I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
— Douglas Adams —
Teachers’ attitudes towards the use of ICT in the classroom does seem to differ according to their age. I think of my mother, who has just turned sixty, and for whom keeping up with ICT trends and techniques is a burden that saps the fun out of teaching. Technology is scary and perpetually frustrating to her, and she sees no reason to change her ways when she’s had a successful career with plenty of enthusiastic and appreciative students. This reluctance to engage with new technology, suggests Mark Bernstein, is rooted in fear: fear of the unknown, fear of not being in control. I do not think that this makes older generations of teachers luddite-like, standing in the way of progress. After all, PowerPoint was about the most extravagant piece of ICT used when I was a secondary school student pupil, so even I sometimes think: “but do we really need all this”?
The answer is of course: no. We do not need it. Between our PGCE English training sessions, and several classes that I have observed, I have experienced stimulating and learning-rich activities without a tablet or a WiFi connection. Jigsaw activities, speed-debating, hot-seating, bingo, mock-trials: all great fun. Group work, in particular, seems to be particularly engaging and motivating for learners, especially when learners are given responsibility for one another’s learning, or for an end-product.
However, I also think choosing to use ICT with a specific objective can enrich a learning experience. Indeed, some of the most creative and synthetic work we have produced as PGCE cohort has been assisted by technology: that time in week 1 when we had about 5 hours to create our “What is the Role of an English teacher” videos; or just this week, when we had an hour and a half to present our thoughts about the use of ICT in the classroom using the medium of our choice (between storybird, podcast, comic strip and wiki discussion board). I think that part of what made the use of ICT successful in these cases is that it was clearly a tool that served our groups to crystallise and give shape to our ideas; we were not using technology merely for the sake of it. Similarly, one article relates a ‘compelling’ class in which the teacher made students compare different versions of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet before they further researched the themes and typed them up. Clearly, when there are clearly communicated parameters (in this case, perhaps the time allocated and the assessment-criteria), ICT can be effective even for solo learning.
Moreover, bringing ICT into the classroom reflects the reality that internet and devices are an important part of human life, now. As José Picardo reminds us, many core theories about learning (Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky), describe that children learn from one another and learn by doing. This means that the responsibility is incumbent on us, as perhaps more savvy and critically thinking adults, to model what a constructive, healthy and safe use of technology looks like. And while we cannot un-invent technology, what we can do is use it to our advantage! A study in Northern Ireland of 650 primary school pupils across two years in an under-privileged area showed that literacy and numeracy improved when iPads were used regularly in the classroom. The teachers attributed this to the fact that for children, electronic devices are synonymous with games, fun and playtime, not ‘work’. I observed this during my primary school placement: literally every single pupil was eager to take reading comprehension tests on an iPad, via the website ‘Accelerated Reader’. Apparently, the points reward system was attractive and motivating to students, who delighted in the opportunity to beat their own best score.
In short, I reckon that ICT can spice up teaching… but like any spice, it’s best used in judicious doses and combination with the right ingredients. There’s such a thing as too much cinnamon.