Computers Do Not Improve Pupils’ Results – and what the OECD report actually said…

This post was originally published in the September edition of #TheFeedUK, a monthly online publication of blogs and stories about technology in education from schools.

And so another school year is underway, bringing an autumnal mix of both fresh and well-trodden challenges to schools.   Assessment. Curriculum. Technology. Behaviour. OFSTED. Safeguarding – just a few of the many challenges that will be occupying the thoughts of teachers and school leaders this September.   Another week, another headline around the use of technology in schools, this time not calling for more industry-ready skills or computing in the classroom, but announcing that ‘Computers do not improve Pupil Results’ – a loose interpretation of the recent OECD report, ‘Students, Computers and Learning’ which is well worth a read in its entirety at http://www.oecd.org/publications/students-computers-and-learning-9789264239555-en.htm

Well no, on their own and without the right approach, they don’t. And neither do pencils, uniforms, books, assemblies, paintbrushes, letters home, furniture and other vital threads of a school’s rich tapestry. Technology as a tool for learning, is only as effective as the quality of teaching that accompanies it (I’ve been banging this drum for a while now). So before we all gather up the devices and ask the digital leaders to list them on eBay to raise funds for textbooks or Latin teachers, it’s worth digging behind the headline a little further to understand the real messages.

WHAT DOES THE REPORT ACTUALLY SAY?

In short, the report highlights that education systems that have invested heavily in technology, have not yet seen a noticeable improvement in academic attainment as a result.  Whilst this may provide a concern for some, these findings are consistent with previous research such as that by the Sutton Trust and John Hattie which indicate only a ‘moderate effect size’ where technology is used. This comes as no surprise to those of us who see schools grappling with the implementation of technology in the classroom, still searching for the right route in this still relatively new labyrinth.

OECD findings were no surprise and reflected several other reports and research projects...
OECD findings were no surprise and reflected several other reports and projects…

A key message from the report is that teaching approaches (not devices and software) must change to make effective use of technology. I believe this is essential, but not just for the sake of leveraging the potential of technology; traditional instruction remains the default pedagogy in classes across the world and this is another indicator of how many miles there are still to tread on the march to develop more widespread contemporary practice in order to develop a generation of learners, fit for the modern world. As Andreas Schleicher (OECD Education Diectoriate and author of the report) says:   ‘We have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; that adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.”

Changing practice is the crux of the issue; for a variety of reasons, there still remains the misconception that the ‘magic bullet’ of technology can be dropped into a school and will solve problems and raise standards. The 2013 paper ‘New Pedagogies for Deep Learning’ (Fullan & Langworthy) cuts eloquently to the heart of this issue:

“In much of the language and thinking on technology in education, there has been a quest for a “holy grail” that would transform education through technology. By now, it is clear that no holy grail exists; rather, technologies used to enable and accelerate specific processes can dramatically improve learning, but its impact depends on how it is used.”

HELP OR HINDRANCE?

In a sense, it’s reports (and headlines) like this that contribute to the slow evolution of schools and education systems by awarding success or failure on the basis of the PISA tests and their narrow academic focus. Never has the case for developing a wider set of skills and competencies been more compelling, with leading academics, researchers and schools now all joining the clamour for 21st Century skills, competencies or habits to be the focus of children’s education. Studies such as the ITL Research (Innovative Teaching and Learning); the CBI report: First steps: A New Approach For Our Schools and the OECD’s own paper, ‘The Case for 21st Century Learning’ (authored by Andreas Schleicher), all tell us that employers and governments across the world need the next generation to be educated differently; to have more than the academic ‘basics’ which too many current school systems are entrenched in across the world. But still governments and the world’s media dances to the tune of achievement in the 3Rs. This too, must change if the world is to move beyond rhetoric.

21CLD is a great resource which we are using across the Northampton Primary Academy Trust to develop key competencies including an academic focus.
21CLD is a great resource which we are using across the Northampton Primary Academy Trust to develop key competencies including an academic focus.

Helpfully though, the report also highlights some areas where the potential impact of technology is now clear. It also provides us with the following call to action:

“School systems need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning  to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills. “Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.”

WHAT DO WE DO?

Having been fortunate to work with many teachers and schools where technology IS making the difference to learning, I’ve pulled together some ideas and suggestions that might be useful when planning how to develop technology further in your school this year…

 

      1. Create a Digital Strategy that is understood by everyone and sets out why and where technology is used in your school and what the plan is for further adoption (I’ve written about how we did this at Simon de Senlis earlier this year).
      2. Stay up to Date with school technology so that it is current and remains appealing for the school community to use. It costs money and time-heavy to implement and maintain but as soon as it becomes dated, usage stops in school. In too many situations, it just doesn’t compete with what’s at home (or in pockets).
      3. Think Learning not Tech. An infinite number of shiny possibilities present themselves as we start to use technology more in the classroom.       Continually asking ‘What makes Learning Better?’ is important to avoid waste time and energies into things which are cute or clever but don’t make learning richer or deeper. As John Hattie tells us, ‘Know Thy Impact’.
      4. 21st Century Learners need 21st Century pedagogies – This point is already made heavily above but researching this area or using approached such as Building Learning Power (by Guy Claxton) or 21st Century Learning Design provides a framework that helps develops the ‘stuff that matters’ in children
      5. Switch it Off and Put it Down – Whilst an essential and powerful learning tool, knowing when not to use technology is a critical 21st Century skill. The OECD report also tells us that a high percent of the school day spent in front of a screen is counter-productive.
      6. Empower leading teachers to champion the use of technology to make learning better.       It’s the best teachers (not techies) who will see where the impact on learning really is. Invest in developing expertise and make sure that things work and are effective in these classrooms before transforming these ‘islands of excellence’ into common practice across the school.
      7. Embed non-negotiables about the use of technology into daily routines. Many schools have this in place for administration such as online registers, email and logging behaviour; do the same for learning as long as it’s the stuff that makes a difference (see points 3 & 4).
      8. Manage expectations amongst staff around new hardware, systems or upgrades – it won’t change their life in the flick of a button; it will almost certainly require troubleshooting and snagging before it runs smoothly; it might make learning deeper, more relevant and more engaging.
      9. Nurture a growth mindset amongst staff around the introduction of new technologies in school. New hardware or systems are a great place for us to develop more of the resilience and problem solving that the Carol Dweck posters in our staffrooms promote.
      10. Share your successes and failures with others through platforms such as educational blogs, twitter or other social networks. Only a wider network of educators prepared to innovate and share in this way will help us gather momentum and establish the reformed and contemporary approach to learning that the 21st Century is so deeply in need of.

 

I’ll be using the column in #TheFeedUK column to write more about how schools I’m fortunate enough to work with in the UK are facing up to these challenges throughout the academic year. We’re also hosting a series of #RedefineLearn events at Simon de Senlis to continue the debate and create opportunities to support schools through this transformational time in education.

The next #RedefineLearn conference is free and will take place at Simon de Senlis Primary School on 9th December. You can sign up at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/redefining-learning-free-9th-december-2015-tickets-18989441932

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