Innovation and technology

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

A first for me – a visit to BETT  (British Educational Training and Technology Show) at the ExCeL (curious upper/lower case effect) in order to be part of a panel talking about innovation in schools.

Having talked with colleagues who are regular BETT goers, I had some idea of what to expect, but even so it was an eye opener.  Huge screens pulse and entice and a hubbub that mingles human voices with all kinds of electronic noises forms a distinctive fog of a soundscape.  It is bewitching stuff, with technology to advance learning at all stages in a person’s education.

Within this cauldron of technological opportunity sits the Times Educational Supplement‘s (TES for short, no messing with cases here) little theatre where, aided merely by some particularly svelte face mics and a question-asking app, I and two colleagues talk about innovation, spur on some group discussions and try to reach some conclusions.

Innovation is, of course, a word that comes with a health warning: it is, after all, the word most used in applicants’ cvs to describe themselves. In the context of BETT, I fear that it can also sometimes used as a synonym for being comfortable with digital resources in the classroom.  There is a danger that innovation has become a lazy self-promotional tag that doesn’t really add much.

So here are four brief thoughts about educational innovation in that context:

1) Complacency about educational methods used is the enemy of the search for better ways of teaching and learning: constant exploration as to how we can help this process may result in innovation, but the state of mind isn’t described by the word; neither is technology always the answer.

2) Beware hubris!  Each technological revolution risks sneering at previous ones and thinks it has got things cracked; it too often underestimates the role of the live teacher.  Technology has enabled new styles of teaching and learning but, as an early adopter student of audio-visual methods in language teaching back in the 70s, I remember my O Level German teacher’s lessons much more for his anecdotes about his favourite German wine than the audio visual slides of Heidi and Joachin’s lame romance.

3) Remember how the curriculum can shackle you: however smart your use of technology, if you are working with dull material in a constricting curriculum, you can think you are having more fun and feel decidedly contemporary, but you are still working within a constrained space, with all the ensuing limitations.

4) The whizzbangs of BETT are mainly, I suspect, about jazzier and smarter delivery, mostly in the traditional classroom setting.   The biggest revolution will be in a quieter and more solitary area of online learning.  Here a recent Skype conversation with Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University and co-founder of the world’s largest MOOC is fresh in my mind.  Barbara (barbaraoakley.com) spoke at our Liberating Leaders conference in the summer. With the right online courses, especially in subjects such as Maths and Physics where there such great teacher shortages, UK students’ learning should receive a significant boost.  This quiet revolution is yet to happen.