Tablets in Classrooms

“Revolution in education”, says Vasant Bunwaree

Reforms in schools succeed or fail according to whether they address the practicality ethic. In simple terms, what makes them work, and what impedes them. Is the innovation in tune with teacher values and belief?

I still remember Sir Kher Jagatsingh once saying: “When you have a headache, you either cut the head or cure the ache.”

He also added that while in health services, you can see the results very soon (with all technological developments having taken place in the field of medicine), in education you may have to wait not less than five years before you can see results.

Rather than talking of promoting and sustaining change, here we have a brilliant surgeon, who is Minister of Education, talking of “revolution” in education with the introduction of tablets in some classrooms. Previous ministers said almost the same thing when educational radio and TV was introduced in schools, then when the video entered the classroom, or later when the interactive blackboard was used as a pedagogical tool, etc.

The basic message is that centrally driven innovation is ubiquitous in education today. How many innovations have we not heard in education over the last 40 years? Yes, we heard of many innovations, yet classrooms are fundamentally the same as they were 60 years ago, when I started going to school: single teacher, teacher delivery, subjects organisation, children in rows, individualised learning, timetabling, determining learning outcomes are all as common now as they were formerly. This is not to say that these approaches are bad; it is simply to stress that the immense reform efforts of recent years have made little fundamental change to classroom practice.

Change is important because it is the only constant in life, and successful management of change is also crucial. Society is changing rapidly, and education needs to adapt in response to such changes. It’s particularly crucial that staff enacting change initiatives must reflect about both change processes and about the substantive issues of the innovation in question.

The purpose of this article is to urge policy makers and practitioners to reconceptualise change; to place change back in the hands of professionals, and to enable it to be managed in constructive, participative and less stressful ways than has been the case in recent years. This may involve making changes in the light of new initiatives, or it may involve retaining existing practice. Above all, it is about enabling practitioners to reflect on why particular changes are important, how they apply to their contexts, and how they can be enacted.

Professional isolation of teachers

Why is there an apparent lack of change in schooling? According to Eisner, ‘teaching is the only profession I know in which professional socialization begins at age five’ (Eisner 1996: 6). The biggest reality of schools is the professional isolation of teachers (who often work behind closed doors); poor quality in-service training, often run by people who are removed from the real world of teaching, and who fail to appreciate the complexities of the teaching context; conservative attitudes on the part of parents and pupils; the distance between policymakers and practitioners; and unhelpful top-down notions of change that position teachers as technicians carrying out someone else’s policy.

Eisner also identifies the organisation of schools and learning as an issue that prevents change; ‘one of the most problematic factors in the organisation of schools is the fact that they are structurally fragmented’ (Eisner 1992: 618).

Many writers have warned of the power of teachers to subvert policy that is over-prescriptive. They noted the tendency of teachers to filter changes through the lenses provided by their own values and existing practices, leading in many ways to a major subversion of policy. The point is that, not only is rigid prescription ineffective in bringing about change, but responses to it can lead to distorted teaching and learning as teachers act creatively to fulfil the demands placed on them by it.

It is thus better to provide enabling guidelines, supported by decent resources and good continuous professional development, than a straitjacket that constrains creative action, creates burdens and risks for teachers, and devalues the professionals who have to carry out the reforms. There are numerous reports where the persistent failure of reform initiatives demonstrates that “past records for curriculum initiatives show extraordinarily modest levels of pedagogical implementation, in part because curriculum innovators have failed to start ‘where the teachers are’. The extent to which curriculum initiatives have an impact on teachers’ thinking at classroom level is profoundly important given a world-wide trend towards the introduction of national curricula.” (Swann and Brown 1997: 91).

Change should be considered reflectively in the light of the underlying principles and purposes of education. We should consider carefully why we are embarking on an innovation, and not just see change just in terms of satisfying external imperatives such as appearing to be modern, using latest technology, pleasing the minister or the inspectors (although clearly these can be important too).

New procedures and other innovations can tend to be viewed in terms of narrow outcomes, encouraging a tick-box mentality, as the present Performance Appraisal Form introduced in secondary state schools. Ask any teacher about this form and they will tell you this is only a wish list that remains in the drawers of either the Head of school or the Regional Directorate.

Every reform must seek to ensure that the strategies encourage young people, especially reluctant learners, to engage with the lesson material, activities and concepts. What opportunities exist for pupils to actively participate? To make decisions about their own learning that in turn help make it relevant to them? Are there opportunities for young people to practise citizenship in the classroom?

Research has shown that people learn through dialogue with other learners, and yet in many classrooms dialogue is limited. We learn through listening to the ideas of others, and through having to defend our own ideas, which are modified in the process. Such learning is often deeper than the learning that takes place through memorization. According to Howard Gardner (1992) a great deal of classroom activity is ineffective because it does not challenge deeper underlying intuitive notions of what is right (even where these are plainly incorrect); learners quickly forget their ‘official’ school learning once the exam is past, falling back on more atavistic explanations. I suspect the tablets will not foster such dialogue, especially that it will not be used as a tool for networking.

Will the activity within the tablets promote the development of creative and critical thinking? What opportunities are there for problem-solving? When considering whether to innovate, or whether to retain existing practice, these principles should be considered. They focus on student learning and the mechanisms by which this is achieved. Given the fact that teachers are not even trained how to use tablets, let alone use it as a pedagogical support, will the introduction of tablets make a difference in the classroom?

The Grammar of Schooling

Practical day-to-day teaching is about balancing priorities. Often this battle becomes skewed in the direction of demands that impinge on day-to-day teaching. Few people would argue that good teaching is about enabling young people to develop lifelong skills and dispositions to enable them to become effective and active citizens with enriching and rewarding careers. Exams, accountability and structures of schooling such as timetabling exert a powerful effect on how we teach. The grammar of schooling refers to those powerful unwritten assumptions about schooling that are deeply engrained in all of us – subjects, periods, classroom layout are aspects of this. Many reforms initiatives fail because they are unable to challenge this sort of thinking. And yet in a new century, there is a need for more ‘out of the box’ thinking

According to Doyle and Ponder, reforms in schools succeed or fail according to whether they address the practicality ethic. In simple terms, what makes them work, and what impedes them. Is the innovation in tune with teacher values and belief? Reforms can fail if they clash with these. Most teachers would agree that education should be about motivating children, and encouraging learning, but would often disagree on the methods.

How difficult is the reform? This relates to issues such as the amount of time needed for planning and implementation, the availability of resources (internet access, speed of the server, classroom infrastructure, including cultural resources such as clear instructions), school structures such as timetabling (e.g. 40 minute periods may discourage the use of formative assessment, because such pedagogies take time to set up and run). Many reforms have failed even where there is substantial support amongst teachers, because they are simply too difficult.

There is a huge volume of research in the field of education change. Good impetus for reform consists of clear guidance and a coherent rationale for innovation, including a clear statement of underlying principles. It acknowledges and deals with tensions and inconsistencies between and within policies. Of course such impetus is often beyond the control of practitioners, so it is important that people at a local level are reflective about central guidance, and clearly communicate back any concerns. I have yet to see the full report that has been written to rationalise the use of tablets in school. Have the Mauritian authorities studied the ‘One Computer per Child’ project that was supported by the American Development Bank in the Latin American countries? Has any lesson been learnt?

Teachers are well-qualified professionals but are often treated more as technicians, simply employed to carry out instructions issued from the centre. The new professionalism involves collaborative practice, shared responsibility and accountability, and an agreement by staff to get behind agreed initiatives. However it also recognises the contribution that teachers can make to decision-making, the differences between (and even within) local contexts, and relies on managers trusting teachers to be professionals. Again research suggests that where such professional trust is the norm, change is often managed more effectively.

All parties should accept that the outcomes of innovation may be very different than the original intentions, as this is an organic process. When reforms are carried out without proper thinking, when the support of teachers as professionals has not been sought, when reforms are thrust on teachers, sometimes by ill-advised consultants and senior staff, or when ministers do not see beyond the renewal of their ministership, there is a real danger that the strategies become the ends of the innovation, rather than the means. And, as Late Sir Kher Jagatsingh said, in education, we may be cutting the head rather than curing the ache.


* Published in print edition on 11 April 2014

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