10 vital questions to ask before investing in classroom technology

There are so many new technologies and devices appearing on the education market every day now that it can become very difficult to determine where to spend your money, if indeed you should spend it at all. Before you make your next investment, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Would more students get involved in the learning? Too many students spend most lessons sat there listening, watching, or reading – i.e. being passive. Will your new device(s) give more students the opportunity to get actively involved in their learning? Be wary of technology where only one student can take part at any one time.
  2. Would the teacher be able to assess learning more easily? The best learning happens when the teacher can make quick assessments of understanding and feed back regularly, several times each lesson. Watch out for technology that encourages content creation without the opportunity to share, discuss and learn from it.
  3. Would it maintain or increase the challenge level? The best learning is cognitively challenging, which means that it cannot always be fun and easy. Some games and puzzles can help reinforce low-level factual recall but fail to stimulate higher-order thinking
  4. Would it allow the teacher to move around the classroom? If your new technology requires the teacher to stay stuck next to a device at the front of the classroom then you’re hugely diminishing the potential for effective assessment, feedback and classroom management.
  5. Would students be able to interact with their peers? Collaborative problem-solving and peer-feedback  is immensely powerful in the classroom. If your technology only enables communication between teacher and student then you could be wasting an opportunity.
  6. Would it encourage independent learning? If students are completely reliant on the teacher then they’re less likely to be motivated and more likely to give up when they encounter problems. The best technology enables students to keep on learning outside the classroom, and make choices about the way they learn.
  7. Have you budgeted for the relevant support? Any new device that will take centre-stage in the class must be super-reliable. If you spend all the money on the device and fail to put in place the relevant support and maintenance then you’ll end up with a cupboard full of expensive, broken equipment that teachers have become frustrated with.
  8. Have you budgeted time and money for teacher development? Don’t expect to just drop new technology in to the classroom and have it used effectively. Teachers need time away from the classroom to discuss it, develop ideas, observe each other using it, share resources, and work it in to their schemes of work. This is one of the most frequently neglected areas of education technology, and should be a key part of planning any new investment.
  9. Will it become obsolete? A tough question to answer, but one that has stung many schools.  Some decided it would be more convenient to buy a set of portable laptops only to discover that their lack of processing power means they become unusable for modern applications within a couple of years (as well as breaking more frequently than desktops).
  10. Would it be better to spend more on existing technology, maintenance and professional development? With well-meaning dedicated government grants for technology the temptation is to spend-spend-spend. Perhaps that grant would be better spent on replacement parts, upgrades, a new technician, better infrastructure, and taking staff off timetable to enable them to develop their expertise with existing resources? Perhaps you’d improve learning much more with an ultra-cheap but highly-effective set of mini-whiteboards?

Some books that have inspired me

A whole load of books that have inspired me that I heartily recommend.

If I were the minister…

A first draft of an introductory speech my ‘dream’ minister for education would make. What do you think?

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would firstly like to thank the Prime Minister for allowing me the privilege of serving you as minister for education.

What a fantastic education system we have in this country. There  are tens of thousands of dedicated professionals delivering ever-more outstanding lessons in our schools, every day. They have a passion for learning, and they enthuse their students. Children of all backgrounds, of all abilities, with an enormous range of interests and needs are having their eyes opened to the fantastic possibilities offered by science, culture, arts, technology, humanties, languages, and so much more.

We can be proud of what has been achieved so far, and I thank my predecessor for his work to make the country a better place for the young people of Britain. He and I may not always have seen eye-to-eye, but there is no doubt that he, and the entire education department, worked tirelessly to keep our education system improving.

Amongst the notable successes of the previous government were the increases in numeracy and literacy, investment in to our school buildings, better terms and conditions for teachers and a drive for innovation. However, like this country’s best schools, and best teachers, we will not be complacent. Even with fantastic efforts from so many talented professionals, there are still children who are not getting the opportunity to achieve their potential. There are still some schools where students and teachers are not enjoying the learning experience that they deserve, and there are well-meaning schemes that have cost a great deal but, sadly, delivered very little in terms of improved outcomes. We want to take the best of our education system and improve it, and we will look long and hard at every scheme and every piece of bureaucracy to ensure it delivers effectively, and with good value for our taxpayers.

I want to engage with passionate educators up and down the country and create a vision of education that everyone can believe in and work towards. In the past, government has not always treated the education profession with the respect it deserves, and has pre-empted every policy announcement with a barrage of criticism of everything that has gone before. I will not do that. I do not, and shall not ever, subscribed to the view that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I want to hear the best ideas about how to take good systems, and make them better. Innovation, based on quality research, will be a central feature of this department’s work.

I never want teachers, unions, or indeed my own department, to suffer from a siege mentality. If constructive dialogue breaks down, and trench warfare ensues, nobody wins. Nobody has turned around a struggling school by encouraging leaders to publicly criticise the staff, nor by allowing teachers to attack their own leadership teams, and the same is true of the national education system. I will not play to the media with crisis stories, nor indulge in mudslinging. Respect and collaboration are key principles that my department will observe at all times.

The best schools know that they will improve most effectively by carefully analysing the information they have about students and staff. They know that one or two numbers can never give you the full picture about a student, but they know that good data is vital to shine a light on what is really happening. I intend to take the same approach nationally. We will collect data, analyse it carefully, and use it together with observations, discussions and professional judgements. Every school will be held up to the highest standards, and we will make careful comparisons locally, nationally, and internationally. However, no school will ever be judged to be failing on any single measure again. Education is complex, and we always recognise that.

I will work hard to provide vision and leadership, and ensure every school in the country has the capacity and ability to improve itself. Gone are the days where central government handed down strategies and schemes from on high and expected every teacher to function in the same way. I want schools filled with collaborative and innovative teams who critically review their own work and use the result of the best in education research to improve their practice. I want every stakeholder in education, be they parent, student, teacher, or leader, to truly understand their responsibility and power to improve the learning of every student in this country, and to work together to achieve it.

There is so much to do, and I have so much to learn. Like the best teachers, I will begin by checking my own understanding. Like the best schools, I will be gathering opinions from everyone. Like the best student, I will promise to work hard, to keep trying even when the going get’s tough, and to treat my peers with respect.

I am excited to begin, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to introduce myself to you. The next chapter begins now.

Cheesy, and perhaps a little West-Wing-esque, but hopefully gets my point across. What do you think – could a minister really take this approach or is this wishful thinking?

American Educational Ad Hominem

Thanks to @OldAndrewUK I learned the meaning of “Ad hominem” the other day:

“an attempt to link the validity of a premise to a characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise” (Wikipedia)

Thanks to Twitter, I see more and more of these every day. Take the USA education debate today:

“I find it disturbing that this makes sense to me: Ravitch Billed for Taxes Despite Refusing Pay – http://nyti.ms/fwNx4f

“Bill Gates funds the education debate. Billionaire Agenda. Follow the Money. – http://t.co/xyCBr2G via @readability

This is shameful mudslinging. Anyone with even the slightest balance of opinion will know that both Diane Ravitch and Bill Gates are passionate about educating America’s children, as are Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, etc. The Democratic and Republican parties are full of genuine, dedicated people who want to make the world a better place. The teaching unions are full of wonderful individuals with a vocation, and the companies investing in schools really want to make a difference.

Both sides are casting accusations and abuse, and then assuming that everything the other side suggests is intent on destruction and not debate.

Does anyone seriously think that vicious, personal, nasty attacks will open the debate up and win hearts and minds? Are the leaders on both sides stepping in to quash this nonsense? Not that I’ve noticed.

Sadly these character assassinations are cheered by both sides. They have stopped debating policy, they are undermining each other. In the process, they are undermining education itself. People will lose trust in both sides, opinions will become entrenched and nobody will be the winner, certainly not the kids.

I am, frankly, disgusted by the level it has descended to. The sensible voices are all but drowned out. I truly fear for the UK’s education system should this appalling behaviour take root here.

Go on, I dare someone to tell me:

“Yeah but they started it first, we’re the good guys here.”


Delivering change requires a cultural shift

I’ve just finished reading Sir Michael Barber’s fascinating book Instruction to Deliver, hot on the heels of the most interesting “Learning by Doing” by DuFour et. al.

Barber describes the exhaustion of relentlessly applying pressure on a reluctant civil service in trying to drive improvement. That will be a familiar feeling to any teacher trying to bring about improvement in their class – it takes vast reserves of energy. Just as soon as an improvement appears in one place, a problem crops up in another. Take your foot of the pedal for an instant and the class/organisation backslides.

What is missing here? Culture! A culture of success, of collaboration, of listening, and of independent learning. Good schools have it – that feeling that everyone is pushing in the same direction, for the same goal.

I heartily agree with Sir Michael that other key ingredients are clear vision and purpose, simple goals with clear measurements of progress, and being held rigorously to account. However, it seems to me that there is no point building an organisation that will only drive in the right direction when you’re holding the whip. You want an organisation where everyone passionately believes in the vision, and will strive to achieve it. To coin Jim Collins‘ analogy, a flywheel is much more likely to gather momentum if everyone pushes it than if one or two people are pushing really hard and everyone else is dragging.

To be a great school, I think the four central pillars must be include this aspect of culture. If I was to have a stab at summarising these interesting books I’ve been reading and list the qualities required then it would be something like these four key principles:

  • Culture – has every teacher bought in to the school vision? Do they feel supported? Are they free to innovate, without fear of retribution, but with careful support, enthusiasm and monitoring from their peers? Is every member of staff pulling in the same direction, reinforcing values, challenging those that don’t comply, and actively seeking ways in which to make new gains?
  • Information – Does every teacher have the necessary information, at classroom and student level, with which to measure the success of their teaching? Do the senior management use this data to offer both praise and support, where necessary? Can the pastoral team spot trends happening in multiple subjects suggesting a problem with a student or group? Is variation in achievement across the school made visible?
  • Collaboration – Does every teacher and leader invite the opinions of colleagues, and feel able to lay difficulties out in the open without fear of being undermined? Do opportunities (time, money, space) exist for teachers to work in small professional learning groups to carry out research and create a positive evidence-led improvement cycle?
  • Leadership – Is there a clear vision of what the school is about? Are resources being (demonstrably) spent on the priorities of the whole school, and does the public praise reflect these priorities? Does the leadership group challenge problems head-on without making excuses? Do staff feel able to contribute ideas, and take responsibility? Do they create systems which are self-sustaining and self-improving, instead of those that require constant decisions from the top?

I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg, and this is my first attempt to lay out my thoughts on this. I would very much welcome any feedback, criticism or praise! I would like to develop some illustration or diagram that represents the place of culture within an organisation, and I would love to hear ways in which positive culture can be nurtured and supported.