The Victorian Surgeon Fallacy

I’m sure you have seen this before, but its my favourite education quote.

After all, mass education, in all sectors, is a complex enterprise. It is attempting to organise learning experiences for the personal development of millions of individuals, not all of whom are fully complicit in this shared goal, despite making a major contribution of their own time and/or money. It is not rocket science. It is much, much harder than that…

This was, of course, written by Diana Laurillard (in Digital technologies and their role in achieving our ambitions for education). If you haven’t read this, I would suggest it as a useful overview of the benefits or otherwise of using digital technologies in education. It’s not secret that I have a generally positive view of the potential of technology in education. Certainly its use has always (well, mostly always) been beneficial to me. What I am continually pondering is why has it not fulfilled the promises that many felt it would bring.

So, without ado, a list of some of the reasons I think of as to why there has been no great technology led revolution in education. In no particular order.

1 The Fanboi resistance factor

Too often technology users are a little, shall we say, over-enthusiastic about the tech. They can also be a just a little too into the tech. I’ll admit, I have done this myself on occasion. This can be off putting to the casual user. It can seem from the outside that it is necessary to be immersed in the tech for it to be useful. Allied to (2) below it can make people feel there is an insurmountable personal barrier to climb before technology can be useful.

2 The “I’m a teacher, I don’t have a television” factor

Look, I know, having spent most of my working life around technology, that I am possibly the wrong person to judge this on an absolute scale, but many teachers do appear to be, how shall we say,  a little lacking in skills when it comes to using technology. There are many better things to have spent your life on than learning how to use technology, but I do think that there are some basics that everyone needs to have under their belt, simply to operate in the current world. This has improved a great deal but does still remain a bit of a problem. The problem being the massive training cost inherent in any large scale implementation of tech in schools.

3 The command and control factor

Sorry, what was that? When is he going to mention how useless all the tech in school is? OK, this is connected to that. Schools don’t seem to be able to install a network without installing at least one unnecessary command and control layer over the top of it. Usually this is the piece of software that allows the teacher to see every screen whilst sat at their teacher desk. I had my own answer to that. I would GET UP AND WALK OVER TO THE STUDENT AND LOOK AT THEIR SCREEN. You know, walk around the classroom, see what they were doing. “But how else could you make them pay attention in the computer room unless you could control all their computers from you machine”. Simples. We had all the screens linked through to a master power switch at the front. These network control systems are a great part of the reason school networks are slow.

4 The legacy factor

Computer rooms, that’s what we need. Then we can teach all the children how to use the computers. Well, that worked out ok until the children knew how to use the bits of the computers they needed to. Then they were a bit useless really. The computers needed to be near the learning. But by this time everyone was tied into the “must have computer rooms” idea.

5 The all technology in schools is useless factor

Go into any major commercial organisation. Log on to one of their systems. It will take seconds. The screen will be a decent size. The mouse will work. All the keys will be on the keyboard. The internet filter won’t suddenly stop you accessing the system you need. Your important mail won’t be lost in the spam filter. Why can’t schools do this? It’s quite simple really. Money. You want systems that work, you have to pay for them and for the professional staff to set them up and run them. IN some areas this has improved in recent years, but in many, many schools it remains the defining issue for technology.

6 The Victorian Surgeon Fallacy

And last, but by no means least, let us move on to an oft repeated  canard about the Victorian teacher miraculously transported to the modern day  who would instantly be at home in a classroom, whereas  a Victorian surgeon wouldn’t know where to start. There is an element of truth in this, but it is not the one you might think. Compared to Victorian times the process of operating on a patient has changed radically in ways that teaching a student hasn’t.  But the big changes have not been in what the practitioner does when they get to the sharp end in their place of work. The modern surgeon does much the same as the Victorian one. They take a knife, cut you open, rummage around inside you, fix things, then they use a needle and thread and sew you up. Very little of the technological effort has gone towards changing this. Yes, there are now in some procedures lasers instead of knives, there is some use of robotics and mini cameras have made big inroads. But, at its heart, surgery is still about the surgeon and their knife. They can either use it well or they can’t.

This is the primary reason that we have not seen the benefits of technology in education. Up to now, most of the effort has been focused on attempting use technology to change what the teacher does in the classroom. Often, because of the inadequacy of the technology this has had the effect of actually reducing rather than increasing the impact of the teacher. In medicine the technological effort has been expended around the practitioner to improve the chances that they do the right thing, in the right way at the right time. They have better diagnostic devices and tests so they know exactly what is wrong with the patient. They have machines that can take pictures inside the patient so they know exactly where to cut and rummage. They have some quite stunning technology to keep patients alive after they have rummaged. This has lead to remarkable improvements in outcomes. This is the change we need in education to maximise the impact of technology.

The thread running through these is a view that we use technology in the wrong way. We seek to enhance teaching, whereas the technology is more suited to benefit learning. We seek the shiny, in your face solution (yes, Clarke, i’m looking at you), when the back-office enhancement achieves more. Finally, and for me this is the saddest, we seek to control and limit, when the answer is to free and unleash.