By Derek Robertson, Lecturer in Education at the University of Dundee
WHEN the eminent and highly respected people who comprise the Scottish Government’s newly convened International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) met recently, they expressed concern about the decline in the number of children reading books and identified the proliferation of smart phones, hand-held computers and social media as the villain of the piece.
The group went on to suggest, King Canute-like, that, “we need to bring books back into the classroom and devote more time to reading and look at whether we should be calling off the current trend to bring more technology into schools.”
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This proposal stopped me in my tracks. Is the ICEA group really considering this? If so, how could I have been so wrong as to have devoted 20 years to exploring how digital technologies can bring about better outcomes for our learners only for those endeavours to come to such a sorry analogue end?
As an educator who greatly values reading and understands its importance in the development of our young people, I too am concerned but the inescapable fact is that digital is embedded in our culture. It has shifted the landscape that we all now inhabit. Things just ain’t what they used to be.
Back in 1998, I saw my Primary 6 class in Whitfield PS, Dundee, learn to code HTML, write branching stories and then FTP them to our school website. A pupil-initiated peer review process arose to ensure (for their new internet audience) the quality control of their creative writing. What was this other than rich learning facilitated by the digital?
What about when a research-informed movement seeking to situate learning in the culturally relevant and surprisingly demanding world of commercial computer games saw a number of Scottish teachers invited to international conferences to share their developing practice? Again, rich learning facilitated by the digital.
Scottish teachers became internationally renowned for their explorations of how web 2.0 tools could impact on learning in a number of subject areas, most notably in modern foreign languages and geography, and the creation of connected communities of professional practice. Some education leaders were supportive, but opposition in other quarters led to inertia and Scotland failing to take advantage of the potential that was identified. Digital always seems to be framed as standing in opposition to traditional learning activities but the ICEA group should look elsewhere to identify where the mistakes are being made.
Firstly, they should take a critical look at the leadership conditions in our national education agencies. How is it that, in 2017, we have got to a place where a distinct lack of inspiration, informed guidance and dissemination of what we know works in respect of digital tools and spaces has contributed to calls to halt the unstoppable tide of technologies in our schools? The leaders culpable in the culling of so much of the early innovative Scottish digital practice I mentioned are still in place, with forgotten Glow passwords, making decisions about digital learning.
Secondly, we need to acknowledge that, for years, schools have been an ever-reliant cash cow for the major “Ed Tech” companies. They dutifully shelled out on every new shiny device rather than asking whether the supposedly obsolete tech actually better served the needs of their pupils. In doing this, I wonder if we are at least partially responsible for the failure to properly research and embed emerging effective practices in the hands, heads and hearts of our teachers. Maybe we should take time to take stock of what we have, what we use and how we are using it before we make any further spends.
Lastly, we must reconsider our understanding of the cultural framework enveloping today’s learners. What digital tools and spaces do they choose of their own volition? How can the “outside of school” skillsets required to utilise and navigate them be accommodated and exploited within the formal walls of our schools? Any attempt to recognise today’s young learner is sadly missing from reports of the ICEA group’s first meeting. At all times, our teaching must revolve around them and their needs, whether our efforts focus on reading books or digital developments.
The ICEA’s suggestion to call a halt to digital technologies in schools has only increased my sense of disillusionment that we may never get digital learning right in our schools. In fact, I think it may be people like me who are the ones sitting on that chair on that beach with the waves lapping around our ankles.
Derek Robertson is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Dundee