Could technology help us understand what great teaching looks like?

By | June 29, 2014

During a recent visit to a school and a conversation with some Year 9s about their teachers’ use of technology to help them learn, I was struck by how infrequently we truly apply technology in education to the task of improvement.

None of the pupils could identify a time when technology had taken their learning (or their teachers’ teaching) beyond what was possible with traditional methods and, if I’m honest, were a bit surprised that this was ‘a thing’ at all. An awkward silence descended on the group who were clearly thinking that this wasn’t panning out as the ‘Get of P5 French Free’ card they’d been promised.

“Well, do any of you use tech outside of school to do things ‘better’?” I asked, flailing around wildly in the face of their stony indifference to the alleged transformative power of technology.

I wasn’t hopeful but one girl, bless her, had about the best answer I’ve ever heard;

“I play cricket for Yorkshire U14s and we use an app with the coaches to improve our batting technique. They film us on the tablet and then compare our stance and grip with top professionals. That way I can see exactly where I’m going wrong and make small changes to what I do. It’s really helping me improve”.



What I love – and hate – most about what she said was that in her ‘real’ life, she could easily and fluently describe how well-applied, function-specific technology was improving her learning. In her school life, this was a totally alien concept. I’m not saying that this precise example isn’t replicated in PE lessons up and down the country – it is, and well done for that – but this form of analysis rarely makes it beyond the school gym.

My point is broader and its that as a sector, there isn’t a very widespread awareness that one of the key affordances of technology is its ability to tell us things about ourselves we wouldn’t otherwise know.

Minister for Skills and Enterprise @matthancockmp spoke about this at the recent launch of the @EdnFoundation‘s ‘Technology in Education – A System View’ report. He wondered why, as a profession, we don’t have access in education to the same tools for improvement which are part and parcel of other’s jobs. Drawing a parallel with doctors (admittedly the ‘go to’ comparator for evidence-led thinkers), the Minister asked why in the age of big data and lesson capture technologies we don’t yet benefit from ‘lesson analytics‘.

Lesson analytics, achieved with technologies such as Iris Connect or Star Lesson and an anonymised, aggregated approach to data analysis, could help teachers understand which parts of their lessons or teaching techniques were most successful, and adapt their practice as a result.

You’d also have to build in some kind of user feedback metric (e.g. learners self-reporting which parts they found the most useful) and correlate these data with harder measures (such as actual examination results achieved). You’d obviously want all this moderated by contextual data, so that extrapolations of ‘what works’ for certain pupils are valid and useful. It all sounds quite daunting, longitudinal and fraught with barriers, institutional as well as professional.

Such an initiative would need to be led by government if it is to gain the momentum and acceptance it needs. I recently had the chance to talk to someone senior at a well-known search engine alternately renowned/ maligned for its collection and use of data at the macro level. When I raised the possibility of their organisation getting involved in learning or lesson analytics he visibly blanched at the thought of the negative press.

However, the pay-off would be worth it. It’s not that difficult to imagine a future UK where, once lesson analytics have been successfully systematised, teachers would routinely use the information delivered through a national dataset to pick the most effective methods for supporting their pupils, at a class and individual level. The current age of random pursuit of perceived ‘best practice’ would be a thing of the past and the profession would be, well, more professional – combining their judgement with what the evidence tells us.

It has always been our ethical duty to try and improve teaching, and now the tools to do this reliably and repeatably exist, albeit in a raw state. Isn’t it time we did something about this?

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