Making smart decisions on technology

When slate was first replaced by paper there was a public outcry. Many complained that paper and pencils were too expensive, and that they would ruin children’s writing skills. Sound familiar?

This type of progress within education is not a new dilemma, and has been discussed for generations. But why is technology still a bone of contention? By its nature, it moves on while schools can be notoriously conservative places where little change happens.

When it comes to smartphones in schools, some claim that there is no scientific evidence that technology has improved learning in schools, and I took part in a public debate almost a decade ago where this very question was raised. I answered with a single phrase – ‘special educational needs’. Suddenly the debate was over and my opponent conceded the point.

For many children who have physical or cognitive impairment, technology doesn’t just support learning, it actually enables learning to happen. But this is just one example. I can take you to many schools in the Plymouth area where technology is being used responsibly and creatively to engage children, enhancing, extending and enriching their learning experiences.

Children are using smartphones and tablets to solve maths problems, blogging to develop their creative writing skills, building robots and learning how to code. These are new forms of literacy I didn’t learn in school, but they are transferable skills that will be needed in the future, when our children leave school and enter a world of work that will be significantly different to the one we recognise today.

Many children have a natural affinity with technology. They bring their smartphones into the classroom, and will use them whether schools ban them or not. Teachers are wary of the darker side of mobile phones. They worry about children accessing dangerous content, or using cameras to send each other images they wouldn’t want their parents to see.

Recently there have also been warnings from Ofsted that mobile phones are distracting children from their lessons. These are reasonable concerns. Children are easily distracted by texting when they should be paying attention in class, but to completely ban smartphones in schools is short-sighted, and ignores a fundamental truth of our present society. Like it or not, we are surrounded by technology, and it isn’t going away.

Technology is neutral until you use it for a specific purpose. Tools can be used for good or for bad. We shouldn’t blame smartphones for the way they are used. Instead it would be wise to harness the power of these tools for learning and teach children to use them responsibly. Children need to be taught from an early age about acceptable use of smartphones, and every school should include digital citizenship in its curriculum. I believe this would go a long way to addressing the problem.

I was speaking at an education conference in New Zealand a few years ago where a primary school principal in my audience said: “We don’t allow the Internet in our school. There are too many dangers.” My response was: “So you don’t teach your children to safely cross the road either – because that’s also dangerous?”

Yes, technology has its dangers. But surely schools are the safest place for children to learn how to use technology? It is a controlled environment where children can ask questions and discover for themselves what to avoid. If schools don’t manage this process, children will simply learn how to use technology in their own bedrooms or behind the bike sheds. But then to what dangers might they be exposed, and who will know to help them?

Teaching should never be led by technology, but technology can influence change. Arthur C Clarke, the famous science fiction writer, once commented: “Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be.”

Teachers should not simply deliver content from the front of the classroom. Indeed, there is evidence that teachers’ roles are changing because of technology. Many teachers encourage students drive their own education, and the technology supports this kind of independent learning. 

As students take more responsibility, teachers adopt the roles of questioner, coach and facilitator. The teacher becomes a guide, a mentor in the room for when children need expert help. Teachers will not be replaced by technology, but teachers who use technology will probably replace those who don’t.

When smartphones are used appropriately, learning can continue beyond the walls of the classroom. Children can learn while on the move, because they have a connection to their course work and to their teacher and peers through their phone – if the school allows it to be used. Ban smartphones completely, and the opportunities are more limited. Learning doesn’t need to be confined to school hours. If their experience is exciting and motivating, children will want to continue learning long after the school bell has sounded. Having a passion for learning is the best preparation for the future.

Technology is like water to a fish. It surrounds us, and we rarely notice it, but we use it all the time. Instead of keeping children away from the water, we should teach them to swim. Any alternative would be unthinkable.