Sydney Grammar bans computers in class – it’s a mistake

old fashioned classVenerable Sydney Grammar is banning the use of computers in classrooms. This is a mistake that I can only hope other schools won’t copy. The next generation of adults will have to use computers in every facet of their lives, and they need to start learning to do that at school.

This is clearly something that Sydney Grammar have thought through carefully and are dealing with in a considered fashion. The core of the rationale is that jettisoning computers will allow for more discussion in the classroom:

But Dr Vallance regards­ laptops as a distraction in the classroom. “We see teaching as fundamentally a social activity,’’ he said. “It’s about interaction ­between people, about discussion, about conversation.

It also requires teachers to do a better job of preparing lessons, and forcing kids to write by hand allows them to express themselves more.

Dr Vallance said he was sure people would call him a “dinosaur’’. “But I’m in no way anti-technology,’’ he said. “I love gadgets. It’s partly because we all love gadgets so much that we have these rules, otherwise we’d all just muck about. Technology is a servant, not a master. You can’t end up allowing the tail to wag the dog, which I think it is at the moment.’’

Unfortunately as far as I can see the tail is firmly wagging the dog in this world-view.

Computers are a tool like any other. They can be used effectively or misused. Having a computer doesn’t mean you can’t have conversation – presumably when the conversation happens the students will be told to put their pens down, and could just as easily be told to stop typing. Computers don’t inevitably lead to mucking about, that’s an issue of classroom management – and that’s been around for ever. Expression isn’t about handwriting it’s about getting your ideas down – and in the real world that will hit these students when they leave Sydney Grammar they will be typing not writing.

Let’s talk about what computers can do. Computers allow everyone access to information not just the teacher – so the teacher can facilitate a discussion not be the font of all knowledge. Computers allow for real, material differentiation in the classroom – whether than is in the context of supporting a dyslexic child by reading out a text or just by allowing for more engaging work. Computers allow for new approaches such as flipping the class and having the lecturing done outside of the face-to-face time with a teacher. The list goes on.

Sydney Grammar’s move smacks of very old-fashioned thinking not because of getting rid of computers per se. It’s old-fashioned because it appears to reflect a view of the classroom which has the teacher up the front delivering undifferentiated information to a quiet room where discussion is allowed, but only using the information provided. The end result is an undifferentiated group of students whose point of difference is their HSC mark.

Why do I care? My kids don’t go to Sydney Grammar. I care because Sydney Grammar is looked up to, and because its principal has justified this more in generalist terms as if his decision applies to all schools.

The headmaster of Sydney Grammar School, John Vallance, yesterday described the billions of dollars spent on computers in Australian schools over the past seven years as a “scandalous waste of money’’. “I’ve seen so many schools with limited budgets spending a disproportionate amount of their money on technology that doesn’t really bring any measurable, or non-measurable, benefits,’’ he said.

Sure, money is being wasted. It’s being wasted because we’re in a time of change and neither teachers, students, nor parents or sure about how to handle that. But to react to that uncertainty by disengaging and hiding from the technology is almost the dictionary definition of ‘luddite’. Our modern society, and workforce, is not going to stop using computers and so students need to learn how to use them effectively, while not being distracted, while writing effectively, while participating in meetings. That’s how the world works and schools should be teaching students how to function in that world.

Neither positive nor negative results are inevitable – the computer is a tool, it’s efficacy will be dictated by how it is used, not by the fact it exists. The real problem with Sydney Grammar’s move is that they are abrogating their responsibility to make best use of the tool, and in doing so they cannot possibly be effectively training students in the use of the tools and methodologies that those students will require after they leave school. Well, perhaps, require in any job except as a teacher at Sydney Grammar.

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