Ask anyone who happens, say, to be a jazz musician, neuroscientist, marine biologist or anthropologist to big-note themselves. “It’s hard,” they’ll probably tell you. Why? because like anyone in a well-established field, it’s impossible to really set your achievements aside from those highly respected experts that have gone before you. As R.E.M singer Michael Stipe puts it, this is the perennial challenge of coming up with “a main idea to call my own” while “standing on the shoulders of giants…”
It’s often said that we can’t properly understand the present without acknowledging – and properly learning from – the past. At the same time, institutionalised education seems to frequently suffer from a collective form of amnesia. This is no truer than in my field, Education Technology, where both teachers and students are continually bombarded with buzzwords, flashy new gadgets and supposedly “best practice” approaches that will “revolutionise education” – and all too often, the people pushing are not trained educators but represent the interests of big business. Pop catch-phrases taken out of context from the research do further damage: while students are still hailed as the “digital natives,” teachers are badged the “immigrants,” whose classrooms “resemble those of the 1950s.” Technology is often touted as the best way to transform staid and uninspiring teaching, with many teachers told to simply “get with the times.”
So what of the technology? Most of it comes from factories in China where millions of underpaid workers work in abominal conditions to keep prices down and maximise profit for the people who will probably never set foot in such factories. When there’s profit to be made by deploying technology in schools, you can believe that this represents real value to big players in big business. Further, when you consider the money motivating the decisions, the deals done and the agendas being pushed, quite often the supposedly educational “excitement of the moment” is used as justification to ignore how things have been done in the past. The approach that seems to apply here is – “let’s push the technology and we’ll work out the teaching and learning later,” and there’s plenty of situations where schools, systems and even governments have done just that; witness the thousands of relatively useless laptops rolled out over the past four years by the NSW Department of Education. Of course, when technology is pushed out – sometimes with very little foresight – it falls onto the shoulders the teachers and students that end up using it. When the same technology falls short of really making a difference to our learning? It’s our fault for not being “open to change.”
As a teacher, I can honestly say that every other teacher I know does use technology in the classroom and is open to change. Quite simply, they do the best with what they’ve got, in the time that they have, for the students they teach. In the eyes of people that really matter, this work has enormous value. But in light of a profession that has been steadily de-professionalised in recent years, the average teacher in the eyes of big business has very little value (especially when control is in the hands of the system) and that translates into what may end up as badly-made decisions that have far-reaching consequences.
So are teachers and students helpless in all of this? It’s hard to see economic, political and power structures which play such a huge part in the work we do and not feel helpless. But we can change the rules, and the key to that is properly understanding the past. As Philosopher George Santayana put it, “those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” Technology is a tool in the toolshed, so to speak – one that we use to support us as professionals. Teachers and students need to be the ones in the drivers’ seats, deciding what has value, while learning from, and supporting, each other through what we understand best: people and how they learn. To that end, learning from the past is as much about recognising and keeping the good things that other educators and students have achieved as it is about learning from the mistakes made.