All too often, I’ve seen schools spend millions on new computer systems without so much as a thought as to training for the staff or structuring how the use of such technology would work in practice.
All too often, laptops, tablet computers, interactive whiteboards and expensive website subscriptions all end up as somewhat less functional versions of the thing that they replaced. I could go into more detail and explain my thoughts here, but I would like to focus on an aspect of computers that has been troubling me the most: standardized tests.
Computers won’t (and should not) replace teachers much to the dismay of some. Computers aren’t very good at pretending to be human. They cannot and should not replace teachers. Students need human relationships and interactions to learn how to survive in the world.
What computers are good at is number crunching and displaying things in new ways. Teachers who know how to utilize technology correctly can and do help students’ understanding immensely. The problem is that because computers are good at crunching numbers, many in power are trying to find ways to turn education into statistics so they can summarize success and failure in a set of numbers that can be charted, categorize and compared.
The problem with statistics, however, is that as soon as you take averages and try to summarize complex beings into data, you loose the whole picture. Average income, for instance, looses information about the separation between rich and poor. Increasingly often, schools have relied on things like test scores and levels determined how good students were and what sets they were in instead of their work and effort. On more than one occasion, I’ve taught students in bottom sets in secondary who were decent at mathematics, but struggled reading or lacked the confidence to perform well on tests. They were in the bottom set not because they were bad at maths, but because the tests didn’t reflect their true abilities.
What has happened here is that we have a system that makes mathematics and computers make decisions for us instead of giving us the tools to make an informed decision (which they should be doing instead). The current system doesn’t have the right balance.
As a former maths teacher, I would have loved to have statistics, for instance, on how each student did on their times tables each year through primary and secondary, or perhaps more information as to where gaps where in their knowledge. When I was a teacher, all I would just be told, “This student is a level 3a,” as if this explained all of the student’s abilities completely. The students’ strengths and weaknesses were left to me to determine over the course of the year. I know schools are moving away from levels in general, and this is probably a good thing. Levels shouldn’t have been targeted at subject-level, but they should have been more detailed than that. A student that is a level 4c in operations and a 3b in story problems is much more useful information than saying a student is 3a at Maths: Less information about the student’s capabilities are lost.
This process of working out strengths and weaknesses is part of teaching: working out where you can help each of your students progress. It just seems that once you figure this out, why not pass the information on to the next teachers? Most schools I taught at had a “you’re on your own” attitude, and missed the strength that comes when people work together.
The problem here is that in order to have this level of detail at our fingertips, you need to be recording data on each topic, in each subject, and at a detail level that teachers with very little time can manage. I recorded this level of detail for a few years as an experiment, and it isn’t for everyone. For one thing it is very time consuming! Even so, I found it helped me more finely tune my teaching to address weaknesses I found in each students abilities and in my own teaching methods. This, in turn, helped me raise my students attainment above where they progressed in previous years. My method, however, is not one I would prescribe to everyone. It would have to become a lot simpler and automated to work for teachers in general. Even then I doubt I would try to prescribe this as the next everyone-do-this thing that the teaching field seems so happy with.
Not only this, but most people who have the skills to utilize technology to its fullest typically don’t choose education as a path to follow. The money, the hours, and the level of respect you receive as a teacher all are good reasons to choose a different profession. As such, people with the know-how can be expensive, and money isn’t a popular thing to give to schools right now, perhaps in part because of the mostly-aimless push for technology at the same time as governments try to problem with paying for loans to banks and car manufacturers with reducing budgets of schools, health care, and local government services.
In the end, the right path to follow in education is the teacher’s own path. This is why we receive so much training and why experience matters. Teachers aren’t just facilitators to just mark papers and hand out books or laptops to students. Teachers are psychiatrists, IT specialists, physical therapists, secretaries, parents, mentors, and much more all rolled into one. They are the best people in the best positions to try and work out how to teach children and help them progress. This is best done when you have administrators, parents, students, and teachers all working together. This doesn’t happen too often, and in all my years in the education system I have only seen it happen twice, and it is powerful when it does.
It seems, however, that the opinion of the press and the government seems to promote the idea that teachers are on the same level as websites like mymaths, inexperienced teachers or an iPad and that you can just swap one for the other. The sad state of affairs is that it all comes down to money and I fear that it will get worse before it gets better. What it will take to change things is money, less bureaucracy, and public backing, and I just don’t see those three happening any time soon on a mass scale. They will continue to happen on a smaller scale for a very small number of people.