Thursday, 12 February 1998

Teachers, teaching and technology in the new millennium.

I wrote this for what was Merlin John's always excellent section of the Times Educational Supplement back at the end of 1998, to be in the TES issue for the huge annual BETT Show in January 1999. Since then I have done simply heaps of work on school design and potential school futures. What does pedagogy look like in ten years? What schools should we build, organise and design? And so on (see elsewhere in this Writing Blog). Anyway, there are two rather jolly future scenarios here, both from the teachers' eye view. Sadly, I rather regret that the "productivity" model that Hitech High offers us is the one that has too often been built, despite the horror of scenarios like these.... oh bother.

Some years before that, with a group of friends in Bangor (like Roger Keeling, the first ever chair of ITTE and Dave Siviter from MAPE), we had enormous fun exploring some future school scenarios. I will try to find them and serve them up linked from this Blog. Mind you, nobody listened to our wise words of caution then, I'm not sure they will now!

Anyway, here is the piece:

One way or another, half the teaching population leave every decade or so. But half don't. Thus the current focus on teachers' professional development with ICT will be arming many teachers well beyond 2010 and colouring the expectations of many more new entrants. It is too trite to observe that the only certainty facing the profession in the next decade or two is of uncertainty. Necessitated by that uncertainty are clear choices for the the future of teaching and learning. Those choices mean that the simple equation of children plus technology plus government enthusiasm offers many potential results, not all desirable. We are not so much in a sprint race with countries around the world to to be the first to build a world class education system as facing an orienteering challenge: never mind how fast can we run, the bigger problem is which direction to take.

Ultralab houses the National Archive of Educational Computing and the short history of computers in schools offers an interesting insight into what has, and hasn't worked in the past. For example with professional development the archive is full of in-service support for the mechanics of technology. How to: connect a dot matrix printer, centre a heading in Wordwise on a BBC B, change fonts printing from a 480Z, master tables in Word, achieve text wrap around graphics in.... well, you can imagine. Sadly there is very little reflection on the changing processes that these difficult-to-master-technologies support. Clearly the issue is not "how do I make it work?" but "what can I do with it?" and this points to a real issue at the heart of all our learning futures: are computers teaching machines (to be mastered technically), where the answer to "what can I do with it?" is to use it for the standard and predictable delivery of a static curriculum, or are they learning tools (to be mastered pedagogically) where the answer is less certain, as computers take children not only further and faster than we expected but to areas we never anticipated at all.

The two scenarios offered here suggest two realistic futures and offer a contrasting view of the impact that ICT might have on teachers and teaching in the future. Both are possible; it is time for a clearer national debate about which is desirable. Now that the work to repair two decades of neglect of literacy and numeracy is well under way, maybe it is time for that debate to begin?

Scenario 1: HighTech High1

It's 2010. Rachel is a recently qualified teacher at HighTech High (motto "We aim high to hit our targets"). Rachel needed to be highly capable at using a computer in her specialist subject Geography at university and was able to do some highly original and complex meteorological modelling as part of her PGCE project. None of this though has proved to be particularly useful in her teaching career where vast suites of networked computers are dominantly delivering a tightly tested curriculum, from a vast commercial question bank, to individual students. With each child's performance and aggregate scores linked to their homes Rachel's main need for expertise is as both a technician keeping the teaching machines running and as a communicator. Most days she fends off disappointed parents ("but he is so confident at Scouts and swimming club, it's as though this printout is for another boy...") and parents who object to the American curriculum run on the network ("I'm sorry Mrs Vijage it's part of the deal we bought into with our local provider, the software is so much cheaper and they all love Robin William's voices...").

Like her partner, who spends most of his day analysing the diagnostic information from an engine analysis computer at a car dealership, Rachel's skill is in looking at the tables of moving aggregates and intervening by prescribing remedial before school courses. Rachel already has a string of certificates (many already out of date of course) testifying to her capability as a network engineer, and as a data diagnostician and she represents a considerable investment by her employers but her real aim is to move into a more creative job.

"Teaching can be satisfying" Rachel reflects, "Sometimes out shopping I meet children that I manage and I can remember all their numbers, but it's not the career I expected it to be somehow; I hope to move on up to a post with my partner at the garage".

Scenario 2: Apollo Community School

It's 2010. Hilary is a returning teacher, attracted back by the ethos of tiny Apollo Community School, just down the road from where she lives. As a returning teacher Hilary had no experience of either the few big workstations scattered around the school corridors, nor of the huge variety of cheap and cheerful Java based tablets that most children had in their backpacks. On the other hand she can see that the children are confident and capable with actually making their technology work, but what they need is her help and advice with their learning. Hilary's original expertise was in English, with a particular soft spot for Metaphysical Poetry. She could see immediately that whilst the product of creative writing hadn't changed much, the processes involved certainly had and Hilary immediately needed help exploring some of them before offering formative advice. She was cautious about the new "Finessing" function on their server's word processor for example and had already volunteered to be part of a small project evaluating the impact on her children's writing.

So much to do, so many paths to explore, the children constantly surprising everyone with new capabilities. Hilary takes her shared role as action researcher seriously and has developed a special relationship with many of the families around the school. Thanks to a vigorous and well populated community of fellow English specialists in a virtual corner of the Internet she is also able to both contribute to and learn from the rapidly evolving subject area that she loves. Her professional development is informed by colleagues all round the world. As a teacher returner, Hilary might not recognise much of the current broad definition of literacy but learning hasn't changed much and she still loves every exhausting minute of making it happen.

Does it all fit into such a hectic week? "Ah", says Hilary, "Had we but world enough and time...".

© Stephen Heppell 1998

1 no relation by the way to the rather excellent High Tech High in San Diego with its project based teaching and articulate engaged students. But we used the name High Tech High back in Bangor a very long time ago and so i use it without aplogy here too.