One Hand Tied Behind Our Backs

I was exchanging a few emails with a colleague the other day, and he proposed an interesting question…

“…imagine that when you go to your school tomorrow, somehow all curriculum (not admin) computers, peripherals and multimedia devices had disappeared – vaporised! Could quality teaching and learning still occur in your classroom? If not, specifically why not? I have heard it said a lot (that we need some serious changes in education) and it never fails to be a crowd pleaser and draw an enthusiastic response. But do we really? Is a good teacher in 2006 really that different a species to a good teacher from 20 years ago? Or 30, or 40 or 50 years ago?”

Interesting question. I recall Seymour Papert proposing a similar question in one of his books, where he suggested that if you had a time machine whereby you could go back to the late 1800s, pick up a teacher, a doctor and an engineer and bring them back to the 21st century, how well could they function? Papert suggested that the doctor and the engineer would simply be unable to do their job when faced with all the technological advancement that has taken place over the past 100 years, but the teacher – if he or she chose to – could simply do what they have always done. of course, the key phrase there is “if they chose to”, but if the teacher were given a textbook and a piece of chalk it’s quite feasible that they could indeed still teach.

Could quality teaching and learning still occur in such classroom?… It depends how you measure quality I guess, but I’d have to say that the answer for me personally would be no. Or at least it would be so difficult that I doubt I would continue to persevere under such conditions.

I was recently put into exactly such a situation here in Canada when I was asked to teach an Introduction to Business class, and the resources I was given were an empty classroom with rows of desks, a chalkboard and a set of class textbooks. That was pretty much it. No Internet, no TV, no video, no DVD, no radio… no nothing. The expectation (and the accepted method for teaching this type of course) is to provide the students with plenty of notes and exercises from the textbook, then work through each chapter in order, have a quiz at the end of each chapter, followed by a major summative assessment task towards the end of the course. Could quality teaching and learning occur in this situation? Maybe, but I found it really hard going. As you can probably imagine, it was very difficult trying to keep kids motivated under such conditions, and no amount of singing and dancing on my part was likely to change that.

On a few occasions I managed to drag in a TV and video player from somewhere else and showed some relevant videos to try and expose the kids to concepts that existed outside the classroom, but that was just a very superficial change to the teaching method, (and probably contravenes the rules of the hypothetical situation anyway, since I just introduced technology into the classroom). So, was quality teaching and learning taking place in this classroom under these conditions? I’d say not. the kids were bored, I was frustrated, and we were all getting rather sick of the whole thing. I tried to also bring in some other game-like, in-class activities to learn the course content (because, let’s face it, teaching like this is really just all about the content), but the kids just saw it as rather naff and cutesy and lost interest very quickly. Maybe I’m just a lousy teacher…

I think that the question of “Could quality teaching and learning take place in a classroom devoid of ICT-style technologies?” makes a presumption that our kids live in a world where ICT’s do not play a central role in their lives. Unfortunately, I believe they DO play a central role, and if we remove them from our arsenal of teaching resources then we severely limit our ability to connect with our students.

The answer to the question, “If not, why not?” is hard to answer but relating it back to my Intro to Business class, I suspect it has something to do with the conflict between our learning space being such a closed environment, while the nature of business is all about being part of “the real world”. I bought in newspapers, taught the kids how to follow the stock market, and tried to keep in touch with the big world of business, but there are limits of how effectively this worked, especially over the longer term. The kids did not know much about the course content, and therefore the only sources of “information” that they came into contact with was me and the textbook. Personally, I doubt either of those things is enough. I can try to tell a good story, try and enliven the information a bit, bring in news articles for discussion, etc but seriously, how long do you think it is until the novelty wears off that act? And the textbook? It was not too bad as textbooks go, but you imagine how excited you’d be to face it every day for 75 minutes.

The real problem as I see it is that in all of these other scenarios, the teacher is still at the centre of the learning process. It’s still all about “teaching” and not enough about “learning”. In my experience, ICTs have been enormously successful at engaging students, giving them knowledge tools, and shifting the focus of the “teaching and learning” process back onto learning and the students. Conversely, the removal of ICTs from the process tends to see students becoming more easily bored, more difficult to engage, and more likely to focus on content over process.

I imagine (or at least I hope!) that any teacher reading this will quickly say that such a teacher-focused classroom environment is not sustainable in the long term if we are to fully engage our students in the learning process. I’m sure that you and many other teachers out there could suggest a raft of strategies and ideas to make these lessons more interesting… But I’ll bet that nearly every one of those suggestions involves bringing in some form of outside resource… Now, my colleague proposed that the rules of this little game are that all computers, peripherals and multimedia devices are not allowed in the classroom. Let’s clarify those rules by saying that we also can’t include any DVDs, videos, guest speakers, posters, etc, etc. Let’s not just single out ICT tools, because they are just a contemporary version of these other tools. Without interesting, relevant, external resources can your classroom provide an environment of quality teaching and learning? I think it would be a bloody tough job.

Interestingly, in this particular business class we eventually got to a point – about halfway through the semester – were I decided to just ditch the “standard approach” and try something different. Instead of working through the rest of the textbook, I divided the class into groups and asked them to turn the remaining 12 chapters into a series of podcasts. The change in the engagement level was enormous and I believe the quality of the learning and thinking that took place was far superior to what had taken place beforehand. Same kids. Same content. Different approach. Using relevant technologies, I would contend that the end results were much, much better, with happier kids as a bonus.

None of this is meant to be a criticism of the teachers at this particular school, most of whom are caring professionals who try very hard to use a variety of teaching methods and resources to engage the kids. But my point is that “good teaching” happens DESPITE the often-prevailing nature of our current school system and not because of it. If the system changed a bit to become less content-driven, less focused on marks and high-stakes testing, less focused on the rails and more willing to acknowledge the side trips as David Warlick might say, then I think everyone – teachers and students – would all be better off.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 One Hand Tied Behind Our Backs by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.