a correct answer. Short of locking students in a box and dispensing food pellets through a chute if they pull the right lever, this is about as close to Skinnerian behaviourism as you can get. It is an approach to education that has been out of vogue for over half a century.

While Skinner deliberately excluded as irrelevant anything which goes on inside the mind so that he could focus solely on directly observable behaviour, subsequent theories of learning have taken the mind as a starting point: constructivism, brain-based learning, NLP, and so on.

Today, educationalists talk about how students construct knowledge through their interaction with information; they don’t talk about how best to condition students to respond in a certain way (except perhaps with certain aspects of classroom management). However, with the advent of new technology, unbounded behaviourism has re-emerged in the classroom – not because the pedagogy involved has been reconsidered but because, more often than not, it hasn’t been considered at all.

Leaving aside distinctions between the various platforms (PC, laptop, tablet, phone) which in any case appear to be converging, you can divide technology-based activities into two broad categories: A) things which simply couldn’t be done before the relevant technology was on offer, and B) things which have a more traditional equivalent. We shouldn’t assume that activities in either category are necessarily worthwhile, although they might well be.

In category A, a live chat with a class of children on another continent could prove a rich learning experience, while a video game in which you zap adjectives with a ray gun may do little more than keep students quiet for a while. In category B, the key question is whether the technology-based activity is a clear improvement on its precursor. Using an app to plan and monitor your revision timetable makes a lot of sense. But why should we always opt for PowerPoint projects over physical posters? ‘Because we’ve just bought a load of iPads’ is not a good enough reason.

And what about the children whose learning styles are better suited to physical, rather than on-screen, cutting and pasting? Shouldn’t they have the opportunity to put the electronic devices away for a while and get out the scissors and glue? After all, you can’t sniff an iPad.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

5 thoughts on “Glue sniffing and classroom technology

  1. It’s all about balance.

  2. Is seems to me that this blog post is a case of the same old argument in this case just shifted from the use of technology per se to the use of mobile technology. I don’t know many educationalists who use technology that use technology in the place of everything else. Look back a couple of years and change iPad to IWB and you’ll find plenty of blog posts on the same issue. Whiteboards cause this, whiteboards lead to that. While undoubtedly many teachers would benefit from further training and advice on best implementation most are very aware that a balance is needed. But rather than being shown how to achieve that balance they are merely constantly reminded that there should be balance. Would perhaps a blog post about the best ways to use the app or not use that app that accompanies your coursebook better help a teacher understand balance as well as show them how it is a “clear improvement on its precursor’?

  3. It’s certainly all about balance, like almost everything in life, but it’s hard to find that balance when the word out on the street seems to be that unless you’re ‘doing technology’ in your classes, you’re not doing your job properly.

    An interesting activity, one which I do quite often when giving in-service training on ICT, is to get teachers to think about what issues they face when trying to teach English. Once they’ve put together a decent list of pedagogical problems, you can ask them to start looking at ICT for possible solutions.

    I’ve found that teachers enjoy this activity because it helps them to get technology into some sort of perspective. For me at least, it’s something that helps me to do my job, and that I use to solve problems in the classroom. Fotobabble, for example, turned out to be a very nice way of getting more timid students to say something in English, and the ease of recording and sending voice messages has made it much easier for me to give personalised feedback on pronunciation. But the key to both of these ICT tools was that I found them in response to identifying a teaching problem first.

  4. Pingback: Glue sniffing and classroom technology « Oxford University Press ... | Inhalant - Misuse | Scoop.it

  5. It’s the year 2035 Visiting my children’s primary school the other day, I picked up an Ipad from a table and gave it a little swipe. I’m not a habitual swiper, but I’d noticed that it was the same type of tablet we used to have at my own primary school decades earlier and I knew swiping it would be evocative. For a moment, I was reliving my schooldays.

    Just because our kids memories in the future will not be the same as ours does not mean that they are missing out on something.

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