Archive for June, 2012


Progressive Teaching Methods In the Primary School

June 30, 2012

I recently saw the following comment on Twitter about plans to emphasise the teaching of grammar in primary schools (and by “emphasise” I mean “actually do”):

To understand how there can be controversy here it is necessary to understand how primary education is understood within the tradition of progressive education. Here is a flowchart to clarify matters (it may also help with the debate over phonics):

Hope that clears everything up.


The Future Part 4: Technological Change as Normal and Unpredictable

June 24, 2012

Technology is often used as an excuse for dumbing-down. Shift Happens UK  throws out claims such as:

According to BBC News a new blog is created every second. There are over 106 million registered users of MySpace (as of September 2006). If MySpace were a country, it would be the 11th-largest in the world (between Japan and Mexico). The average MySpace page is visited 30 times a day. 1, 400, 000 UK pupils have their own webpage… Predictions are that e-paper will be cheaper than real paper.  47 million laptops were shipped worldwide last year.  7 out of 10 teenagers have a handheld games machine. 9 out of 10 teenagers have a home computer , a mobile phone and a games console. 84% of young people play computer games at least once a fortnight. 72% of teachers never play computer games. Predictions are that by 2013 a supercomputer will be built that exceeds the computation capability of the human brain. And while technical predictions further out than about 15 years are hard to do predictions are that by 2049 a £500 computer will exceed the computational capabilities of the entire human species.

The future is clearly an unpredictable place and very different place. From this perspective it is claimed, or implied, that technological change has made knowledge, particularly traditional academic knowledge, obsolete and the future so unpredictable that we cannot prepare for it by conventional forms of learning. Sometimes this is simply a way to embellish some of the claims I have blogged about previously. If you wish to claim that schools should be teaching creativity or should downgrade the teaching of knowledge  then these claims can be given weight by suggesting they describe the consequences of new technology. Such broad assertions are inevitably so vague that they are impossible to prove or disprove. We can, however, challenge the broader narratives about technological change used to justify them.

The first narrative to be considered is simply an account of history in which technology changes so fast that all knowledge is likely to become obsolete before too long. In this view of history people have always failed to appreciate technological change. For example:

… in 1956 when I was in school, British Astronomer Royal, Dr Richard van der Riet Wooley said, “Space travel is utter bilge.” … a few years later … The view of the Earth as seen from space signalled a major shift in our world view. Those whose formative years (generally thought to be between earth and age 6) occurred before we explored space have a very different world-view or paradigm than those who were born afterwards. By 1969 we had placed a man on the moon and returned him safely to Earth. The world changed.

I’m not suggesting that the one event was responsible for the paradigm shift all by itself, but it is symbolic of it. During the time of the “space race”, nascent technologies became mature. The world of digital electronics and random-access devices grew at a phenomenal rate. The 60s marked a transition to an era some have never fully accepted.

The problem we now encounter in education is simply this: Our children operate with a completely different world-view than that of many adults. As educators we have a sacred duty to support and enhance the development of our youth, not to try and convert them to outmoded ways of thinking. This then is the pivotal challenge of our time.

Thornberg (1991)

Nobody can deny that technological change has occurred and has changed society. However, others have denied that even something as shockingly futuristic as space travel changed society greatly:

Everyone of a certain age thinks of the 1969 moon landing as a symbolic dividing line between the new technological era and the old. At the time, the moon landing occasioned great excitement and it was heralded as the beginning of a new age. But it’s more properly seen as the culmination of some older technological developments. What did the moon landing lead to in our everyday standard of living? Teflon, Tang, and some amazing photographs. A better knowledge of astronomy. In other words, it wasn’t like the railroad or automobile. And these days, we’re worried that Teflon does more harm to the environment than good.

Cowen (2011)

We can also be wary of suggestions that technological change has always been so unpredictable that the experts of the day were taken aback. The quotation about space travel is not as clear cut as it might appear. According to Terry et al (1995):

What the Astronomer Royal really said (I heard him on Radio Newsreel) was: “All this talk about space travel is utter bilge, really.” Anyone who had seen the flamboyant articles about space travel and the imminent colonisation of the moon and planets that were splashed all over the newspapers in 1956, with science fiction style illustrations, must have been immediately aware of what the new Astronomer Royal was riled about. The newspaper editors clearly did not like this so they deleted the first four words to make it appear that he was decrying space travel itself.

He went on to say:” It would cost as much as a major war just to put a man on the moon.” This turned out to be an accurate prediction. One London paper printed his words truthfully but the lie had already gone around the world and nobody was interested in the truth still struggling to get its boots on.

Misattributed quotations about people who failed to appreciate technological change are not a rarity. A Washington Post article recently reported that President Obama incorrectly claimed that:

One of my predecessors, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone, ‘It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?’ That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore because he’s looking backwards.

This story, contradicted by all the known facts, had previously been told by President Reagan and reference to it had appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica. We seem to enjoy hearing that people in the past, particularly important people, failed to appreciate great innovations (as well as telephones, there are also fake quotations about resistance to cars, trains and stethoscopes). While there, quite possibly, are some quotations of this sort that are genuine, we simply cannot assume that they paint a genuine picture of how people in the past have related to the future. It is far easier to see reason to think we predict too much technological change. A quick look at a previous generation’s sci-fi will find countless overly ambitious predictions. For instance, consider Dan Dare and Lost in Space’s space voyages set in the late 1990’s. HAL never turned up in 2001 and, hopefully, at no point in the next ten years will our safety be threatened by the replicants of Blade Runner (set in 2019) or the effects of eating Soylent Green (set in 2022).

Thornberg (1991) does, unintentionally, give us some indicator of how we do fail to predict the future, particularly the following passages:

Looking at paradigms for educational change for the next century, I can safely predict the death of the textbook. …They are repositories of information and they occasionally provide impetus to explore a subject in more depth. These functions can be performed much more easily by CD-ROMs.

Look at the new super Nintendo system. This game machine is really a Trojan horse. It looks like a game machine; it plays like a game machin, but watch out. Sometime later this year Nintendo will roll out an adaptor complete with over 8 megabytes of RAM and a CD-ROM drive for about $200. This means that for well under $400, kids will have a complete multimedia workstation. You can be sure that keyboards, mice and modems won’t be far behind. If I’m right in this prediction, Apple and IBM will just be transient blips on the face of personal computing unless they respond strongly, and respond fast.

Roger Wagner (the creator of HyperStudio) has described the VCR as the printer of the 90’s… One of the most important features of a VCR is that in addition to playing back tapes, it can be used to record. This places the means of “printing” in the hands of everyone with a VC, assuming they have a video/audio source to connect to the recorder. After awhile you may find that your VCR has moved to your printer stand.

The mistakes here are obvious. New innovations have tended to replace other new innovations rather than older inventions. It is not that we fail to predict that new technology will appear, more that we often fail to appreciate how briefly it will last. If we want to make predictions about the future, we might not do too badly by predicting that technology that has lasted hundreds of years already will, on average, outlast technology that is brand new. More generally, change does not affect everything equally and we will fail to predict what will be surplus to requirements in the future. We can assume that while traditions may one day prove outdated, they don’t change half as speedily as fashions. As similar argument can be made about the subjects taught in schools. Most of the words I learned at school from programming languages have been superceded many times over. None of the words of Latin I learnt have been, or ever will be. The best example of how our inability to predict the future does not give grounds for abandoning the past is probably that of algebra. Opposed by progressive educationalists for decades – Ravitch (2000) includes multiple examples of it being derided or rejected for its uselessness and irrelevance – it now provides essential knowledge for almost any sophisticated use of computers. If we accept that technological change has always happened we, nevertheless, have no reason to think that it favours a progressive over a traditional curriculum.


Cowen, Tyler (2011-01-25). The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better: A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton (Kindle Locations 97-102). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Ravitch, Diane (2000), “Left Back”, Simon and Schuster.

Terry, J.A. and Rudge, John (1995) “Current Affairs”, New Scientist 16 September 1995

Thornberg, David, D.  (1991) “Edutrends 2010” Starsong Publications.


More about Phones

June 16, 2012

My blogpost about “educational” use of phones in class has generated quite a lot of debate, (even a couple of blogposts) and so I thought I’d respond to at least some of it in a new post. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the comments on that post. I would recommend reading through them as here I am mainly revisiting the “attack” posts and there are a lot of better ones that don’t really need a comment from me.

As you may recall, I argued that phones are obviously a distraction from learning. I observed the absurdity of the most common attempt to downplay this issue. I argued that even the alleged benefits of using phones in class relied on accepting the framework of progressive education, which challenges at least some aspects of: the legitimacy of teacher authority; the value of subject content, or the importance of direct instruction. Finally, I observed the typical behaviour of the mobile phone advocates and supporters of progressive education in general when confronted with debate and dissent.

I will revisit each of these points in turn in order to consider the counter-arguments. The distraction issue is, to me, very difficult to overcome but some people have tried. One of the most inevitable approaches (common to the progressive tradition) is simply to dismiss it as a significant problem and suggest that any apparent problem is down to the shortcomings of any teacher who dare disagree and that, a better teacher (often, but not always an appeaser) would have solved those problems:


If a teacher is sufficiently interesting, their students will prefer to concentrate on what s/he is saying. If the teacher is a bore, students will amuse themselves somehow. In my young day, I either passed notes, drew on my textbook, or read my own book under the desk Now I might tweet about how bored I was.  (Comment from chris)

If you are crystal clear about when and how phones are to be used, then there isn’t a problem. (Comment from Lindsay)

One thing that does worry me is so many people saying its a classroom management issue… I agree that it is… But as the teacher we will find it a whole lot easier to manage children if we meet them half way where appropriate, and embrace the things they do obviously love! (Comment from Mike Elliott)

I also wonder if part of ( I say part) of the problem with challenging classes which by the way I have lots of: ADHD, abused children, autistic children, and very low ability in one class for 2 years, is that we constantly say ‘you can’t rather than ‘you can’. Challenging children need extra stimulus not just the teacher… (Comment from Mike Elliott)

Obviously I have no sympathy for the “blame the teacher” stuff, particularly in those cases where appeasement, or making lessons more interesting, is suggested as the key to behaviour management. Distractions caused by mobile phone use will be lessened by better classroom management. However, better classroom management comes (in part) from management of distractions. There’s no point working hard to sort out behaviour in one way, only to undermine it in another.

Others (taking a more sensible approach than the behaviour denialists) have questioned the scope of the issue. Do my concerns apply to all learners? Can we trust sixth form students or FE students not to let themselves be distracted? Perhaps we could also ask about students in HE or upper school in grammar schools. It might well be less of a problem in one-to-one tuition or small group teaching where a teacher can directly oversee students more easily. I don’t really have answer to this (feel free to comment if you do) but I feel this is in many ways a side issue to what I was talking about which was, inevitably, based on teaching whole classes in secondary schools.

There’s also the question of the nature of the ban. Having worked at several schools where phones were banned in class, but not in school, and experienced lots of serious misuse, I would heartily recommend complete prohibition with a requirement that if parents insist their children need a phone for the journey to or from school then it should be handed in at reception at the start of the day, and collected at the end. I have seen this work very well indeed, although it needs managers with some backbone. That said, it is always the enforcement that matters more than the precise rules, so in some schools it might be possible to get away with something less strict. However, a rule that says phones are only allowed when teachers say so, is likely to be harmful to learning, as it creates constant pressure for all teachers to conform to the lowest common denominator. Any situation where the recommended sanction for phone use in class is to ask the child to put the phone away is an absolute disaster in most schools.

Little has been said to defend the illogical “would you ban anything else that distracts?” approach, but comments close to that line of argument haven’t discontinued:

I can’t express how strongly I disagree with the attitude that if we find something kids like and enjoy; we ban it! That to me is the insane approach. Comment from Mike Elliott

However, an equally illogical line of argument that I had seen before but didn’t mention last time – that as we cannot hope to eliminate phones completely we shouldn’t ban them – has reappeared (or at least I think that’s what these comments were getting at):

Deciding to block out the existence of mobile phones is like censoring all conversations about sex – the more we avoid something, the more appealing it becomes.  We create the taboo and expect children to not be curious.  It’s a fairly Victorian concept.

From the New Stateswoman blog.

Very hard to know how such a ban could be enforced (good idea or no). Parents might back it in principle but they’ll want an exception made for their wee Jeannie… (Comment from maths teacher)

Apart from the fact I have seen a mobile phone ban work well, the logic of this argument, that if you can’t eliminate something completely then it is best not to prohibit it, is obviously absurd and almost everything that is banned in schools (say, racial abuse or setting fires) provides an obvious counter-example to this line of argument.

There have been a few suggestions for ways of using phones, such as photographing homework instructions, or timing events, that assume a lack of equipment, or laziness, rather than progressive pedagogy, but nobody has really objected to the point about progressive education. Far from denying that progressive ideology is required for a belief in classroom use of mobile phones, people have gone out of their way to reinforce the point. Some have described what happens in their lessons and it does not appear to be the teacher teaching the class:

In the next two weeks, I will be teaching one of my English classes about non-fiction and media by asking them to create a documentary, using their mobiles phones to film interviews and to take pictures.  I will trust them to use their phones sensibly by reminding them of the consequences of inappropriate use.  I will use technology to facilitate the writing of explanation in the form of ‘voiceovers’, which they will record on their phones and save on a memory stick.

From The New Stateswoman blog.

I would have to disagree with you. I am no tech expert, however I do allow my pupils to use phones in class. Here are a few instances of this:

  1. They can take photos of text book pages and pictures so they can read/look at them at home.
  2. when we are in an ict room there are never enough pc’s for each pupil so sometimes some pupils research using their phone.
  3. they are often more comfortable using the camera/video on their phone than a school flip camera and so choose to use it by preference. This also means smaller groups in class when they are making videos
  4. there are Websites like polleverywhere that I use. This allows the pupils to text in answers and opinions anonymously so I can get some excellent AfL
  5. in class pupils are starting to ask if they can access my blog to get information to inform their work (this has been particularly noticeable during revision lessons)

There are other instances too, like checking the spelling of a word using a dictionary on their phone that happen quite regularly in lessons. (Comment by geogteacher)

I take all of your points here, but I rarely have all 30 students working in the same class unless I am running a classroom workshop. Most of the time they are using various practice rooms, see my post here:

I am very lucky to work in a school where I can trust 95% of the students. They are far from biddable, but they are respectful on the whole. Have you looked into Musical Futures pedagogy? (Comment by Martin Said)

I think if a teacher just stands at the front the whole time or in their chair like my secondary teachers did then you’re right it would be hard to manage. However if the teacher sets group work and interacts frequently with the children then it will be so much easier to manage that child in the corner a teacher can’t see to well from the front… (Comment by Mike Elliott)

Others have actually defending the tenets, or slogans, of progressive education:

…you say,

“Learning involves the intentional acquisition of knowledge and is not simply a by-product of purposeless activity or play.”

Let me quote John Seeley Brown who says in his book “A New Culture of Learning”..

“In a world of near-constant flux, play becomes a strategy for embracing change, rather than a way for growing out of it.” This is not to ignore a need for knowledge but to recognize that simply, knowing a bunch of stuff is no longer suffice. What play does is suggest to the learner that there are multiple ways to find answers and discover ways to solve problems.

You also say,
“Teachers are experts who can pass on knowledge to their students more effectively than if they are left to find it for themselves.”

This assumes the primary purpose of schools is to pass along knowledge. Kids don’t need teachers to give them knowledge, they need teachers to help them learn and learn beyond schools. That includes helping them connect to others. This is the fundamental shift I’d suggest is most difficult for our schools.

… all times it should be about helping them become learners and live in a world that indeed does have ubiquitous access and that in itself should have us questioning our methods. If it doesn’t, if we say, “I don’t care about them having access to the world’s knowledge in their hands, I’m teaching how I’ve always taught”, I’d say that’s problematic.

As one high school student stated, “The day I needed to memorize the capital of Florida ended the day my phone knew the answer”. (Comment by Dean Shareski)

Sure if you’re standing at the front and want kids to pay attention to you, a phone is a distraction and has no place in a school. But what if we taught differently? Should we teach differently? I’m not expecting we understand specifically what that might look like but you’re painting me a picture of the same classroom I was in 30 years ago.

If we haven’t realized by now that the world has epistemically changed and changed precisely in the area of learning, there’s something wrong.  (Comment by Dean Shareski)

As a music teacher I deal primarily in “skills”. In terms of an epistemology of music, this could be describes of knowledge how to. This is where I err from Willingham’s view that factual knowledge precedes skill.

…There is an inherent and unhealthy need in western culture to make music into something tangible, which is a result of a traditional hierarchical model applied to music, where the composer sits atop a chain which runs through performer to consumer. The distinction between performer/composer/listener would not be understood in many cultures. There is some excellent research on this the musicologist Nicholas Cook.

By the way I don’t think that project based learning’s requirement for a product is at odds with this observation, as the musical learning is a result of the product, but is not the product itself.

Musical progression is a difficult thing to describe non-musically. Musical Futures has had a massive impact on music education and at its heart is the teaching of music musically. Students experience and internalise sounds first, then learn the factual knowledge associated with this.

As a music teacher, and one who uses a Musical Futures approach, I support the exploration of the judicial use of mobile technology. The potential in the devices seems worth exploration, and the barriers presented are exactly that. They are bad things. They are bad things that we might overcome. (Comment by Martin Said)

This article actually saddens me a little for the following reasons:
1. You say the primary purpose of teachers is to impart knowledge. The whole premise of the current curriculum is that teachers teach skills so that children can acquire their own knowledge. How many of us remember the teacher who told us about some random scientific fact? But does remember the teacher who taught us how to research or search the internet of ask appropriate questions!
Additionally, shouldnt we prepare the children for life outside school and education? If we ban things the kids are only going to use more and more as they get older (which you said yourself) then surely we are hampering their education rather than enhancing it. (Comment by Mike Elliott)

I’m not going to explain here why I think progressive education is wrong, but I would recommend anyone read more widely on this blog before trying to persuade me that there is any benefit to that particular tradition. In particular, there will be several upcoming posts that deal directly with the idea that technological change justifies reducing the subject knowledge content of the curriculum.

Finally, the attitude of the progressives to debate and dissent has been pretty much the same as ever. At least one person who tweeted about my blogpost decided to block me first. Others have been personal or even insulting:

… to completely dismiss mobile technologies as having no place in a classroom is bordering on educational malpractice. (Comment by Dean Shareski)

You write lucidly and argue well Andrew but there is a joylessness here that I sense is a result of you feeling at odds with what you would deem the prominent progressive educationalist view. (Comment by Martin Said)

But it’s exactly this kind of post – the wolf in sheep’s clothing – that is latched onto by the luddites who want to proclaim that technology is bad and use the fallacy in reasoning, “We’ve never done that before, so let’s just keep doing what we’ve always done!” (Even though what we’ve always done doesn’t work…) I’m really disappointed that you are being given this platform and this voice when you simply got in over your head…

…Please stop spouting off about your own deficiencies as a teacher. It’s not relevant that you found mobile phones to be a distraction. You are a survey of 1, but you are influencing others to avoid technology through fear and ungrounded accusations. Please just stop. If you have nothing impactful to say, just say nothing… (Comment by Jesse)

Others have talked as if I’m against all technology in the classroom:

Others have spent time reassuring each other that their arguments aren’t as bad as they seem:

I always enjoy reading your thoughts Dean! I particularly enjoy your last line, “…to completely dismiss mobile technologies as having no place in a classroom is bordering on educational malpractice.” As usual with any educational tool or pedagogical thinking, it seems that it is the absolutes that hinder progress and effectiveness. There are times for this and times for that and complete isolation has seemed to be good only for conflict! (Comment by Kristin Tamas)

I am of the view that little has been said to counter my previous post on by the pro-phones side. If anything we seem only to have confirmed the extent to which advocating the use of phones in class is a proxy for the progressive education, with nothing in its favour for those of us who have no sympathy for the progressive education tradition and who would rather teach than let kids look things up on their phones.


The Insanity of Allowing Phones in Class

June 11, 2012

I was chatting to a scout leader a few days ago. He told me of the measures they had to take on camping trips or at troop meetings to deal with mobile phones. They collected them in and held onto them until it was time for the scouts to go home. Without this precaution, scouts could not be counted on to do anything, even sleep, due to the ongoing temptation of being able to text their mates or surf the net. A Girls’ Brigade officer I know told me something similar. Phones had to be prohibited if you wanted children to do anything. Even in a situation where both children and adults are volunteers, and the activities were usually intended to be fun, they were just too much of a distraction. According to one news report, there may even be problems with children preferring texting to sleeping.

Now none of this should be at all surprising. A lot of adults (myself included) are addicted to using their mobile phones. If I sometimes lack the self-control to put my phone away when there are more important things to do, how much worse must it be for children whose ability to pay attention often seem limited at the best of times? Combined with the risks of inappropriate use and the risk of losing their phones, it would clearly be best if phones weren’t allowed in schools and it should be an absolute priority to make sure students do not have access to their phones in lessons. What is surprising, therefore, is that there are people, including a small minority of teachers, who think children should have access to mobile phones in lessons. Why would anyone want to increase the distractions in class? To endorse such a bizarre position you would expect a killer argument; some really good reason why an extra distraction wasn’t actually bad thing. So when, at the weekend, I stumbled into some supporters of phones in class on Twitter, I was curious as to what justification they could give. What kind of logic could make someone want kids to pay less attention to learning? What could the argument be?

It was this:

Yes, this was the brilliant insight. If you are willing to ban one thing for being a distraction then you are obliged to ban anything that can, in some way, be a distraction. Apparently, the only possibilities are to ban everything or ban nothing. There can be no possibility of seeking to reduce the distractions as far as is practical. There can be no distinction between necessary and unnecessary distractions. There can be no middle ground between prohibition and licence. By the same argument one assumes that if we ban shouting, we must ban whispering. If we ban eating in lessons, we must ban breathing. If we ban guns, we must ban rulers.

Now from the point of view of somebody who wants children to learn, and is aware that they learn more if they pay attention to their teacher and their work, this is such a weak argument as to amaze. To see it used once would make you wonder about the common sense of the person using it. To see it used repeatedly makes you wonder what is going.

And that’s what you have to understand. The lunacy of the position is only apparent if you have accepted the following:

  • Kids are in school to learn rather than be entertained.
  • Learning involves the intentional acquisition of knowledge and is not simply a by-product of purposeless activity or play.
  • Teachers are experts who can pass on knowledge to their students more effectively than if they are left to find it for themselves.
  • Teachers have a right to use authority over children in order to ensure they learn.

If, alternatively, you despise adult authority then banning phones is a violation of human rights. If you think learning results, not from the direct communication of knowledge and activities focused on using particular knowledge, but instead from becoming well-practised at play and chat (often referred to as the acquisition of “skills”) then distractions are positively to be welcomed. If teachers know little or nothing then being able to surf the net, or communicate with one’s peers, will increase learning. If there is something undesirable about being taught then creating an environment where teaching is prevented is actually a good thing (often this is called “independent learning”). If you care more about children having fun, (often referred to as being “engaged”) rather than being educated then you are unlikely to have a problem with phones.

Once you have accepted some or all of these progressive dogmas, you may be able to list the things that can be done with phones (surfing the net, sending messages, taking photos) as if they were educational rather than a distraction from education. You might be able to demonise anyone who wants kids to learn. You may even be able to attribute to them all sorts of strange motives (perhaps a hatred of technology, or a political ideology). But, the trouble with these sorts of beliefs is that they provide more in the away of emotional satisfaction than they do coherent arguments. In fact, sharing them honestly (i.e. without all the euphemisms and dodgy definitions) will just make a lot of ordinary people disagree with you. So for that reason. supporters of progressive education often retreat into their own little worlds where they talk largely to each other and appeal to each other’s authority. That is why they will put forward the same bad argument en masse even where they are completely unconvincing.

If you have the time I would encourage you to go back through the Tweets from the weekend (look at either my timeline or Toby Young’s), not because of any great arguments, but to experience the mentality of the supporters of progressive education. If you really want a laugh you can even compare the discussion on Twitter with the parallel universe version of it presented on this blog here.

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