Caged

Martin Levins
30 November, 2007
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Mention the surname “Cage” most will probably think of the actor Nicolas, or the American music composer, John.

John is probably best known for his 1952 composition 4’33”, whose three movements are performed in “silence” without a single note being played. Not many know that he was a bit of a philosopher as well, once claiming: “I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones”

What are the “old ideas” that should frighten us? First, let’s look at how we view change. Calling a motor vehicle a “horseless carriage” seems quaint now — the province of black and white movies — but the phrase is indicative of the way we think when we experience change. A carriage was for, well, carrying, and the horse provided the (ahem) horsepower. So everything remains the same, except for the fuel, and less manure.

Similarly, the development of technology in education can result in our doing the same sort of teaching and learning as we always have.

It’s a sad indictment that a didactic, industrial mode education is still acceptable and measurements of success boil down (in a lot of areas) to how many marks you can amass in one three-hour time period.

So it’s not surprising that the “new ideas” promised by technology are rejected, nor that the technology itself becomes the focus.

I’ve recently heard claims that the installation of Interactive White Boards can result in 100 percent of teachers using the appropriate digital tools, but I question the word “appropriate”. I have yet to see much use of these in any way other than didactic. Their very placement would support this mode of “delivery”, with teachers as a sort of academic FedEx.

I don’t believe that a kid’s mind should be considered as a tabula rasa, ready for ideas to be delivered like so much pizza. Rather I believe a child’s mind, to be a plastic organisational thingy that tries to make sense of its surroundings and builds its own model of its environment.

The argument goes that older teachers will resist the uptake of technology, so let’s give them something simpler — an Interactive White Board.

It’s tempting to state that as we age, our brain, like our skin, becomes less plastic, but this isn’t the case. People of all ages will accept technologies when they are seen to be enabling, empowering, engaging and relevant to the user. Good teachers will pick up good ideas because they are good teachers, they see that things have changed “since they went to school” and want to adapt their teaching and learning experiences accordingly.

Others will adopt a technology that supports their teacher-centric, didactic comfort zone only so someone can check a box that says “We use technology in teaching”. This is not a recent complaint — in the early 1990s, Larry Cuban advanced his “oversold and underused” argument, proposing that a lot of technology is there for its own sake (although a lot of technology has changed since he wrote this).

In an interview conducted in 2000 he said “We need to ask the right questions. What are the goals of schooling? Do we care most about literacy? Social development? Other goals? The school community needs to reach a consensus, then ask, ‘Now, how might the technology help us reach these goals?’”

Can we reach a consensus?

Parents are a big part of our community. Yet there is a basic disconnect between their view of education, and the reform that technology both invites and expedites. Schools need to be careful that parents are included in the decision matrix, but they need to recognise that parents need educating too. With couples having children at an increasingly older age, it can easily be 20–25 years since a parent of a year seven child attended school

Old ideas are quite scary here as they impede this reform, exacerbating the problems faced by a student facing a world that has moved on from the industrial age.

“My child needs to practise handwriting”, “computers are only used for word processing and surfing the web”, and “computers will make my child less creative” are examples of these old ideas.

No amount of cool technology will advance its use. We have to escape the cargo cult mentality of technology accumulation, hoping for reform. Reform of pedagogy is where we need to focus — even when the leopard is let out of the cage — so let’s get out of ours.

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