Tom Bennett

Home » 21st century learning » The Interactive White Elephant in the Room: If IT is killing your lesson, pull the plug

The Interactive White Elephant in the Room: If IT is killing your lesson, pull the plug

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‘You disgust me. You’re not even a mouse!’

My name is Tom Bennett, and I’m a recovering IWB user.

fet-ish /fetiSH   Noun

  1. An inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.
  2. A course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment
  3. Any form of sex described in a tabloid newspaper that doesn’t involve two people having sex face-to-face through a white sheet with a joy hole cut out.

How many times have you taught a lesson from a PowerPoint, or similar? Title, aim, date starter….the four unholy corners of the starter square, and I DO mean square, man. Have you plodded through slide after slide, maybe a bit of video embedded from Youtube, then questions or a task….? I BET you  have; don’t think I can’t see you, you pervert. Speaking of which, Interactive White Boards have become the modern classroom fetish, certainly in the first two senses given above, and just give it time for the triple.

By this I mean that it is unthinkable for any classroom now not to possess one, and any that do are in the process of being kitted out. It is now the telos of every classroom to have one. It is the altar and font of the learning space. Teachers deprived of one will write angry emails to their line manager about how it’s impossible for them to teach any more, because the magic white rectangle of learning is silent. I used to be one of them.

Touch the screen and be healed

Then I had a Damascan epiphany, caused, like the best of superhero origin stories by a mysterious accident. Due to a BSF rebuild, I was given a room outside the school which, for a few weeks, was IWB free. I mean, OBVIOUSLY it was getting one, because my human rights would have been violated otherwise, but until then I was solo. It felt like someone had cut off my arms. But in a few days something odd happened: I remembered what it was like to teach without an electric dummy-board. It was liberating, especially in sixth form lessons, as I explored non-linear structures, taking new approaches as the lesson progressed, and abandoning tasks as soon as they became redundant. (It is also, I might add, far more kinaesthetically pleasing to write with a pen; to rub out instantly and easily, to shade, to feel the connection between finger and ink. No stylus and hard, unyielding plastic screen reproduces this. A small point, perhaps, but an important one.)

It reminded me how liberating it was to be truly free when you are teaching a subject you know and love. To Hell with the next slide, if I decided that the next thing they needed to know was a recap, or a new topic, or fast forward to something from next week, as long as I met the objectives we set out from the start. And sometimes, not even that, if I decided that new objectives would work better.

The strange thing is that I already considered myself somewhat of a free radical in lesson structure. I mean, I KNOW about three part lessons, about plenaries and starters, about the scaffolds of dogma that we find prescribed  as we enter the secret garden….it’s just that I don’t agree with their universal efficacy. Nothing could be more obvious. What hadn’t been obvious to me was that the technology had become another straitjacket, and that I had volunteered to tie the straps tight.

I bet you LIKE that, eh? You revolt me.

Now, there are obvious, obvious benefits to the projector/ IWB combo. I KNOW this. On a simple level, it allows better preparation and presentation of board content. It also opens up media possibilities of sight and sound that are quite wonderful- showing my kids the Moon Landing, MLK’s Washington Address, the Hajj, an argument with Richard Dawkins; even their own video work, is something very special indeed. Integrating it with t’web multiplies its power to the strength of ten. I wouldn’t lose it for a second.

But I have noticed something: there are some teachers who really, really like using the IWB. Maths teachers, for example, who adore the possibility of manipulating geometric shapes, inputting answers, uncovering correct solutions as they progress, getting kids up to the screen to write up their answers etc. And that’s great; seriously guys, go nuts. But it took me a long time to overcome the feeling that if I wasn’t doing all of these things (even in a philosophy lesson) that I was somehow letting the teaching team down, and being an ossified dinosaur. Then I realised that there was absolutely no need for me to feel like that. Some teachers love it; some don’t. There is no harm in either approach, nor is their any innate, universal superiority of method.

What would Plato do?

It’s an obvious point, but it’s worth reiterating for clarity: nobody before this generation learned anything through means other than the teacher’s voice, a textbook and if they were lucky, a battered old Soviet radio that took a hand-crank to start. My multimedia classroom experience was a tape recorder and a television larger than a family car. And I genuinely do not think that the experience was marked by any privation for the lack of brain-enhancing nanites and holographic distance learning. It worked out jes’ fine.

So why have we bought so suddenly, so avariciously into this new paradigm? Many reasons. I think no one wants to look like a Luddite reactionary. No one wants to peer up and notice that the Emperor’s natty new onesie barely covers the crown jewels. So allow me. THAT ROYAL MAN IS NAKED AND IT IS NOT A PRETTY SIGHT LET ME TELL YOU. It is easier to look like you’re doing something by buying the latest toys than it is to make and stand and say ‘why?’ But I wonder how often we realise that the IWB has become a millstone, when it was supposed to be jetpack.

I have seen observation criteria sheets that have a box marked, ‘Did the teacher use IT in the lesson?’ as if it were some kind of minimum expectation. Dear God, when did it become compulsory to use an IWB to teach Logic, or Geography, or Sex Ed? How on earth did we cope before its introduction? I imagine we must have all been rolling around the classroom floor, slapping our heads like chimps and wailing, ‘Someone invent the iPad!’ One can only guess how we ever escaped the primordial swamp.


What has the Silicon Chip done for us?

Has it ever occurred to anyone that the current role models of educational excellence and ambition- the Steve Jobs, the Gary Kasparovs, the Steven Hawkings of the world- were all educated in circumstances untouched by blended learning, break out zones, webinars and Google? That EVERYONE SMART EVER was educated in the conventional classroom? That, as of yet, there is absolutely no evidence that children learn significantly, reproducibly, indisputably better when IT is a common prevalent factor? Yet we have embraced it like a slave, and I use that word carefully.

IT is a wonderful tool. Like any tool, like many tools, if I try hard enough I can think of wonderful and interesting uses for it in the classroom. But I could say that of any strategy, prop or tool. Give me a basketball and an onion and I’ll give you a dozen thinking tasks or starters. Give me a pair of scissors, a lava lamp, a Sultan’s slipper and an Angora goat and I’ll give you a lesson that would make an Ofsted inspector whistle La Marseillaise. The fact that IT resources bend themselves so agreeably to novelty and the nouveau doesn’t define them as necessary or sufficient conditions to good teaching and learning. They are a tool, and like all tools, sometimes they are not needed.
 
So let’s rebel against this new orthodoxy; let’s be digital radicals, and I task you this in the form of a dare. I DARE you to walk into school on Monday, go up to the white board and….do nothing. Simply don’t turn it on. Turn instead to the board; the lesson in your head, your voice, and your own instincts.

Try it. I call it extreme teaching. Some people just call it teaching. I don’t care what you do instead, just don’t use it. Just TURN the F*CKING THING OFF. Put ‘Police: Do Not Cross’ tape across it. Tie a three-headed guard dog to the monitor to deter yourself. Just go cold turkey. For a week. It’s Lent, you heathen, and if you haven’t already given up other forms of self-abuse, give up this one.

A few years ago, I took part in a parachute jump, in a fit of vitality and joy. Naked teaching is like this: terrifying at first. Then, it’s exhilarating.  If it terrifies you, you can always pull the ripcord.

But see how long you can last before you do. It feels like flying.


31 Comments

  1. Tafkam says:

    It'll come as no surprise too you that some of us have happily been going days on end without turning the wretched things , including during periods of being ICT subject leader!
    In my opinion, I'd cling to my whiteboard and markers to the end, but the IWB I could survive without.

  2. Irondanimal says:

    I can't even read the word “kinaesthetically” without wincing, even when used in normal discourse and without even so much as a whif of VAK in the air.

    Apart from that, excellent as always.

  3. Tom Bennett says:

    It's like a balloon task: what would you throw overboard? The IWB would be FIRST…

  4. Tom Bennett says:

    And I can barely bring myself to type it, Sir, I assure you. Cheers, and sorry to bring a bad vibe into it 🙂

  5. ronniegordon says:

    My main problem with the IWB is what it does to my beautiful board handwriting – perfected by 10 years of blackboards. It changed “Muslims worship Allah” to “Muslims worship Allan” – oops! Didn't even try to write “Kant” on the board.
    For a very disorganised (RE) teacher it is a Deitysend – correct date video clip activities learning intentions all in the right place, high quality visual images, virtual tours of synagogues, mosques etc, but I know I'd survive without it (benefits of old age). One other issue is the extent to which it pins the teacher down at the front of the class away from where the naughty boys and girls like to sit. “All in all a very good thing but not without accompanying dangers” is the rather dull headline I'd give it

  6. Stephen says:

    I think that others feel the same way. I have worked for two years using a dual screen, with a whiteboard next to my IWB. This I have found gives me the best of both worlds, and also allows me to select the right tool for the right job.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Great piece. I had a wander through 12 lessons one day this week and saw classroom after classroom of students being read PowerPoints by a teacher. Also, another teacher shared a lesson with me recently that consisted of 27 slides for a 60 minute lesson. Teachers, at least at my school, are nothing short of addicted to PowerPoint.

  8. heidimo says:

    Tom, wonderful blog. Several excellent points very well made. Hate the trend to increasing uniformity driven by tightening ofsted criteria. On a personal note, I'm very interested to see your lesson plan that includes angora goats, lava lamps and slippers lol! Xx

  9. Tom Bennett says:

    As a similarly disorganised RS teacher, I concur. It's nice to have your aims BAM right there, starter etc. Mix and match seems to be best way forward.. (see next comment)

  10. Tom Bennett says:

    Stephen, you have just prompted me to move a few things in my Humanities classes with your comment. Thumbs UP

  11. Tom Bennett says:

    27? Were they on coke?

  12. Tom Bennett says:

    YOU COULD NOT HANDLE THAT LESSON

    Cheers 🙂

  13. As might be expected by now … none of our friggin IWBs work anymore anyway. I can't remember the last time I tried to use one as a whiteboard.

    Pen please.

  14. Jo Spencer says:

    As a trainee I feel ever drawn to PowerPoint and the certain death that follows it. It is comfort. Comfort in knowing that if I have an almighty panic it will always be there. However, this week my wonderful mentor reminded me that there was a world beyond powerpoint! I am not going to look back! I taught one of my best lessons and it felt liberating. AND by not having it there I veered off the plan (as you mentioned in the blog)and by doing this I think I was hitting the upper end of the Ofsted Trainee Criteria! I've shared this blog with my fellow trainees in the hope that they may see the world beyond powerpoint!!!

  15. Fran says:

    Also, any lesson dependent on IT can go spectacularly wrong when the IT fails, and you have to have a Plan B. Funny how Plan B often turns out to be far more engaging than Plan A in those cases …

  16. Claire says:

    I spent my first three years teaching in a classroom with an IWB but not a white board. Well, we had a white board but it was 2 foot wide and only used for writing the title, date and objective. This year I'm at a school in Asia with NO IWBs (we can project power points through a small TV, but it's used rarely)

    You are correct, it has taught me lots of new techniques and I am sure when I come back to the UK I will be a much more balanced teacher for it.

  17. Anonymous says:

    OH TOM, You are a revelation. I have suffered years of torture at the 'touch screen buttons' of that beast the IWB in my classroom. I have longed for the days of having my old white board back where I could hand-write, quickly show slides and thus get lessons underway all the while holding the attention of my students and albeit their good behaviour. I was beginning to believe that I was the only teacher on Earth experiencing difficulties and there have been days when I have been GLAD yes GLAD that the darn thing was not working. I agree that for educational videos and special interactive programmes, it has been useful, but more often than not it has been a hindered the smooth running of my lessons! Thank you for helping me to NOT feel guilty Tom! Lilly (in OZ)

  18. Martin says:

    These things are the equivalent of a ball and chain. I found myself wondering why I didn't spend as much time working with individuals in the classroom as I used to. Then it dawned on me.

  19. Neil says:

    Don't wish to tell you your business, as it's your blog and all, but surely someone needs to make the analogy with Luke Skywalker and his guidance system?

  20. Anonymous says:

    I'm bloody 60 and never use one! Except when Ofshite's in of course.

  21. JoeN says:

    Tom, very timely posting. You will find Larry Cuban's latest blog post on this whole question hugely valuable. Larry is Stamford professor of Education and author of “Oversold and Underused. Computers in the Classroom.”
    http://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/answering-the-big-question-on-new-technology-in-schools-does-it-work-part-1/

  22. Tom Bennett says:

    Just wait until the supply teacher uses permanent pen on them; then you get 'Femi is a sket' up there for six months.

  23. Tom Bennett says:

    YOU HAVE SEEN THE PROMISED LAND

    Good luck 🙂

  24. Tom Bennett says:

    If I had a car that only worked sometimes, I'd trade it in. But we still put up with inconstant IT….

  25. Tom Bennett says:

    It's like training for a marathon with weights; when you take them off, you run faster.

  26. Tom Bennett says:

    Hi Lilly

    I think MOST of us suffer like that, wondering if we're the only one. SO I thought I'd blog about it, as a support network 🙂

    You are very welcome *bows*

  27. Tom Bennett says:

    Yes? What then…? *leans in*

  28. Tom Bennett says:

    MY FRIEND I HAVE ALREADY USED THAT ONE SOMEWHERE.

    But it NEVER gets old :)Teachers need to rely on the Force a bit more, I think.

  29. Tom Bennett says:

    Hi JoeN

    I'll have a look thanks. Sounds RIGHT up my strasse.

  30. Sam Jephson says:

    My sister is a grade school teacher and she’s been using the IWB for two years now. The applications offered by the technology have been helping her to engage her students in lessons and discussions. She uses learning visuals that adapt to the needs of her students in real time. She confessed she was still missing the conventional whiteboards though.

  31. Claire says:

    Tom, this was interesting reading.

    Aas a NQT I am in a school which has a fairly low budget and not all classrooms have IWBs. I was DELIGHTED to find I had a portable SMART board in my room – along with portable projector….

    If the picture is ever straight would be a miracle, anything I write on there ends up 30cm above where I wrote it.

    I have found myself rarely using the IWB and instead writing on my whiteboard/fume cupboard/tables/windows.

    As for powerpoint – I just had to teach a part of a topic with a 96 slide to a bunch of S2 pupils…BO-RING!!!

    While I do enjoy the benefits of technology sometimes, I don't feel it is necessary at all times.

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