What can explain schools’ attitude to technology? (Part 1)

By | December 7, 2017

The recent consultations of the DfE with schools and the edtech community have prompted me to think a bit harder about the barriers to the wider adoption of effective technologies in education. They are usually presumed to be (in descending order):

  1. Teachers’ resistance to change;
  2. Schools’ intense focus on accountability measures;
  3. Affordability.

#3 isn’t going away any time soon, but numbers 1 and 2 – it seems to me at least – are significantly more nuanced than I have previously understood and are intertwined with each other. I’m just going to tackle #1 in this post or we’ll be here forever.

Whilst I’m sure that there are some teachers who dislike or even fear technology for a host of reasons, I’ve yet to meet one who doesn’t want to maximise their impact through whatever resources they have access to. The issue is deeper than the convenient ‘they just don’t want to change’ excuse – I am coming to believe that it is more to do with a failure of the system/ market/ leaders to frame technology as an integral part of being an effective teacher .

This was exemplified for me this weekend by a succession of tweets from a recently qualified teacher requesting help with an ‘eLearning’ talk they had to give. They explained that they didn’t really use technology much and were looking for useful examples to cite rather than gimmickry. This teacher clearly did not perceive that the use of technology was a routine part of their day-to-day activity. This is a single anecdote but it chimes with my wider experience that the perception of many teachers and school leaders is that technology is an intervention in and of itself rather than an embedded part of effective teaching and learning.

This is odd, because most teachers have deeply embedded the use of presentation technology (projectors and PowerPoint, at its simplest) into their exemplifications – the vital process of clearly explaining a how something works, a technique or body of knowledge. Take a teacher’s front-of-class AV equipment away and most would notice the immediate reduction in their ability to explain, and for their pupils to understand, because these technologies help illustrate, exemplify and clarify what a teacher says.

So, here we have an example of how technology has become part of accepted practice in schools, for good evidence-based reasons (the impact of teacher clarity on learning is relatively well understood). The bad news is that, at a system level, this seems to be as far as it goes. It does not appear that the ongoing exploitation of technology in pursuit of learning gains is widespread or even – in some quarters – accepted. As noted above, this isn’t simply wilful Ludditism but rather the product of a byzantine mix of factors (complexity and reliability of tech, knowing what’s possible, teacher workload, the pressure of outcome measures acting as a force of conservatism, et cetera) but I do believe it represents a failure of leadership.

I could take you to (a relatively small number of) schools where the opposite is true – where technology is leveraged against every problem, challenge and opportunity, where the accretion of multiple and sometimes very marginal gains has created exceptional cultures of empowered learners and hardworking but fulfilled teachers. These schools are almost unrecognisably diverse (take Guildford High School and Southway Primary School, for example) but share one characteristic that I can see – strong, stable and visionary leaders who are interested in how their school could be even better. They see technology as a part of the answer, and their staff have followed. They have invested time in finding what works for their context, in ensuring it is implemented in ways which remove stumbling blocks and reasons to give up, in providing ongoing support, training and – crucially – setting high expectations for teachers’ engagement with these opportunities.

Don’t interpret this as meaning that every school needs a digitally-savvy senior leader. That would be great, but it really isn’t what I’m describing. What is vital here is that the Head or Deputy understand the potential of technology to improve teaching, learning and the running of the school and are committed to harnessing it. Their personal fluency with technology is largely irrelevant. Sure, someone is going to have to do the detailed work of designing and implementing a relevant digital strategy, but without digitally-aware leadership, that job doesn’t even make it onto the school’s priority list.

Finally, widening the leadership lens a little beyond a focus on individual schools, it is hard to ignore the impact that government’s silence on this front has had over the past 7 years. Throughout the 2000s, there was a consistent emphasis from ministers and agencies on schools’ need to pursue the benefits of technology. Yes, there was plenty of money too, but that doesn’t negate the power of national leaders standing up and saying ‘This is worth your time – you should be considering this’. In the absence of a national direction and impetus, we should not be surprised that the ‘average’ school has placed limited importance on the use of technology. In my opinion, a strong statement of intent would put this back on the agenda of SLT meetings around England. It would be a start at least.

Of course, in the longer term, having an Ofsted framework which reflected the importance of technology in effective schools would provide a significant lever for teachers’ behaviours. Something like “The school’s leadership has made discerning use of technology to address challenges/ improve efficiency/ strengthen teaching and learning” in the Effectiveness of Leadership and Management judgement would send an unequivocal message that considering how technology can improve a school is a requirement for those leading them.

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