I am generally not a fan of OECD education reports. The conclusions often reach beyond the strength of the evidence. I will never forget watching a video-linked Andreas Schleicher suggesting that PISA data supports the notion of more personalisation. What, really? Would that be evidence from Shanghai or evidence from South Korea? However, this time, they have released a report that confirms my own prejudices. So I won’t look too hard for the flaws.
The OECD seems to have found that merely giving computers to students does not improve their performance in reading, maths or science and that frequent use is likely to be linked to lower results. This is not a surprise.
There is a useful idea that keeps cropping-up in education and almost forms a model for lots of education research. Essentially, students learn what they are taught and don’t learn what they are not taught. I intend to write one of my more technical blog post about it at some point but Dan Willingham frames it well in his book, “Why don’t students like school?”. He discusses a teacher who teaches students about a key historical event known as the ‘underground railroad’; a system for African Americans to escape slave states. The teacher gets the students baking the sorts of biscuits that the escapees would have eaten. And so the students would have been thinking about flour and eggs and baking rather than history.
This is exactly what happens when computers are gratuitously introduced into classrooms. A teacher thinks, ‘These students need to know definitions of key words; I’ll get them to find the definitions on the internet and make a PowerPoint.’ It sounds like a good idea until you analyse what the students will be thinking about. They will be thinking about animations and clip art and how to work PowerPoint.
This might be worthwhile if you have identified these things as stuff that is worth learning. But you cannot possibly justify it as a way of learning the definitions. At best it would be extremely inefficient and at worst the students would learn little of what is intended.
And yet, technology is beguiling because these students would look busy in a thoroughly modern kind of way. They would probably quite enjoy making PowerPoints – just as many generations have enjoyed making posters – and so are unlikely to become argumentative and difficult. Add to this leaders who are encouraging teachers to embed technology throughout the curriculum and you have a recipe for lots of self-defeating busywork.