COLUMN SIX: Teachers and technology

I'm definitely not playing a video game, Mr. B. Move along. BIGSTOCK PHOTO

Special to the VOICE

Teachers are a dedicated, well-meaning, but quirky bunch.

Having enlisted in the ranks myself, I worked with them for 37 years and learned a little about what makes them tick.

They like things as they are but will latch on to whatever promises to revolutionize their teaching, be it a philosophy or a gadget.

A primal fear—and an occupational hazard—is to be regarded as deadwood, as someone tied to outdated methods and resisting the new. Teachers love to be on something called the cutting edge, and that’s not just a paper slicer anymore.

I taught through all sorts of advances in technology, everything from the whiteboard to the overhead projector, the mimeograph machine, photocopier, scanner, cassette recorder, video player, word processor and keyboarding.

Today, with advanced microchip technology established in the classroom, new devices and apps seem to revolutionize education every five minutes.

If there was a history clock for all the inventions that enhanced learning methods since the beginning of time, I’m pretty sure that 90 percent of them would have appeared after 11:59.

Okay, I made that up, but you get the idea.

I did feel, before I retired, that the notion of how we should teach, and what tools we should teach with, seemed to change by the day, as new technologies were introduced, and everyone tried, unsuccessfully for the most part, to keep up with them.

Professional development for educators has become a growth industry.

What I couldn’t determine, try as I might, is what impact the new ideas and teaching tools had on producing more accomplished learners. I know that more students than ever go to universities and colleges, because universities and colleges have expanded exponentially in order to accommodate them, and they’re still bursting at the seams; but not everyone is sure that this actually proves anything.

I’ve always been more trustful of teachers than technology, though it now appears I backed the wrong horse, and they seem to have become an endangered species. Increasingly, online learning seems bent on producing the teacherless classroom to go with our driverless cars.

And I find that a little sad, to be honest. I can recall only a little of the curriculum I studied in high school, but I certainly remember the teachers I had. Some of them were so good they made me want to become one.

Their secret was to be themselves and allow themselves to be known to their students. Beyond that, a textbook, a piece of chalk and a passion for their subject seemed to work for them.

Recently, my mother, who is 92 and still has all her dogs on the same lead, remarked on the teachers she had as a girl growing up in Scotland, where she attended a school called Breadalbane Academy.

Miss Cosh (her actual name) taught modern languages, which somehow included Latin back then, from behind her desk fortress. She barked out declensions and conjugations in a stentorian voice and didn’t suffer fools gladly or at all.

Kindly Mr. Stuart, who taught history, would come down from on high and sit amongst his students, leveling with them you might say, and being comfortable in their midst.

Mr. Brown taught geography on the move, like the Sundance Kid, pacing the room as he enlightened the class about tectonic plates and Brazilian rainforests.

Another teacher, whose name she forgot, would move the desks into a rectangle, and take his seat at the table with his students.

This became a favourite classroom arrangement of mine for decades, so I was surprised to find that education theorists have now elevated this basic formation to an educational philosophy, and given it a name. The Harkness Method consists of a vast oval table of polished maple, oak or cherry, with matching chairs, and comes at a cost of an arm and a leg, excluding shipping, handling and installation. It cost Socrates nothing 2500 years ago to invent the process of a shared dialogue between interested parties seated in a circle, but times have changed.

Some remarkable classroom setups evolved following my last school’s decision to immerse itself in laptops. With no one looking at each other and everyone looking into a screen, the classroom dynamic underwent what some called a “paradigm shift.”

One innovative math colleague hung a series of mirrors on the wall at the rear of his classroom so he could see that his students were “on task” while he stood in front of them. He also paced around the room a lot to make sure they weren’t playing Candy Kisses or Super Mario Brothers on their laptops when they should be parsing the binomial theorem.

Education had once again become a microcosm of the real world, this time by bringing computers into the classroom and then figuring out ways to use them. The initiative succeeded in some subjects more than others, but all teachers were assured that technology would make learning more fun for students, and more relevant because they knew more about the devices than the teachers did anyway.

As a teacher of English, clinging to this antiquated idea that there’s nothing more interactive than a book, I did my best to adapt, though increasingly I felt that technology was finding ways to replace the books rather than improve how we read them.

I found a grammar website that was fun and relevant and interactive, and my students showed me how to navigate it. We collaborated beautifully. They taught me how to point and click, and I taught them how to punctuate and “language.”

Inspiration, another app, digitized the ideograms I had always used as a technique for note-taking and essay-planning. My class showed me how to embed images and snippets from YouTube into my diagrams, which cluttered things a little for me but appealed to their passion for pictures and things that moved.

My attempt to teach Macbeth using Garageband failed utterly.

I was way too stupid to use a Smartboard, and a little skeptical of it anyway. Ironically, it seemed to be a throwback to the days when a teacher dominated the classroom while the class sat dumbstruck, like Dorothy, as she and her mates watched the great wizard work his magic behind the curtain.

Through all my experimentation I asked the same question I always did whenever I was urged to buy into a theory or tool. Will this improve what I’m actually here to do—enable students to think for themselves and acquire intellectual curiosity?

I wanted to be the teacher who helps students realize they’re more intelligent than they supposed. Technology showed them they already knew a great deal about technology; but I was never really sure how that related to their knowledge of the world and themselves.

I reached retirement without being able to answer than question.

Something that has changed, and very much for the better, is the teacher’s understanding that kids aren’t all intelligent, nor do they all learn, in exactly the same way. Technology in the classroom has unquestionably enabled “under-performers” to find motivation, and “alternatively gifted” students to discover learning techniques that actually meet their needs.

There’s that familiar cartoon of a fish, elephant, lion, crocodile and monkey being told by their teacher that in the final exam of the course they will be asked to climb a tree. With technology now they can all pass that exam.

And what’s called remedial education has fundamentally changed over time, in that it actually exists now.

My grandmother, who attended the same Scottish school as my mother a generation earlier, told me about witnessing a frustrated parent challenge her daughter’s teacher for setting homework that was too hard for the child to handle. The teacher tried to explain to the mother that little Mary was sometimes inattentive in class.

The woman looked at the teacher and bluntly replied, “Brains is a gift, Miss MacGoury, and it’s ain oor Mary hasny got.” Then she turned on her heel and marched out of the classroom. A helicopter parent with a difference.

For all of its benefits, cynics, and maybe realists, have judged that the internet and the many “insta-devices” we use to access it, have shortened the attention spans of everyone on the planet, including teachers themselves. Others argue that our brains are merely evolving to an advanced stage of not having to do the things they once did.

Maybe one day they’ll advance to a point where we won’t need to use them at all, and teachers won’t have to worry about strategies because there’ll be nothing left to teach.


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Pelham's independent news source from the heart of Niagara.