Teachers know best

I've just come across this report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation detailing the results of 3,100 teacher surveys and 1,250 student surveys on the kinds of digital instruction tools that are useful and effective.

The foundation asked teachers and students what they need when it comes to digital instruction, aiming to close the communication gap between commercial developers and schools.

The sample size makes this a pretty comprehensive survey by any account, so the results are worth considering.

One of the findings that interests me is that most teachers surveyed (54 percent) reported that they don’t find many of the digital tools they use effective. That’s partly because teachers often aren’t making purchasing decisions. They say that when they do have a say in tool selection they often report on its effectiveness more favourably.

This simply reinforces for me one of the key dilemmas we have in any part of our educational system where decisions are being made around investment in ICTs without consulting the educators who will be using them. Think of the hundreds of IWBs that lie unused or underused in classrooms, or school BYOD programmes where students stop bringing theirs because there's no opportunity to actually use them in classrooms. 

My point is that there needs to be a clear process of well-facilitated consultation that drives back to the values and beliefs that drive what is happening in the classrooms of any school before significant purchasing decisions are made – about anything! 

And that process must provide the opportunity for the introduction of new ideas, new ways of operating and new forms of technology too. There must be a way of opening up the possibilities in areas where teachers don't know what they don't know – as well as building on their existing, successful and effective practices. 

This point is reinforced for me in the Gates Foundation report where teachers identified the following six instructional purposes for which digital tools are useful:

  • Delivering instruction directly to students
  • Diagnosing student learning needs
  • Varying the delivery method of instruction
  • Tailoring the learning experience to meet individual student needs
  • Supporting student collaboration and providing interactive experiences
  • Fostering independent practice of specific skills

While I don't have any issue in particular with the things listed here, it's what's missing that concerns me. Where is the emphasis on student use of ICTs for the creation and expression of new ideas and knowledge? Where is the focus on student use and ownership of the technology to empower them and give them agency in their learning?

Of the six purposes listed, only one is suggestive of this sort of thing – the other five focus on instruction, delivery, assessment and skill development – all characteristics of the traditional teacher-oriented approach to what happens in classrooms. 

I suspect that one of the key reasons teachers reported not finding many of the digital tools effective is because they simply aren't being used effectivey – by students! In too many cases the focus is on the appropriation of the technology by the teachers to do things they used to do in other ways – not to do new things in new ways, in particular, release students to be creative, agentic and empowered in their learning.

The purpose of the report was to discover how commercial providers might better serve the needs of schools. While I believe there are probably plenty of ways commercial providers could develop products that support learning better, the more significant thing in my view is for us, as educators, to re-think much of what we actually do in our classrooms so that students are given greater opportunity to learn with, through and about the technologies.

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