It took 500 years to replace the writing slate. Will we do the same with pen and touch screen device?
It's a brave head that gives all students a touch screen device... How many might end up in the canal, trodden on in the playing field, run over by the bike, smashed under a skateboard. Yet there is a school in Bolton that has given touch screen devices to all its students. This kind of initiative is not the first of its kind but this time it has transformed a failing school into a high performing one. Tactics like this have been tried in the US and a few other schools have given devices to students but the difference to educational learning has not been so reportedly marked as in the Bolton case.
Yet if we put aside our worst fears of what might happen to our capital investments most of us will see the logic of giving the greatest learning devices known to man to our young growing minds in no different way that we gave the writing slate to children in the 14th century school house to practise their writing and arithmetic skills.
So has success been down to teaching being more relevant, where the touch screen replaces the pen and pencil for internet search; easier communications and apps functionality to make learning a more rich experience or is it down to the effect of good leadership and high quality teaching that's turned around this challenging school in a multi-ethnic suburb.
One thing we must all recognise is that today's students are starkly different from when we were at school. At 3 years old they're using a mouse on a PC interacting with Cbeebies. Show that 3 year old a screen and if it's not a touch screen they will exclaim that it doesn't work. Then when they go to school at four or five we relegate them to a pen and pencil in the classroom for the next 11 years of their school life. So in this context something does seem at odds, albeit that clearly our education system hasn't gone that bonkers but this does illustrate a point.
For sure a device on its own is not going to jet propel failure into sky rocketing performance. Neither will it zap knowledge into the brains of a student so that they do not have to do any pro-active learning. But relevance is everything especially to the maths student who can't see why they're studying algebra or the history student who doesn't understand the importance of the old Tudors or in modern history wars long gone.
Teaching skills of course will need to be flavoured up and honed for this kind of learning. The learning is more dynamic and less structured; more chaos, more choice with less control yet awesomely potent if channelled in the right way.
Unstructured doesn't necessarily mean random. Dynamic learning is more personal and students will have more freedom, however what they choose can be defined within a clear framework of tasks and goals. The learning space can be collaborative and socially shared giving lessons more meaning with more interaction. Students can take ownership of their own learning, processing it in the way which suits them best. Learning paths can be created by the individual giving them the freedom to choose. Arguably giving students more choice on the way in which they learn, will give them more empowerment to take more responsibility for their own learning outcomes.
One of the challenges education will face if they go this route is how to change the curriculum to meet with this more 'free flow' style of learning and satisfy inspection. Make no mistake change here will be difficult to muster, the path of least resistance is easier. Yet this is what great leadership in education is all about. It's not easy to go against the battle charge and come out with mighty sword and shield unbloodied. If you get it wrong facing governors, parents, schools councils, trust heads and the myriad of other people that a school head is answerable to will not be for the faint hearted, yet no excuse to ignore the snowslip of the avalanche to follow.
Chris Wimshurst is education director at Morgan Hunt, which works with FE colleges to recruit marketing and communications expertise and senior appointments within the education sector