Tom Bennett

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

‘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.