Paul 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.