What “little extras” will I spend my £50,000 on?

In this autumn’s budget, Philip Hammond announced schools will get a £400 million bonus in capital funding this year, described as help for schools to buy “the little extras they need”.  The funding can only be spent on capital projects like equipment and maintenance, and amounts to £10,000 for primary schools and £50,000 for secondary schools.

Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer
Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer

So if you can’t spend it on staff salaries and it is a fraction of what’s needed to bring school buildings up to a satisfactory standard (that’s £6.7 billion according to the National Audit Office), how should you, the head teacher, invest this bonus?

The Chancellor reacted with surprise to claims that the payment was “condescending” or “utterly insulting” responding with his own suggestion: “Many of the schools I know would be very happy to have £50,000 or even £10,000, to buy a whiteboard or a couple of computers”.

This may seem like the obvious way to spend the cash, and no doubt a few technology companies will be much indebted to Mr Hammond for the surge in profit they can now expect, but what are the alternatives?

Technology in Schools and Nursery Schools

Large bright interactive whiteboard in a small classroom
Overpowering whiteboards are common in small nursery classrooms

The availability of technology solutions hasn’t always improved the learning environment.  I’ve seen some gloomy teaching spaces where the front of the classroom was mostly taken up by a huge white LCD flat panel that acts like a giant lightbulb.  Children’s gazes were attracted to the screen like butterflies to a flame such that they were no longer paying attention to the person in front of them.  The teacher had become obscure and redundant.  A school that owns these may consider replacing them with a more sensible equivalent, maybe even go a step further and experiment with good old blackboards to rediscover the benefits of more traditional teaching techniques.

Another renowned school recently decided to place large screens in every place a child goes.  These include giant PowerPoint presentations about food showing in the refectory during mealtimes, a large projection of the audience showing backstage at the school theatre and movies showing on a large screen in the library!  In another setting it might have had the wow factor they were going for, but in this school it just looks misguided and counterproductive, like out of a George Orwell novel.

Still from 1984 - Big Brother screen
1984

One nursery school owner explained that their four-year olds live, play and learn with the interactive projector constantly displaying slides and videos from a recent field trip.  I can see how a teacher would have felt smug that they’d found a relevant use for the projector that helps them promote the nursery as forward thinking, but the result is too similar to the football match playing in the background while you’re on a date.  The moving picture, not quite out of sight, makes it hard to focus on human interaction.  News feeds, twitter feeds, email and Facebook alerts will come soon enough.  I don’t need my children trained in the art of being disrespectful, distracted and uninvolved before they reach primary school.

Arguably, in this nursery the repeating videos will make the children and teachers remember only the details that were captured by the digital lens.  In a self-fulfilling way, the children will be able to accurately describe what they’ve seen, over and over again in the slideshow, to the satisfaction of teachers who will have memorised the same details.  Maybe they all forgot the smells, that happy feeling, the breeze or the moisture in the air which don’t feature in photos and videos.  Have you noticed how kids who are not subjected to slideshows and videos can remember and describe so many little details that happened on a holiday long ago, which their parents had almost forgotten?

Some school teachers boast of using their interactive screens and projectors to project a burning fireplace, play background music or a show a video of birds flying while the children work on an assignment.  Where is the research validating such use as helpful to a child’s learning?

Professor Carol Dweck, Stanford University
“When people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to lose by trying” Professor Carol Dweck

With the “Growth Mindset”, Psychology Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University teaches us how children who are encouraged to deal with failure by trying again or trying harder will achieve great results.  She says “no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment”.  Today’s technology is designed to make everything feel easy to the point where once you’ve learnt a few basics, you feel you’re successful all the time.  Too much ease-of-use or too much success undermines this human skill, making the child more likely see something difficult as beyond their reach.

A global report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows “no appreciable improvements” in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information technology and that “those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately”.  So where else is Ofsted going wrong in highlighting IT skills as an important benchmark of a quality school?  Have we been investing in ICT in our schools for the wrong reasons?

The Poisoned Gift

There’s a “Yes!” moment for each teacher when they suddenly see realisation on a child’s face as he picks up a new skill.  This moment will often come when children use IT products, whatever their age – instant rewards and fast results to show the head teacher and the parents.  It’s hard for the parents not to act impressed.  It leads us all to happily ignore the long term impact.

Often somebody in the school feels good about acquiring technology.  I personally enjoy getting hold of the coolest new tech, the smell of new kit coming out of its box, and I’m not alone.  I like showing it off to colleagues, and letting them see what I can do with it.  It gives me a buzz when I see they’re impressed and they’re talking about me.  Some teaching staff might learn how to use this new kit and think “technology gives me more authority”.

Some just want to buy a gift.  “It’s expensive and glamourous so it must be of value.”  A headmaster might want to be regarded as generous, and ICT equipment provides an easy way to spend a decent amount of money, for something people see as an instant reward, regardless of whether it is actually useful or detrimental to children’s development and learning.

The bottom line is that while some of us have a nerdy need to acquire new tech, imposing it on children in our care isn’t always to their benefit.

If you run a search for the benefits of interactive whiteboards or interactive projectors, you’ll find a lot of results confirming these benefits.  The same companies who sell this equipment (Avocor, BVS, Clevertouch, Epson, Hitatchi…) are frequently the authors of these articles, or sponsor them.  Even worse, academia is often reluctant to challenge the benefits of a product that’s perceived as useful to education, because schools are such an important thing to us.  The perverse thing is that in order to sell their products to schools, corporations can therefore spread their own propaganda unchallenged, shielded behind the revered institution of education.  You simply can’t argue against “we’re doing it for the children!”

Proponents will argue for the time-saving value of interactive whiteboards, where a teacher doesn’t have to erase the board and write out the lesson. Children can write less, as lessons will be printed or distributed electronically.  As psychologists Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California would point out, that’s forgetting that the act of writing cements knowledge in the brain in a way typing, for example, cannot.

Waking up

Classroom with chalkboard
Traditional chalkboard-based teaching set to make a comeback

Schools in Silicon Valley such as the Waldorf school of the Peninsula, counting technology pioneers among their parents have done the opposite to what everyone expected, actually returning to chalk boards, and down-to-earth, old fashioned learning, and banning iPads and smartphones.  The location isn’t an accident.  Some very skilled technologists (from Apple, Google, Yahoo…) raise their kids there.  They know the harm digital devices have done to young brains.  They also know that no research has been done on the effect of today’s technology on children as they grow into adulthood, because technology has never before been as pervasive as it is now.

As I wrote in my previous post, the networked platforms such as YouTube or news sites that our children will access soon after we’ve introduced them to digital devices, have been designed to hook into the reward-based circuits of the brain.  Sean Parker, a Facebook founder, has worried publicly about the consequences of the effect of Facebook’s algorithms on children.

Unsurprisingly, Apple and Google both rushed out mindfulness and screen-time reporting features in their products this year, a small concession as the world starts to wake up to lifetimes being wasted online.  In light of the plasticity of the brain, the way the brain rewires itself especially fast in children to create the machine that powers a human intelligence perfectly suited to the world it perceives, it’s particularly worrying to have interactive computer screens, large or small, competing for the child’s cognition.  Add the A.I. algorithms powering the most popular sites to the mix, and it feels like a perfect storm.  There has never been a time when computer technology has touched so many aspects of every person’s life like now.

Coming back to those Waldorf parents.  These Silicon Valley technology experts can tell you how none of the advanced technology we have today was available to them growing up.  If they didn’t drive the change themselves, they knowingly experienced the shift, later in life, from a far less connected world to one where all the devices, networks and applications we have today gradually emerged, showing their usefulness and some downsides.  It’s that experience that helped give them an edge, and the absence of technology in their early years actually fuelled their creativity.

As children, they didn’t know what world they would be in 20 years later, and this is something we still don’t know.  I would argue that a late starter in technology is more likely to get excited about technology, science and other things when the time comes.  If I teach a young child to use the latest iPad, am I giving him current IT skills that will be useful to develop a career 20 years from now or will it have been today’s equivalent of learning to interact with punch cards?  Even worse, I may be wiring his brain to operate in future decades within the narrow parameters of a world viewed through a tablet touchscreen.

Punch card operators
Programming machines using punch cards

Who is in charge?

Many head teachers feel they have to support the official view of technology, but deep down they already know they want to protect the children from being pushed into it too early, as what matters is the long game.  They are aware that mobile devices and electronic whiteboards have been thrust on teaching staff who will do their best to run with them, but haven’t even been trained in basic health and safety.  Often teachers are afraid of their expensive new screen, and won’t even turn it off for fear of breaking something.

An interactive LCD whiteboard is a large TV.  We have guidelines on how much TV adults and children should be exposed to.  Yet try to ask a teacher to advise you at what point the screen must be turned off, what proportion of screen time in a school day might damage children’s eyes or what negative side-effects its use might have on a child’s brain development and attention span.  When you see them behave like a child caught doing something naughty – most do – try finding the person who can offer that training, the person in charge of regulating the use of the screens.  Good luck with that!  Instead, you’ll hear “it must be ok because all the schools do it”.

So let’s think twice before spending that 400 million we have coming.  Maybe it doesn’t make sense to make an ICT gift to be used every day in the small classes.  If it’s going to be IT, let’s make it age-appropriate and find other ways to be Outstanding, instead of imposing it on the children.

Having looked beyond the “obvious”, let’s look a few ideas that might suit your school better.  You could refurbish classrooms, the library or the toilets, work to reduce drafts, improve lighting, warmth and airflow to make the school a pleasant and safe place where there is nothing bad to distract from learning, or implement accessibility projects for pupils with disabilities.  You can add outdoor play equipment, outdoor blackboards and learning equipment or convert teaching accommodation for specialist use.   Making the staff happier and the school efficient could be done by adding new infrastructure for the admin staff, furniture or new storage for teachers, or improving the teachers’ lounge.  Other improvements might be enhancing school security, implementing energy efficiency projects or conservation projects.  Which expenditures are suitable (and eligible) is very much down to your school’s circumstances.

Increasing numbers of people are starting to take a long-term view on what’s best for the children and are taking fast rewards, technology-company incentives and government guidelines with a pinch of salt.  It’s only a matter of time before this becomes the accepted view.  If enlightened schools make a statement on where this “little extras” cash gets spent, and then the next grants, it will help other schools want to research this further and come to the right conclusion themselves.  This will tilt the balance faster, away from the inevitability of technology for young pupils.  Parents, teachers, head teachers and the government will focus once again on what’s most important for the children, their wellbeing and happiness in the decades to come.

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