A response to the criticism of my criticism of the school that saw art as a distraction to computer work

Readers should know that a number of principals have written in defence of Brendan Fin at Tairua School. And good on them.

The article in Stuff on Tairua School was a public release; and my posting in return was a public release.

All of what I commented on was contained in the Tairua public release, but with one big provision, what I read in that public release was what I see virtually, with only minor variation, in hundreds of schools, and so the posting was about my near despair at the shallowness of computer use in so many primary school classrooms.

Some say I was personal, well, it was Brendan’s thinking, and he was sitting there in chirpy fashion, why respond in the abstract?

Computer use in New Zealand schools is not going well; and is going to end very badly – but that is some time in the future.

Tairua is described as a country school trying to do something different, but what I see at Tairua is a country school doing something the same.

What is happening at Tairua and hundreds of schools in New Zealand has a huge weight of bureaucratic and media support, and considerable parental support – there is no need for such schools to feel picked on when one commentator sees things differently. Computer skill is also proving a winning characteristic for gaining principal jobs. Things are going very much the computer way, officially and vocationally.

If only they would go the curriculum way.

One thing I want to say here is not to question the sincerity of Brendan Fin, the Tairua principal, or any other principal, just their judgement.

Just as I haven’t been to Tairua School to see what is ‘really’ happening, many principals won’t have read my writings starting from the mid-90s on the introduction of computers into schools, the profusion of rooms and hubs, and how computer use was taking the heart, vivacity, and substance from so many curriculum areas.

The promise was that computers would be tools, but now rooms are being built for those tools, indeed, whole schools, to devastating effect; computers have become central, and programmes, rooms and schools are being built around them.

Principals are heading overseas to learn more about the use of computers in classrooms; they are not heading off to learn about, say, social studies and science in the classroom – indeed, they are not heading off to such courses in their own countries.

A curriculum has been devised for computers; it is called inquiry learning, in which children study big issues. This is not good curricular learning as I know it, nor good big issues learning.

And this is where I will part company with so many schools and their use of computers; be received with incomprehension. The inquiry learning I see, if it is, say, social studies or science, is terrible social studies and science.

I am not even going to try to explain why here; I have explained for years, and I will be explaining again in my ATTACK! series, indeed, have started to do so.

To say artwork was absent from the computer rooms ‘to prevent students from distraction’ was clearly and an intentional quality of the room, and for me a provocation.

Then the article says that computers had: ‘future proofed the classroom …’ A tool was going to do that?

It is the humanity and development of the values and the skill of people involved in the classroom that will future proof a room to the extent a room can be future proofed. It is the lyricism of the writing, the sincerity of the drama, the observed expression in the art, the independence in the reading,  the setting of problems in the maths, the deep feeling for people, and the observed science environment that will future proof classrooms – not computers.

There is much talk of the future in this article, and in all computer articles, technology people it seems see the future as something exclusive to them. This is wrong, human values and the best expressions of human endeavour need protection from the barbarism. Schools should be future proofing our humanity with the values of humanity.

The best way to prepare children for the future is not to immerse children in technology, in technology future-proofed classrooms, but to prepare them with the knowledge, values, and insights needed to face the always inevitable change.

Then the article says that ‘using technology was going to re-imagine education.’ No – people re-imagine education, with technology an aid.

Then come the clichés: the teacher not standing at the front of the class (the implication being that teachers would otherwise stand there and direct a whole lot of information to children); the teacher as the facilitator; and big issue studies.

At least the cliché of knowledge being transitory and skills needing to be emphasised is absent.

But I note the link of computers at school with future vocations.

There is reference in the article to a ‘focus on innovation, creative thinking, and self-directed thinking.’ Many of us know what this means and it doesn’t lead to innovation or creative thinking.

If principals have the courage and humility to engage in genuine curriculum matters, ATTACK! will answer many of the issues raised. I never criticise without having an alternative.

As for Singapore: what is it about the place? What principal hasn’t been there? Oh for a principal that goes to some other place for, say, the art, drama, mathematics – anything that fosters a deep curriculum understanding, and in that occurring, lead to computers being allocated their proper role.

I’m going to leave it there. My voice is very much in the minority, my holistic philosophy is proscribed; in ascendancy is computers as central to education – Brendan is in a very strong position, he’ll be fine. He went public on something dear to him and was provocative (well, at least to me); and I went public on something dear to me and was provocative in return. And my reward has been a lively response. Great stuff!

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16 Responses to A response to the criticism of my criticism of the school that saw art as a distraction to computer work

  1. As the self named voice for education in NZ I would expect you could provide more than generalisations when talking about current practice….

    To show the ‘power’ of generalising I shall cast my mind back to 1989, the year your formal experience in educational leadership ended. Oh, they were the years… Playing bull rush and fighting in the playgrounds whilst teachers talked through the haze of smoke…. Children never daring to go near the staffroom in case they do something wrong and got the cane….. The bell rang to go back to class for SSR, handwriting and regurgitating some knowledge from an encyclopaedia on the Vikings. The principal returned to their office to read the paper and have the office lady fetch them a coffee…..

    Thank goodness times have changed. I fee sorry for you if your experience in current schooling is anything near how you are reflecting on it.

    In my experience schools are now embracing their exceptionally diverse communities and weaving key concepts that are essential to understand with rich tasks that integrate values and dispositions.

    Digital technologies, can and do make a positive difference in enhancing these opportunities for teaching and learning. Innovative teachers and leaders are taking the best of the past as they work hard to prepare learners for their futures. Just like walk socks and sandals, some things are better left in the past….

    • John Carrodus says:

      Well things just go round. Bullrush is back, Kids use social media to “fight” at a very subversive level instead of using fists.It may have been in smoke, but at least teachers had the time, energy and freedom to talk without being gagged by PC-ocracy. Children rarely come to the staffroom now – due to new health and safety regs.Secondary may be different now, but primary schools haven’t used canes since the war- (Boer.) At least the kids could read and hold a pencil correctly, memory was valued and kids knew about stuff like Vikings and encylopaedias.The principal now returns to his office to read the news, on the computer. He makes his own coffee from the parent reception lounge coffee expresso machine outside his door.

      In my expereience many principals have been duped into cartels of teched out schools where children are latched on and weened on a diet of material pouring out of a computer. I was with a group of retired principals last week who have also made this observation with concern.

  2. Kelvin says:

    Sorry Silverdale Normal School I was called away for tea, and am not sure to what you are referring. I feel with the two postings I have had more than my fair share of the loudspeaker. Perhaps I could add that in 1989, though only 51, I chose to leave the formal education system to be with teachers, but I have had plenty of formal and informal contact with schools all those years hence, and am still having plenty. I enjoyed your lively e-mail, it is truly memorable. It reminded me, though they may have been slightly less florid, of those fierce debates we use to have about the curriculum, before that largely became redundant because there is now only one way. My two brief postings on computers challenge a huge number of interests, from financial to political to personal, I expect a fierce and uncompromising response. Up to now, it seems to me, critics of the quality of computer use in schools have found it hard to find a way in – perhaps this is one critic who has.

  3. Barry Garland says:

    I’m not always with you, Kelvin, as you can sometimes become a tad ad hominem in your approach (in particular with politicians and certain academics), which I do not see as the way to influence people. In this case your response to the responses has been restrained and humble which is cool. I value your dogged determination to continue to speak out for holistic education. There have been outstanding holistic practitioners in the past (Perhaps always a minority?) Richardson was the classic example. I think there still are holistic practitioners around these days, some of whom use IT as one potentially highly effective tool in their kete. Learners still need a caring, insightful, creative, motivator to guide them and, yes LEAD them. Rectangular
    screens and the interweb will never replace them, but never!

  4. Gee String says:

    I teach ECE in a tech-free environment and actively promote children being tech-free to parents for as long as they can hold out. i know of centres you have massive TV screens to show nature films because they have no playground, tablets for every child for mathematical games because its easier and cleaner and cooler than sticks, stones, shells, mud…

    i once tried introducing a computer with the noble goal of it being a tool to experiment with and produce a new product – children took photos and got to manipulate them with software and then print. I pulled the plug when a teacher introduced the ‘paint’ programme and they wanted to paint with a cursor rather than a brush … squiggles, marks, brushes, pencils, cooperative experimenting are the precursors to writing of course.

    The argument for tech in our centre comes up often and as the research is vague and biased according to funding origins, I’ve shifted our argument to reasons of environmental and social justice. Coltan mining, child soldiers, exploited factory workers with suicide nets around the roofs, the waste …. this does not fit with our curriculum, our philosophy and how we want our children to respect life rather than wallow in first-world bling and to hell with the consequences.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. Warren says:

    In reply to silverdalenormalschool. I remember the 1980s well, and while some of the negatives you mention were present, overall, there was also a wealth of positives that are now waning or non-existent. There was far less avaricious and officious corporate influence and far greater flexibility. While this may have allowed some of the more neurotic teachers to impose their madness, it also allowed the more inspired and creative teachers the freedom to create rich vibrant community culture and diverse activity and exploration – where lesson plans were refreshingly absent, and time less constrained (I recall spending whole mornings, afternoons and even days working on drama projects, music, dance, outdoor orienteering, science projects and so on). There was far more time outdoors, and more time with a variety of tools and equipment. The computer (from about 1986 on) was used mostly as a tool or as a curiosity. We learned to program it in Basic code, to print stories we’d written and, and occasionally an adventure game called Transylvania (which we also learned to hack and re-program!).

    Freedom to be, and freedom to relate (person to person), and freedom to explore were the gifts that I was blessed with. And years later I learned to code a website after never seeing a computer before age 11. There is no evidence that children need constant bombardment with screens before this age (or thereabouts) in order to later confidently navigate the electronic world. Just as we do not bombard children with sexuality or alcohol so they are better prepared for these arenas in adult life.

    The most important issue I believe, is whether the computer is tool or master. As tool, I haven’t an issue with them (even for younger children such as my 8 year old daughter who writes her stories in microsoft word). As master, a screen is nothing other than a direct arm of corporate advertising directly into vulnerable young brains.

    You can for instance have computers, internet, printers, video cameras, etc available, and for a child to use any of it, they have to present to the teacher a plan of what they want to achieve or create. I.e. make a film, draw a picture, send an email, program a game in code, write a story and publish it, and so on. Then the teacher can assist (or ask an older child to assist) them in USING the computer as a tool toward a particular ends. This doesn’t happen enough or at all where my children are schooled. Instead, they just get sat on some glossy software and do what it (or the teacher) tells them to do, or sit aimlessly watching videos on youtube or drifting through the flotsam of google searches. Wrong use of screens. Teaching uninventiveness and compliance rather than imagination and empowerment.

    When you go to a computer knowing what you want from it then it can be useful. It is the lack of this direction (and leadership toward direction) that is the danger nowadays. And equally it is the lack of human to human, and human to outdoor contact that is being so displaced in children’s lives by excessive time spent in front of screens.

  6. Kelvin says:

    Warren: outstanding. With your permission, I would like to reproduce it. Writing the website has its strains and joys – a response like this is definitely one of the joys. Thank-you.

    • Warren says:

      I am very encouraged that you enjoyed my thoughts Kelvin. I wrote that in a bit of a hurry so I will write something tomorrow and email it to you and you can choose which you may like to reproduce. Thank you for your work and maintaining an online presence. I’m now discovering Elwyn Richardson!

  7. John Elliott says:

    I am only a secondary-school teacher who started teaching in 1970. I missed the website switch last year and have only just caught up with Kelvin’s later writings. Although an atheist, I think that Kelvin is doing God’s work. (A figure of speech, for any over-literal readers.) I have seen a less-able reader criticize him for being long-winded. Criticism from someone with only a 20-second attention-span..?
    Please do not let anyone bring you down, Kelvin.

    John Elliott

  8. Bruce Hammonds says:

    I too read the Stuff article about Tairua School with some misgivings and have been intrigued with the responses to Kelvin’s posting about the use of computers in education.

    I was motivated to read the information on the school website and to view all the class blogs. I have had the occasion to drive past the school the past year and have often thought what a wonderful environment Tairua is for the children to explore – with or without the use of technology.
    It would seem to me that technology is being seen by most/many schools as the ‘silver bullet’ essential to ensuring success for students in the future – ‘future proofing’ .

    Three were a number of phrases I totally agree with in the Stuff article but I don’t see technology as ‘centre stage’. It is, if used properly, a powerful tool for students to deepen their learning; conversely it is all too easy for the use of such technology for shallow learning. I don’t think students being ‘plugged in’ any guarantee of real learning. Students these days are plugged in almost all their waking time; the virtual world is taking over from the real.

    The success with using technology is the interpretation of Tairua’s phrase – a ‘genuine process of discovery’. I wasn’t able, looking through the class blogs to ascertain this. I would need to visit and read /view what the students have produced.

    When I visit classrooms I like to read some of the inquiry learning research on show. Ideally the classroom walls (and individual student work) should replicate the in depth thinking seen in the best of Science Fair exhibits. In such research the challenge, or research questions should be on display, the process of inquiry obvious and the findings made clear and often include further things to explore from unanswered questions arising throughout the study – all knowledge is tentative. And for all this learning to be assisted by the use of technology.

    I am usually disappointed. Cutting and pasting – learning via Google is more often the case. Student research, if it is genuine, ought to feature markers such as ‘I used to think’,’ I now think’,’ I am still confused about this’ to indicate the changing of students’ minds as they ‘construct’ their own knowledge. And ideally students need to be able to defend their conclusions and teachers need to challenge students to do so. This is beyond ‘facilitation’.

    I have no idea if this is the case at Tairua.

    As for room environments and the removal of distractive art I have mixed feelings. A well designed room environment featuring current research/inquiry studies is vital – some call the room environment the ‘fourth teacher’ (after the teacher, the material to be learnt, and the ideas of other within the classroom and online). A teacher’s classroom is an important ‘message system’. If it is full of teacher distractions, posters etc it is the teacher’s class. If it is full of well displayed inquiry, language and art work , all featuring the students identity and ‘voice’, then such an environment is not a distraction, it is a celebration of student thinking

    I have to agree with Kelvin that the ‘heart, vivacity and substance of curriculum areas’ are all too often missing in classrooms.

    It does seem to me that some teachers are captured by technology and, if this is the case, such technology is itself a distraction from real learning.

    A futurist has stated in a world when students are connected almost every minute of their waking hours the ‘offline is the new luxury’ and that humanistic schools should cultivate the offline – the real world almost as an antidote to be ‘plugged in’ all the time.

    Any new technology has both positive and negative consequences. As Sophocles wrote, ‘Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse’. What does it mean to be human in an increasingly digital world? Einstein has written, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’ and it is imagination that is at stake our education system today. We must be careful not to throw out creativity with our obsession with technology. We need to protect at all costs a humanistic education – the holistic Kelvin believes so strongly in.

    We must be suspicious of people who look to technology as the solution to everything.
    We must fight against the standardised teaching that computer power is introducing into our schools. We must be careful not to be captured by those selling ‘Silicon Valley snake oil’. Technology is a tool, a powerful one, and one all the more dangerous if used unquestionably.
    When I had the occasion to drive past Tairua School I thought what a rich environment to create a 21st C learning environment it would be; an environment with its genesis in the kind of creative work that Elwyn Richardson put into practice in his small rural school in the 1950s but with the added advantage of the sensible use of modern technology. This holistic learning has all but been lost

    A school ought to be community of scientists and artists exploring their immediate world and the wider world students’ now have access to. Maybe, though, ‘offline is now the new luxury’?

    What does it mean to be human in a digital world? Maybe this is the really important question.

  9. Kelvin says:

    Thank-you Bruce for your thoughtful and insightful response. Out thoughts and best wishes are with you.

  10. Turn it off! says:

    It is with fondness that I remember my schooling days in the 80’s. The english teacher with movie posters from around the world who inspired you to think and imagine what could be. The passionate science teacher who would wheel in the car engine only to prove how strong he was by lifting it and the history and classics teacher who could weave tales of intrigue enriching her teaching.

    Sadly this beautiful art of teaching appears to be lost as more electronic based learning is introduced to schools across the country whether they like it or not. Disengagement of young people is all too evident even as they sit with one another at the same table yet don’t actually engage.

    It is with relief that my children attend a school with a holistic style of teaching and learning. Walking in nature observing and drawing what they see, visiting real examples of history and those connected to them, writing and illustrating beautiful material of their experiences and original story writing and telling.

    It is my hope that we will all soon realise what are beautiful children may ultimately be missing out on.

    I should add that I work in the ICT sector so not adverse to ICT, just in it’s use especially in primary schools.

  11. Rex Morris says:

    One simple problem with computers in classrooms – their introduction and use is, in the majority of cases, [and in my opinion !] not based on a curriculum purpose. The curriculum comes, usually very poorly, way down the list on implementation or use n the classroom. When I observe children using computers they are actually engaging in the scourge of the pre-computer era – worksheets, except in this case they are simply electronic. And the learning is low level, if there is any learning at all. I will add however that on occasion i do see some good use of the computer, usually around publishing. But the basic goal of the English curriculum simply is not met by the use of computers in the classroom let alone other curriculum areas. I have observed, but cannot quantify in any way, that the quality of writing has reduced at about the same rate as the use of computers has increased. I feel that it is time for some pretty sound research and review of the use of computers in schools. I should also add that I have been a strong proponent, and will continue to be, of the value of a computer in the learning process ! ! !

    • Allan Alach says:

      I’m of the same mind, Rex. Like you I see great potential in the use of technology, especially as its capabilities develop. I’ve seen a few classrooms where technology has enhanced children’s learning in ways that would not be possible otherwise; however these are very few and the great majority of computer use is worthless. Like you I put a lot of time and effort into promoting computer use in my schools, including following on from your efforts in one school, but in the end I have to conclude that there was little beneficial effect in most classrooms. This really bugged me as I knew what could be achieved. In the end, the problem wasn’t with the technology, but with the teachers and the underlying educational philosophy. Just chucking a computer in front of a child is a waste of time.

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