The promise of tech must not make us forget what we already know works in education

December 10, 2015

This morning I attended a shindig at Google HQ, hosted by Teach First, on digital skills in education.

Ah Google. What a place. So much shininess. Filled with super smart young people, fiddling with bits of kit that are so new, they haven’t been invented yet.  Myself, I wore a pinstripe suit and pink shirt. But no tie. I know how these tech guys roll.

We were hosted in a large room on the top floor. As someone said, only Google could do a roundtable without a table. So we were on soft sofas with throw cushions. Like a marriage counselling service, or a group therapy session. Hi, my name’s Jonathan, and I once used Apple and Microsoft products.

This proved for slightly awkward conversation as you never quite knew how to sit. I perched uncomfortably on the edge, muscles shrieking as I sat up rather than slouched like normal. Across from me, Jim Knight sprawled across the sofa, the tech lounge lizard totally at home in these circumstances.

The event was celebrating a new partnership between Teach First and Google, who have launched a smart scheme to sponsor 20 computer science teachers through Teach First every year, all of whom will be given summer internships at Google as part of the package.  We kicked off with a truly heartwarming speech from Michael Kolawole, a computer science teacher and Teach First participant at Ark Kings Academy in Birmingham. Honestly, with all the criticism that DfE got about their advertising campaign, they should just film this man. He spoke powerfully and fluently about his own story, rising from a single parent household in a small flat in South London, via a well known Academy chain in those parts, to go on to UCL; how he then gave up a lucrative consulting career to go and work for the Red Cross and campaign on social issues, and from there to join Teach First as a career changer, and the impact that he now has in the classroom. When he finished, the room broke into a spontaneous round of applause. I’m not ashamed to admit I had a tear in my eye (maybe a GoogleTear).

Nicky Morgan, who was the main speaker, talked about the changes government have made, including the introduction of coding, the new Computer Science GCSE, and the scrapping of ICT GCSE and A Level (“controversial, but we are convinced this was the best thing to do”). She neatly sidestepped, rightly I think, any suggestion that DfE should take too much of a centralising role in spreading much of this innovation.

We then had 40 minutes or so of tech evangelism from a collection of, well, tech evangelists. And I found myself increasingly uncomfortable, and not just because of the sofas. Pressed into making some remarks at the end, I found myself rather pouring cold water on a lot of what I’d just heard. I do think, and said, that technology offers a huge amount of potential opportunities in education – whether in reducing workload for teachers, allowing children to access a wide range of subject material especially for more niche subjects and at a more stretching level, or in the more mundane world of back office efficiencies. I also welcome the introduction of coding to give people the skills they will need to interrogate and amend tech, not just consume it. And digital skills are an area of real shortage in the economy in a sector where we are world leading and that that contributes significantly to GDP.

But, but but – it seems that it isn’t really possible to stop there. For alongside those sensible points of where tech can play a role, I heard calls for a move away from knowledge and into skills, a suggestion that an academic exam isn’t always the right approach, a call for us to simply reflect more of what employers want, and for the internet to be used in exams (from the aforementioned Jim Knight). This is where I start to fall away. As I said in my remarks, channelling what people like Daisy Christodoulou and Michael Fordham always say far more eloquently than me, there’s a reason why learning facts and memorisation is important, and there’s a reason why knowledge has been organised into subjects, and studied in that way for thousands of years across different societies and cultures.  The risk of tech always being sold as the next big thing is that it’s always next, not now. It hasn’t – yet – proved itself. And shift happens slowly – Dylan Wiliam last week tweeted a paper which shows that in the US, only 0.5% of workers were in industries that didn’t exist fifteen years ago. The honest answer is that what Teach First and Google are doing – getting smart people with a shortage skill to be interested in teaching, and making them into effective classroom practitioners – is what we need, in computer science as well as in all other subjects.

The other funny thing about this morning’s roundtable? It was hosted in Google’s own library. With proper books and everything.  Tech and tradition, hand in hand.

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