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Limit children’s screen time, expert urges via the BBC

The contributers to this BBC News article might need to extend their audience, or accept that this is a lost cause!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19870199

japanese school-bus

japanese school-bus

The comments at the end of the BBC article are interesting and help pose a serious question about the direction we are heading in our homes and schools (not forgetting buses!)

I’m not there yet with my thoughts on this one, but interested in everyone else’s!  Thank goodness for the e-readers, however, with their e-ink, eye friendly screens- these offer me holiday breaks from the glare of my other devices…

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Risk-taking is an essential part of development…

I have tussled with my views on eSafety since well before it was ever labelled thus! With an almost Victorian upbringing (but not age!) and no access to television nor computers, throughout my formative years, the influence of my ‘nurture’ has instinctively been to ‘lock things down’ for children, in order to keep them safe and protect them from the undesirable. It has taken me years to understand – largely through experience, research and a bit more independence of thought, that locking everything down simply won’t do.  Indeed I would argue that we place children in more danger by doing so.

Without trying to pretend that I am more knowledgeable than I am, there are some fundamental basics to learning that I think we all understand. Let’s take the development of speech as an example:

1. We learn through imitation; that is why I speak with the accent I have.

2. We learn through making mistakes and having those pointed out to us; that is why some people speak with grammatical accuracy and some do not. During the development of our speech, it is natural to make grammatical errors; such is the complex nature of speaking English that subject agreement is not always logical. Where these ‘errors’ are pointed out, speech is improved. Where it is not, ‘bad practice’ becomes embedded.

3. We learn through experimentation and risk-taking. By pushing the boundaries in our use of vocabulary and in what we read and hear, we learn what is possible and more about ‘what is out there’, extending our knowledge and understanding as we do so.

Okay, you’ve guessed where I am going with this? – over-simplified though it might be:

1. Imitation: I have less of a connection to make with this one, save to say that peer-pressure is involved – ‘My friend is on Facebook, so too must I be’ and of course, this inevitably leads to the making of mistakes.

2. Mistakes: it is natural, and within reason – desirable, for young people to make mistakes – it is a fundamental part of growing up and development. With the way in which eSafety ‘rules’ are moving in this country (as with Health and Safety before it!) we are stifling a key element of our children’s progress. We complain that they are passive and unimaginative, but we do not allow them to explore or to try things out. (Outside of eSafety, this has manifested itself in such developments as children not being allowed to play outdoors, teachers not being allowed to touch their pupils and the reduction in school trips.)

3. Experimentation and risk-taking: ‘Risk-taking’ is a bit of an educational buzz word at the moment. China does it and we don’t apparently. (Yes, I know I’m over-fond of simplification!) It has even been said that it is becoming a Core Skill. (Heather Rolfe, NIESR) By setting Risk-taking as a school objective or target, many UK Schools are setting themselves up for failure – or merely ‘fooling themselves. Increasingly, school policy is written to eliminate any possibility of risk-taking or spontaneity. In protecting ourselves, under the guise of protecting our children, creativity is plain and simply being stifled from the crib on.

Many of the ideas I appear to lambast, I do understand and sympathise with – have even held. I understand that with the changes in the law, key members of our establishments find themselves in impossibly responsible – and frightening – positions. I understand that we all want to do our best to protect the young people around us. My point is not to question this; it is to ask whether or not we have gone, and continue to go, too far in the wrong direction.

In doing so, might the horrible irony be that we are harming the majority, in order to protect from shadowy, unsavoury possibilities?

Might we be producing a generation of young people who are unable to and unwilling to take risks, so afraid have they been made to feel about the possible consequences. Instead of asking, ‘What is the worst possible thing that might happen?’ why don’t we ask, ‘What is the worst possible thing that is likely to happen?’ How much freer might we be, whereas, not to do so leads to equivalents such as not boarding a flight in case it might crash; not visiting the London Olympics lest it is the target of a bombing campaign and indeed, not eating out in case someone has poisoned the food!

Problem finding is oh so easy, but  what is the solution? I would suggest that we accept that the world out there has many similarities to the one we have always lived in and that the dangers posed by the internet etc merely magnify what has always existed. (I never sat in front of a television or computer growing up, but I need more than my 2 hands to count the number of times I was ‘flashed’ at!) I would also suggest that young people today are not quite as horrified by some of the things that horrify us as adults – they have been brought up in a very different way, with access to many different media – bringing them, on a day-to-day basis into contact with what we might not fully approve of.  Although, we may feel this in some ways to be a sad indictment of society, it is a true one and we need to work with practical realities in our efforts to prepare children for their places in the real world.

Over-filtering and blocking access to numerous sites in our schools, keeps us in a legally sound position, but morally, we are doing our pupils no service whatsoever – we merely ‘push’ the problem outside of the school building, intensifying it as we do so. (The increased use of VLEs is forcing us to reconsider this position – and fast.) As teachers, many of us know what the issues are – parents often don’t. We have the curriculum relevance in our schools to be able to educate in these areas. I am a real fan of the 360 eSafety Self Review tool by the South West Grid for Learning:  It seems to work on the very sensible premise that the higher the ‘mark’ your school gains, the less you are likely to have ‘locked down’.  And the reason for that? You will have educated your students to make educated and sensible choices for themselves, freeing them up to take personal responsibility for their actions. What is the point in preventing them from accessing certain sites at school, when they can walk out of the door to the classroom and access it from their unfiltered smartphones? With these devices, they can access it on the bus on the way home and also from the pcs which they have in their bedrooms. This is where the true potential danger lies; that because of our policies and approach, children have neither the experience, nor education to make sensible decisions and their mistakes can become ‘big’ and public very quickly.

Much better to open up, for instance, a low-key chat facility in school, allow them to access YouTube – so useful in so many ways – but all this on a monitored network, where low-level mistakes can be picked up at an early stage and  consequences gradually made clear – all within a safe and controlled environment and with  full communication with parents about what the school is trying to achieve.

With proper planning, effective monitoring, a well-communicated AUP and clear sanctions, all this is possible and desirable. Let them take risks, I say!

Digital immigrants continued…

I’m liking what James Shackley is blogging about the transparency of  technology:  http://franticbuttonbashing.wordpress.com/  I could not agree more with his assertion that “technology has to be reliable… if equipment cannot be trusted and staff have no confidence in it, it is destined to fail.”  We can have all the equipment we like in our classrooms and other spaces, but if it is not reliable and, equally, if staff are not trained and confident in its use and benefits, then what is the point? – staff end up frustrated and with a growing aversion to and fear of technology, whilst students are short-changed!  None of this helps towards the end goal – learning! (Well, staff learn to hate technology, more!)

I was interested to read what Brian Lockwood, Director of IT at Egglescliffe School has to say about empowering staff to use IT effectively.  The approach at his school is for individual departments to choose their use of technology, rather than chasing it at a whole school level. “There is no sense of wanting to keep control of IT from the centre; instead the IT service at the school is based within teachers’ own specialisms.  Individual teachers are the experts in how IT can be used within their subject, not the people in the IT Department.”  This sounds like a model to aspire to, however, how realistic is it for most schools of the present? Lockwood believes that, “the days of seeing a division between staff who are competent and those in the dark ages has gone.  Now the generation who were talked about for their computer skills are coming into schools as teachers and they are encouraged to be the main contributors to development.” 

But is this representative of the experience of most schools, today, and if not, what then? 

In my experience, there remain staff, in large enough proportions, who neither see, nor understand the benefits of using technology,  and are resistant to developing their skills in this area because, ‘Our results are excellent, why would we change the way we do things?’  Should this be of concern?   I believe if our aim is to prepare young people for the modern world, then yes, it is.

At the same time, technology must never be the master of education, but the servant.  Returning to my initial point – technology MUST be reliable.  It MUST do what it is intended to do.  Otherwise, it simply will not be used by teachers.  Obviously, there will be occasions when technology by its very nature fails, but this should be the exception rather than the norm. Time is precious in the classroom and there is no room for ‘messing about’ with teaching tools that do not work.  We have been taught to recognise, and research demonstrates, that young people are used to receiving information very, very fast and they have relatively short attention spans.  They thrive on instant gratification.  They are no longer the young people I, and people like me, were designed to teach.  Neither are they being prepared for the world we were trained to embrace: something I recognise and attempt to address in my teaching. But what hope  for the teacher who, right at the start of the lesson, cannot open  her electronic register as the connection has failed again, or she who has taken the class to the IT suite for her ‘once that term’ IT lesson, only to find that the network is down or a number of students cannot log in?  Here we fail to engage and, more likely, enrage our students.  For them, the whole process and procedure of our teaching is TOO SLOW!  Whilst trying to powerup the pcs, our students are in the process of powering down! In these instances, the lesson WOULD be better without the access to technology.  This is where IT targets being forced on individual teachers often does not work, failing both staff and students.

In my view, engaging our students on a level that they understand,  enjoy and learn from, involves a number of  considerations:

  1. A reliable infrastructure, reliably maintained and supported – this is an absolute key and unless it is in place, forget the rest!
  2. A clear vision supported by an Action Plan, neither of which should be a ‘box-ticking’ exercise, but living, breathing documents, subject to regular review – daily, weekly if required!  These should work equally, whether approached top-down or bottom up!
  3. Staff choosing, even to an individual level, within departments, what technology they will use and the systems being in place for them to download and trial software on their own school laptops.  Avoiding over investment in one tool for learning avoids being left high and dry when this tool is superseded by another.  This level of flexibility also gives greater opportunity for students to develop adaptable skills and to work and think creatively.  It means they are not doing the same thing in the same ways across the curriculum.
  4. For the above to work, the school must consider cross platform support; some individuals may prefer Macs and others Pcs, some netbooks and others ipads.  Acceptable Use and Esafety measures (more of this is a later post) for staff and students need to be in place and, at department level, annual proposals need to be submitted to the IT Department so they can plan the support required.
  5. The school needs to be able to respond to training needs beyond what an inset day can provide.  And training is of no use unless it can and will be followed up by opportunities to try things out in a relevant – often departmental way.
  6. Where all staff are not on board, this is the time for management to look at the whole student experience.  Will  the range of  subjects and staff encountered by an individual student permit her / him to gain the teaching and learning opportunities and experiences  that will  develop and instil the digital literacy skills required for progression in today’s world? If so, then isn’t this sufficient?  If not, then what can be changed?

If we have individual staff who resist employing technology in the classroom, what then?  If they are about to retire and their teaching is sound, well get off their backs!  If they are 22 years old and new to teaching, then they must be persuaded of the benefits.  Why has this ‘gap’ not been picked up at interview?!  Is it because the school does not value these skills, in which case need I say more about why these things fail at classroom level?

We are living in a world of change and that can be  frightening, challenging, but so, so exciting.  No-one has all the answers, but I take reasurance from what Hoffer said in 1973, “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”  It is not WRONG not to have all the answers.  It is wrong, however, to bury our heads in the sand, adopting an ‘everything was so much better in my day’ attitude which ignores the changing needs of our students!

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