School, children, and tablets: why an inability to accommodate can limit the imagination

During a trial period of tablet incorporation into the daily lessons and activities that was carried out last year in Malta, some of the teachers demonstrated pedagogical creativeness which only revealed the tip of what technologies can do to active learning

Velislava Hillman
23 January 2017, 8:05am
Good teachers know their children better than any qualified policy maker sitting behind a government desk
Good teachers know their children better than any qualified policy maker sitting behind a government desk
Does school continue to impose one way of learning and knowing on everyone is a question that keeps hovering unanswered. Despite efforts at breaking the factory-type of rote learning by introducing LEGO education, Singapore maths, interactive white boards, YouTube videos and PowerPoint presentations with the aim to soften school around its edges, in essence, a large part of schooling remains the same old type the average 30- or 40-something year-old went to back in their childhood. 

This is not to dishearten those who wish to and work on improving the Machine of Knowledge. School does work as a machine, yes. One, dependent on government or private entities’ fuel; on elected and selected few and their ideas and policies; on centuries-old mechanisms that no tectonic shifts, not even ominous figures on the future of employment (more on that, read Frey’s and Osborne’s paper on job susceptibility) have so far managed to radically change; one that is rooted deeply into the old ground; one that has become larger than its sponsors, advocates, members, and users. 

It is hard to bring change.

Smart technologies now claim they could do just that. Break the status quo. Foster individual learning. Acknowledge multiple intelligences. Spark curiosity. Customize learning. Channel knowledge. Respect personal pace, abilities, interests. Research I have conducted, as part of larger study for a PhD degree, among children, aged seven to 10 across private, state, and church schools in Malta, demonstrates that such a claim remains largely just that – a claim.

This article aims to discuss two issues concerning smart technologies, tablets specifically, entering school. The first one has to do with what tablets mean to children, how and what they use these tools for, and why this clashes with the ideas school has about tablets. The second issue concerns the way school incorporates tablets into its domain and why this won’t work unless progressive thinking and room for accommodation is allowed, to then give leeway to pedagogical as well as student creativity.

The first issue is that a tablet is introduced to a child more often as a gift – something special to desire, to have and to treasure. Something which a child can lose if he misbehaves or be awarded with, if he complies and does as he is told. Compared to a hammer or a pen and a paper, the tablet is not seen as a tool. Most children, aged seven to 10, would have received their smart device either as a Christmas, a birthday or a Holly Communion gift; for completing exams; for achieving high grades at tests. Even those who own a hand-me-down perceive the device as a prize because of how parents use it to control the child’s behaviour. This frames the child’s mind about how to think and use the technology.

The sense of being awarded with a special possession such as the tablet further clashes when digital devices and schoolwork meet. As part of the same research, a few similar questions were discussed with those children who already use tablets in class. Some children disliked the idea of having tablets in school. Boys, specifically, expressed their objection more boldly than girls – an anticipated gender difference. They disliked the idea because what they used the tablet for outside school was no longer allowed in class. Maybe games apps and watching funny video clips or favourite bloggers such as Dan TDM or KSI don’t complement a nine-year-old’s curriculum. However, the perception, meanings and use of children’s tablets will therefore demand more from teachers to succeed in their efforts at amalgamating devices and syllabus. To begin with, teachers need to change the child’s outlook that the tablet is not an entertainment device (and not that something entertaining is necessarily bad or the opposite of learning). It is simply a tool!

 Many youngsters like the part where tablets are used in school insofar as they are allowed to take control of the device and do something with it – why, for example, children favour making visual presentations (like PowerPoint) so much. Once teachers draw limitations, such as, “no games apps”, no “funny videos”, no browsing and tinkering, children lose interest in the tool, and soon – in the subject, too. This opens doors to the argument of construction (hailed by Papert, Resnick, Vygotsky…) versus instruction (School) in teaching and learning. But that is for another time.

The enthusiasm about tablets in class will soon subside. What will remain, however, is the inescapable clash every child will face when school and tablets collide. On the one hand, school teaches and presents learning in sequential, logical, historical, slow, and objective way, often detaching each subject from reality, and always from one another. It instructs, disciplines, and imposes the subjects as given facts rather than as problems that children should face, question, critique. On the other hand, smart technologies deliver, in daily doses, a narrative that emphasizes imagery, immediate gratification, simultaneity, interaction, and instant emotional response.

The clash between those two modes of representing the world sheds light over the second issue: the fact that school, as Papert has argued, is likely to eschew the new tool and adapt it to fit its own mechanisms, just like it did with computers, thus, disqualifying the possibility of, and the benefits from, adapting its old mechanisms to fit the new technologies. This calls to mind Piaget’s view of all mental processes: the assimilation phase (one changes one’s representation of the world to fit one’s way of thinking) and the accommodation phase (one adapts their thoughts to fit the world). Following this logic, school now creates assimilations to fit the new technologies into their already established structures of doing things. School will not change to fit to the new technologies. 

This explains why tablets, where those schools have them, are used in rooms dedicated to electronics and computers – separated, the way each subject from the syllabus is separated in a timely manner, as well as physically and mentally from one another. If one were to make a clear distinction between one subject and another should one ever dare think that biology has anything to do with P.E. or that maths has anything to do with music, or that, indeed, tablets and computers have anything to do with any of the subjects from the mainstream syllabus or life outside school for that matter. In that connection, making clear what is gender appropriate and what isn’t is, at times, too, a way of breaking away the subjects (such as one might find choir singing too girly or football too boyish). Thankfully, society is slowly moving away from such discriminations. Hopefully, society will move away from the discrimination of breaking the lessons of music from those of maths, the lessons of biology from those of P.E. and the lessons on computers and tablets from every other lesson, too. 

Such conservatism maintains the old machine’s mode of operation, which rebuts that everything is connected in life when in fact it is! (If one studies film noir, one is bound to learn about Wagner, the Great Depression and World War II, even Gothic architecture, chiaroscuro, from there the Renaissance, Galileo’s discoveries and so on). 

Such conservatism stands in the way of accommodation. Such conservatism expels the possibilities of seeing the new tools’ fuller potentials. Hence, why tablets are still mainly used for ‘research’ (search with Google that is) or to watch YouTube clips and visit websites. This ultimately confirms Einstein’s remark that we do not see things as they are but as we are, therefore guaranteeing a rather dull and very limited use of the tools that are in our reach. This also explains children’s rather limited use of their tablets in their homes, too. 

What school shouldn’t do then is perpetuate this conservatism.  

School takes a while to allow accommodation, if at all. Where it has, evidence abounds as to the successful optimization of tablets into a lesson. During a trial period of tablet incorporation into the daily lessons and activities that was carried out last year in Malta, some of the teachers demonstrated pedagogical creativeness which only revealed the tip of what technologies can do to entice classroom participation, liberal construction, tinkering with ideas and tools, exploration and from there – active learning. Taking extra time and effort after work to figure out what to do with the smart devices, some of the teachers underwent a learning curve and achieved great response from their children, something that should not have gone unnoticed, as it did. 

Teachers do have the opportunity to individually construct their lessons and they should be praised for and trusted to do just that. The good ones know their children better than any qualified policy maker sitting behind a government desk. Progressive teachers have to be supported and stimulated to initiate an agency with those less enthused about new technologies. To entice such progressiveness then, the government should find the means to support and encourage teachers to invest more into their research on how to creatively accommodate new technologies into their classrooms, and discover more of the affordances of the new technologies. School will then accommodate, too.

Velislava Hillman is in her final year studying for PhD with the University of Westminster

Velislava Hillman is completing a PhD on the effects of digital devices on children's crea...