“Maybe I like the misery”: or why low-tech teaching sometimes rocks

SALESMAN: Teamaster takes the misery out of making tea. What do you think?
MRS DOYLE: Maybe I like the misery.

Father Ted, “A Christmassy Ted

I teach science.  I like shiny new things, and if they light up or make noises, so much the better.  I like shiny new things that help me teach science.  I love using the fact that mobile phone cameras pick up infrared to introduce the electromagnetic spectrum.  Being able to use the speakers on my whiteboard to set up sound interference is cool (OK, it’s geeky, and that’s the same thing, isn’t it?).  However, when a study reported that using laptops and tablets in lectures led to worse outcomes, it reminded me of my doubts about edtech.  Not so much about the temptations of having so much other stuff at the end of an internet connection, but whether some of the ways we use technology in schools gets in the way of actual learning.

Take dataloggers.  On one hand, they can quickly, accurately and patiently record measurements from a demonstration, and the quality and quantity of data can allow classes to study things that can’t really be observed with human hands, eyes and brains alone.  On the other hand, they can make learners’ experience of an experiment more second-hand, less memorable.  It can be a bit boring recording the temperature of some melted wax not change as it freezes back into a solid, but often that’s the way into  the idea of latent heat.  Watching a computer do the same doesn’t have the same emotional effect.

The same separation from reality happens when we use information technology to process numbers or words.  The process of plotting a real graph, on graph paper, with a real pencil requires an engagement with the numbers being plotted.  It requires thought about which variable is which and where they need to go.  Spreadsheets can produce a beautiful graph quickly.  In a work situation, that’s great.  In a learning situation, not so much.

A similar thing happens when hand writing is replaced by word processing.  For a hand-written essay, it was necessary to have a fairly good idea of the whole line of argument before writing anything.  Because it’s easy to edit, rearrange and delete material in a word processor, it’s easy to dump thoughts into a document without having worked out an actual line of argument.  (We know.  It shows.  Ed.).  If the aim is to produce a product, it’s a boon.  If the aim is to think through an idea and learn from it, the technology has cut out a valuable- maybe, the valuable stage.

None of this is to say that I’d want to get rid of all the technology in schools.  I love using simulations and animations to get inside processes, and it’s wonderful to bring audio and video into lessons in a seamless way (I’m old enough to remember when watching the school television meant going to a designated room at 11.37 exactly, because that was when the programme was broadcast).  It’s great to share resources and ideas with pupils and colleagues so easily.  But that leaves a lot of edtech that I’m not so convinced by.

Perhaps the problem is that what technology often does doesn’t mesh together well with how learning happens.  Technology- especially information technology- is brilliant at taking difficult, fiddly or boring processes, and putting them in a black box.  We can then control the box from the outside, without having to worry about the inner workings any more.  The trouble is that I increasingly suspect that learning often depends on what’s going on inside that box, and it’s not enough to control it from the outside.  Our current tendency to judge the quality of the product may be diverting our attention from less visible thinking.

The misery of learning?  I hope not.  But some of the things that have been thought miseries are valuable.  Maybe I like them.



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