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NFER March 2020
NFER March 2020

Do you need to teach facts?

January 29, 2020, 11:07 GMT+1
Read in 7 minutes
  • Dave Coplin believes it’s time for a radical rethink of how technology is used in primary education...
Do you need to teach facts?

What do you do when you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer?

Do you just simply say “I don’t know”, heave a sigh and move on or, like most of us, do you say: “I don’t know, but give me a minute and I’ll take a look” and then proceed to pick up the nearest digital device, punch in a few details to bring up enough knowledge for you to be able to form the most appropriate course of action?

I suspect it’s the latter far more than the former.

But it seems this is a lesson that we have yet to translate into how we both approach and deliver primary education where much of the focus remains placed upon a pre-digital world where technology is the thing that you only do once a week in the computer room or when the “laptop trolley” gets wheeled out.

Given education is really about helping children become adults that can thrive in the world they will inherit, can we really be sure that we’re fulfilling our duties as 21st-century educators by maintaining an approach to technology that is stuck firmly (at best) in the 1980s?

I know many of you will be reflecting on the complicated relationship we already share with technology as adults.

I worried about this so much I wrote a book about it and more importantly about how we can overcome such concerns because as a technologist, and an optimist, I am absolutely convinced that our future success as individuals hinges on our ability to be able to use technology to help make whatever we do better.

Regardless of the career they choose, our children’s lives will be better, more successful, happier and more rewarding if they are confident in how they can use technology to help them achieve more at work, in leisure and in their relationships.

Digital technology is a gift

Modern digital technology needs to be seen as a gift, not a distraction in education.

It presents a world where our children are given equal access to almost every single fact (and opinion) that our society has ever generated and when utilised properly, our children can use this information to augment their real world experience and make it significantly better.

As an aside, augmented (or even virtual) reality is not about putting CGI dinosaurs on your classroom desks and it’s certainly not about expensive, whizzy, gadget headsets (although don’t get me wrong, both such experiences are massively enjoyable).

Instead, my version of augmented reality is simply the incredible potential on offer when we humans are confident and skilled enough to be able to combine the best of the digital world and real life to create the best possible outcome for ourselves and those around us.

Certainly I’m not advocating that we flip to the other end of the spectrum and only ever engage with technology, but I am arguing strongly that we can no longer allow ourselves to think that building a healthy relationship with technology that improves outcomes for the individual is something that needs to be left until secondary education (or even worse for anytime outside of school as is currently the case in over 95 per cent of primary and secondary schools in the UK.

Missing an opportunity

We are missing an opportunity in education and we are not helping our children acquire the basic human skills that will light up the power and potential that this technology could bring to our society.

The world’s leading mathematicians know this, they argue that 80 per cent of the maths we teach our kids is irrelevant, they fear that we are teaching children to be human calculators in a world where they will always be surrounded by calculating machines that are quicker, more capable and more accurate than any human will ever be.

Of course we need to be teaching the basics of arithmetic but once learnt we should be more focused on helping students know which buttons to press and how to harness the power of data rather than being able to do complicated long division sums in their heads.

Rethink our relationship with technology

Similarly with knowledge, we continue to teach children in a world where knowledge is no longer a scarce resource, but is instead accessible to almost everyone through the small glowing rectangle that even the younger age primary students will already have access to at home if not in their pockets.

Our kids don’t need to be able to remember the facts about the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings, but they do need to be able to navigate the internet in order to find that information out for themselves and know where that information is true, false, biased or irrelevant.

We urgently need to realise that the world we inhabit already requires different skills from those we have deemed important for hundreds of years. Despite some obvious challenges, we cannot leave technology out of primary education but equally we can no longer continue by simply teaching “about” technology in ICT suites and off the back of laptop trolleys.

Technology should be seen as a fundamental platform for our children’s learning. It is something that is as natural for most adults (of all ages) now as reading or writing, so why should we think it would be any different for our children?

If we are to make this happen, we’re going to have to think very differently about the potential of technology in our lives and the relationship we currently share with it. As teachers, parents and guardians, it will be down to us to help children establish a relationship with technology that is likely very different to the one we currently share. We owe it to them to help ensure they don’t just learn to survive in the 21st century but instead we teach them how to thrive.

Technology is going to remain at the heart of all of our lives and will continue to offer such a powerful force for good if only we humans can adapt and evolve to using it in the right way. If we can get this right for our kids and for ourselves, we are going to get some amazing rewards as a result.

Dave Coplin is the former Chief Envisioning Officer for Microsoft UK, author of Business Reimagined and The Rise of the Humans: how to outsmart the digital deluge. He has worked all over the world with organisations and governments – all with the goal of demystifying technology and championing it as a positive transformation in our society.

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