ICT spending: proceed with caution

This article first appeared on the Guardian Teacher Blog on 20th February.

ICT spending: proceed with caution

Technology doesn’t guarantee improved learning outcomes – put the pedagogy first

Schools love to show off their new gadgets. In a non-scientific survey of sixteen school prospectuses, I found fourteen of them had prominent images of computer-suites or classrooms with interactive whiteboards. These images of shiny new technology say “our teaching is modern, we’re preparing your kids for the future”.

The last government certainly thought so, with record levels of ICT investment in schools that ran up to £0.5 billion a year. Vast sums have been spent on new computer labs, interactive whiteboards, wireless networks and laptops. In many cases this has had great effects on attendance and behaviour monitoring, but the evidence that it has led to improvements in learning outcomes is thin.

There were, I think, many cases where the technology cart was put before the learning horse, if you’ll excuse the tortured metaphor. Even in today’s frugal climate you still hear stories such as the school which excitedly went out and bought 30 iPads, only for them to sit in a cupboard while the deputy head appealed to colleagues for some ideas of how to use them. A classic tale of technology trumping pedagogy.

As teachers, we all know that learning happens most effectively when students are engaged in an activity that allows them to receive frequent, formative feedback about their skill level, with suitably challenging and varied tasks that sustain their interest. This has to be the primary objective of any lesson, and sometimes it can be aided by careful use of classroom technology. A great example of this is a maths lesson I saw last week where one student was at the front manipulating an interactive online activity on angles, while the rest predicted results and gave feedback via a set of wonderful low-tech mini whiteboards. They had fun, the teacher managed to pinpoint misunderstandings, and everyone progressed.

The trouble is, technology is not always the answer, and it can even harm the learning when used badly. I was recently told about a rather nervous teacher who used to stay glued to the front of the class, with very little chance for interaction with the students, and consequently a number of behaviour problems. The school was working hard to encourage her to venture out among the students, and there were clear improvements being made. The school then installed an interactive whiteboard in her class and in encouraging her to use it, unfortunately exacerbated the original problem as she started to rely on slides and activities that kept her stuck behind her desk once again.

Even the best technology can also cause real trouble when the reliability isn’t 100%. I mentored a PGCE student last year who planned an interesting lesson where students would use laptops to create summary-presentations of an algebra topic. Sadly for him the gremlins struck, and the wireless network failed in the classroom. After a brave struggle to get things fixed, he eventually abandoned the lesson and dived in to some dependable-but-stodgy textbook questions to save the day, and his sanity.

The message here is that technology is not a guaranteed vehicle for improvement. I’ve heard of well-intentioned schemes to buy laptops for all students that have ended in expensive disaster, and of course everyone has seen interactive whiteboards that get ruined when frustrated teachers find they’re not working and try using dry-wipe pens on them. In almost all cases the problem boils down to failure to satisfactorily answer a few key questions.

First, and most importantly, will the purchase enable better quality learning? Things to consider include whether it helps teachers assess and feed-back, whether it encourages active lesson participation from more students, whether it allows students to tackle more higher-order, open-ended questions, and whether it allows students to work more independently and/or collaboratively.

Secondly (and, I suspect, most commonly neglected) is to ask yourself whether you’ve budgeted for the time and resources that teachers absolutely have to have in order to integrate the new technology in to their everyday classroom practice. It isn’t enough to simply run one how-to session. There must be time put aside to modify schemes of work, try out new ideas, observe colleagues in action, feed back, discuss, problem-solve and create new resources. Perhaps you could spend a chunk of your ICT budget to allocate time for these activities for a couple of years. Pedagogy takes time to develop, and is the key to successful classrooms.

Thirdly, is the infrastructure and support present? Teachers require technology to be ultra-reliable. Cutting corners on your network servers and IT technicians could be a major own-goal. Is your purchase rugged and reliable, or will half the set have broken screens and missing keys within months? Perhaps you could improve learning much better by investing this year’s budget on repairing current gadgets and instituting collaborative-planning sessions?

New technology is very tempting, and it’s really important that schools avoid the magpie-effect, ie “ooh look, it’s shiny!”  Put the pedagogy first, give the teachers time, and the learning should follow. As with everything in education, ICT alone is no panacea.

• David Weston is a secondary school teacher and an education consultant at Informed Education. You can follow him on Twitter@informed_edu.

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Having launched at a National College event in Westminster two weeks ago, we already feature over 300 courses from big name providers including the Institute of Physics (IoP), National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), the ASCL union’s MAPS CPD service, Creative Education Ltd. and the University of Hertfordshire as well as many smaller consultancies and training providers, with more appearing every day. Our service is available to every school and every teacher.

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What class are you?

Teachers love to raise aspirations of their students, to make them feel like they can achieve anything, and to show them all the opportunities that exist in the world.

A key aspect of this work is to combat stereotype threat. We encourage girls to engage in science and encourage boys to engage in dance. We take children whose parents didn’t go to university and send them on summer courses on campus, and we bring in high-achieving people with disabilities to our schools to talk to the students. In fact we carefully select role-models of all races, religions, cultures and backgrounds who have rejected stereotypes and achieved amazing things.

The one label that seems to resist such treatment though is ‘class’, a curiously British obsession. It’s a slippery one; academics may define it as position within the labour market, while others claim it depends on where you were born, who your parents were or perhaps how educated you are. It seems to me that many people define themselves in a fairly ad-hoc fashion. Highly educated professionals may state that they are ‘working class and proud’ by dint of their parents’ circumstances, while a self-made millionaire may be labelled an ‘upper class twit’ despite his or her background. It all appears very tribal.

Even though ‘class’ defies an agreed definition we know that your parents’ wealth, education, employment are highly correlated with your likely educational success. We also know that the ‘deprivation’ of the postcode where you live is another highly-correlated predictor. However, for some reason many teachers feel that no only should we not bother combating stereotype threat from ‘class’, but that it is perfectly acceptable to propagate these stereotypes further and reinforce the labels.

Every time we call banking a ‘middle class job’ and a car mechanic a ‘working class job’ we are causing some kids to think “Ah, people like me are more likely to do job X”. If we state that our school “is full of working class kids” as a short-hand for “we have a lot of problems” then our kids receive those messages and it affects their self-image. Kids arrive at our schools bearing the label ‘working class’ because people around them force it upon them. For teachers to then reinforce this labelling while expressly associating it with problem characteristics seems to be a bizarre thing to do.

We work hard in schools to stop people associating any specific ethnicity with likelihood of achievement, any one religion with intolerance, sexuality with sporting prowess, or gender with enthusiasm for science and maths. We avoid generalising and labelling as much as we can, because every child is unique. I strongly feel that we have to do the same with this nebulous notion of ‘class’ that so many people cling to so dearly.

We have a choice. We can either let kids freely assign themselves in to one ‘class’ or other and then work hard to demonstrate how meaningless these labels are and foster a sense of equality, or we expressly use ‘class’ as a merely statistical measure of socioeconomic characteristics and then discourage students from labelling themselves or from adopting fixed, entrenched positions from which they will be unable to move/improve. By attempting to use class both as a badge of honour and as a short-hand for societal ills then we are doing no favours to anybody.

Edit: brilliant response to this by Laura McInerney here after our discussions on this issue filled up several people’s Twitter feeds…