Techno-romanticism – you know, “just give the kids this technology and they fly”, and the “digital natives” mythology – was given a terminal diagnosis at Partnerships for Schools' Building Schools for the Future:ICT event at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
“There is very little evidence to support that view,” said keynote speaker Angela McFarlane, Professor of Education at the University of Bristol. “Actually many children struggle to use technology effectively, and even when they think they are using it effectively they are not. And many children struggle, more importantly, to know how to learn effectively.
“We have to be very careful about getting carried away with this idea that young people have a natural confidence and all we have to do is tap into that. Actually what happens when we do that - and we have good and growing evidence of this - is that about 80 per cent of kids spend an awful lot of time not really knowing what’s going on. Not a good situation for learning.”
Angela McFarlane’s role was to address the issue of ICT as a driver for transformation in BSF, and she didn’t pull any punches. ICT in BSF is already under a critical focus because it is now understood that the contractual process itself, and the need for stable ICT that does not attract penalties for providers, militates against innovation. Her analysis outlined a concomitant challenge for a curriculum which brings transformation of learning – and ICT is not necessarily a natural ally here.
Hence the warning about techno-romanticism. There had been, said Angela McFarlane, “a lot of talk about how all young people have a natural aptitude to technology”. “They all engage meaningfully with technology. They’re having rich, productive lives beyond school if only teachers would get out of the way.”
Young people have problems with ICT too
But young people, just like adults, experience problems with technologies too. Universities were finding that new undergraduates who initially had trouble using technology and getting to grips with a university’s system were often the ones who failed their first year. Stepping in to help them was necessary but required sensitivity to avoid stigmatising them.
She said a current three-year research project for Becta, following school students who had their own ICT devices is revealing similar problems. “When you look at the high and low users, the low users actually lack competence with the device and with technology generally,” warned Angela McFarlane. “And when you look at why that is, it’s because they are coming from family and friendship groups where that is the case. They are not getting that learning of how to use technology either at home or from their mates… your general level of performance is affected by the performance of the people with whom you mix. So if you put a kid in a group with kids who are good at something they’ll get better at it and vice versa.”
Those involved in ICT needed to heed the well-established message that merely putting ICT into classrooms would not transform learning.. “One of my favourite quotes from John Gardner [of Queens University, Belfast]: “If you look back at the predictions made for what ICT is going to do for schooling we now have amassed a good 20 years of a future which is a bit of a disappointment.” Because the one thing we do know for sure is that you can pump as much technology as you like into a school and, if that’s all you do, nothing much will change. You’ll just have a more expensive version of what you had before.”
Educators in BSF had to take a long, hard look at what they want to achieve in terms of young people’s learning. They needed some content as material for curriculum work, but they also required clear ideas about pedagogy, and had to bring those two elements together to create the right context for the tasks learners needed. She added, “the problem we’ve got is that the pedagogical model hasn’t shifted very much, the content hasn’t shifted very much and therefore the tasks are all too often high-tech versions of what we’ve always done.”
It was time to think differently, said Angela McFarlane. There was a current consensus that young people were not being prepared for the 21st century because of “a very content-led, very memory-favouring view of education”. Most people now agreed that students needed to be able to: learn new things; find, analyse and use information; communicate what they know effectively; apply new and old knowledge to novel situations; be flexible; make decisions with an incomplete set of information: work in a team.
Models of the kind of learning needed for 21st-century skills were no secret, and she discussed one produced in 2005 (Pedagogy in knowledge-based society, Voogt & Pelgrum). Activities would be determined by learners to achieve the objectives they were set, “something you very rarely see in classrooms”. Learners would work collaboratively in groups, rather than sit passively and absorb someone else’s view of the world.
It was a view of a very active learning experience that offered ownership and engagement to learners, and relevance. She added, “The minister [Jim Knight MP] talked about the need for maths and physics to be underpinning things like complex computer science. That’s absolutely right. We are failing to show young people the relevance of what we are asking them to learn.” She invoked the experience of her hairdresser, a young woman who had not been shown the relevance of science while at school but was now enjoying it because it clearly enhances her career.
These new models of learning take full advantage of ICT but also require the kinds of flexible learning spaces that are emerging as a central issue in creating new schools. Showing a range of classroom examples, Angela McFarlane demonstrated that design determined the kinds of learning which could take place in a space – and, more important, those that could not.
Young people were already associating and working in collaborative ways through ICT, she said, and this networking would increase when the effects of the Government’s Home Access schemes worked their way through. This should be supported by learning space design, and also by the kinds of tasks and assessments used by schools. “Don’t underestimate the effect of social software,” she warned.
'At risk of driving the quality of education down'
“These youngsters are working in a connected way, They’re doing their homework in groups, online; they are not working as individuals. But are they doing it well? Are they working together on tasks they’ve been given as a group or are they simply all going online to the guy or girl who knows the answer, getting it from them and copying it into their own piece of work because that’s the way they know will get them the points? And this is a real danger. If we carry on with a very traditional model of learning that’s about the individual and about predominantly having the right answer, we are actually at risk - not of simply maintaining the quality of education, rather than driving it up - of driving the quality down because, and again we have a very good literature on this, people have to learn to collaborate; it is not something as a species that most of us do naturally.
"Very few people naturally know how to work in a team and if we don’t teach young people how to do it most people won’t learn and they will be using these technologies and this connection with other people to actually promulgate a very impoverished model of learning."
Young people should be given the curriculum and learning spaces (beyond the school day too) to support these ways of working but the most important thing to develop was a shared vision, said Angela McFarlane. Seymour Papert had identified the problem 10 years ago with this observation: "There has been a chorus of pronouncements that 'the information society' both requires and makes possible new forms of education. We totally agree with this. But we do not agree that tardiness in translating these declarations into reality can be ascribed, as it often is, to such factors as lack of money, technology, standards or teacher training. Obviously there is a need for improvement in all of these areas, but the primary lack is something different - a shortage of bold, coherent, inspiring yet realistic visions of what education could be like in 10 or 20 years from now." (S Papert and G Caperton, 1999)
Angela McFarlan concluded, “If we don’t build flexibility into the spaces in which we are expecting people to both learn and manage learning we run the risk of continuing to do what we’ve always done to greater or lesser success in a world which is changing with breathtaking speed and thereby not actually servicing the young people we are desperately all trying to help with the skills they really need to be successful adults.”
Angela McFarlane is director of content and learning at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and is involved in The Great Plant Hunt initiative for primary schools to mark the the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. She is also professor of education at the University of Bristol.
Building Schools for the future: ICT was held at the Royal College of Surgeons on March 17 and organised by Guardian Education