Tom Bennett is one of the best examples of the ability of social media to intersect with talent and create the heros of the modern age. On the face of it ‘just’ another teacher, through the leveraging of online platforms to foster and grow social networks, he has repeatedly drawn the attention of the profession to the primacy of evidence in informing practice and in the process created something of real value. ResearchEd, the organisation Tom founded aimed ‘at improving research literacy in the educational communities, dismantling myths in education’ is going from strength to strength, and is expanding internationally. Its success and popularity, fuelled by technologies such as Twitter, has been amazing to observe. Tom was even nominated as one of the UK’s two candidates for the Global Teacher Prize.
If the education world has an equivalent of Zoella, it’s Tom Bennett.
Tom has made good use of that tactic employed by homines novi throughout history, from the floor of the Roman senate to the dining room of the state penitentiary – find the biggest guy you can and smack him round the head with your lunch tray. His target of choice is often Sir Ken Robinson, the poster-boy for the progressivism that Michael Gove characterised as ‘the Blob’. Tom’s blogs for the TES rarely miss an opportunity to needle this knight of the realm for some of his most unevidenced iconoclasm. It’s fascinating, witty and endlessly readable. Sir Ken seems to have taken a Johnsonian view of all this and has demurred to engage. After all, ‘A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but, one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still’.
So, by now you’re probably thinking ‘We get it, you think Tom is pretty awesome. Get to the point’. OK, fawning over, here’s my issue. The work of ResearchEd is laudable and important, so much so that it deserves to be held to its self-declared high standards – if you’re unaware of the scope and ambition behind the organisation, check out its aims. This is why I suffered a moment of horrible personal disillusionment when I read something Tom said to a journalist this week, something that I’m worried has given me a peek behind the curtain to glimpse the mind that’s actually operating the levers.
Knowing where Tom stands on the whole traditionalism/ progressivism debate, perhaps it should not have surprised me so much to read in Monday’s Telegraph the following lines: ‘“You hear people say that children must have iPads in order to be 21st century learners, but when you look at the research that tries to substantiate this claim, it’s normally written by iPad manufacturers and technology zealots, and that’s fine, but don’t pretend it’s research,” he says. “Children don’t have the time to waste on that rubbish, especially poor children.”’
Hands up, I need to declare an interest – I’m the co-author of a book that explores the why and how of what Tom would probably call ‘iPads in schools’. I prefer the term ‘mobile learning’, because that’s what it is. I also have a job with the word ‘technology’ in the title. So, there’s no need to point out to me that my view of this wood may be obscured by the large tree I’ve stood myself behind. That doesn’t, however, entirely discredit what I’m about to say.
Tom is absolutely right to call for better evidence in this area. He is correct in identifying that much that exists has been funded by those with a dog in the race. Anyone with a background in social research could pick a study at random, read it and weep tears of despair for the future of academic rigour in this field. However, there is some good, emergent work taking place (remember, the era of tablet computers ushered in by the first truly converged device of this type will only be 5 years old next month), not least a mixed-methods study being carried out across a number of the schools for whom I work.
I’ll skate past the disconnect between the claim (that 21st Century learners must have iPads) and the aims of all the research I’ve read in this area (which generally seeks to establish if teachers, pupils and parents think this is having an impact) – it is probably taken from a spoken quote by Tom rather than the luxury of the carefully constructed sentences that the writer can enjoy. I take issue, rather, with the final line: “Children don’t have the time to waste on that rubbish, especially poor children” and my issue is the casual, almost off-hand way in which Tom dismisses technology as ‘that rubbish’ without any evidence to back up this prejudice. The paucity of the research that Tom himself points to tells us that we just don’t know enough about the impact of the use of technology yet to make sweeping journalistic claims such as this. He may be right, he may be wrong. He’s in no better position to judge than my milkman. But here is Tom in a national newspaper, standing upon the accumulation of his work and status and telling the world that this is ‘rubbish’.
This goes against the evidence-informed stance which he has done so much to push forward and, I worry, reveals rather more about his ideology than it does about his interest in understanding what works in education. One of ResearchEd’s aims is ‘To help educators become as aware as possible of significant obstacles – e.g. biases – in their own understanding of learning and education’ and I guess what I’m feeling is disillusionment that one of its champions has fallen far short.
It speaks of a mindset with the starting point of ‘iPads are either good or bad, please show me the evidence’, which is just not a very helpful place to begin. iPads (or any technology) are neither good or bad in an educational sense. They are a tool, nothing more. Sometimes, in some contexts and some hands, they add considerable value. Sometimes, elsewhere, they really don’t. It’s rather more complex than Tom seems to think, and merits investigation not dismissal. A more rational approach to determining whether technology is worth our time in education is to look that the processes around learning that are well understood (cf. the work of John Hattie) such as ‘teacher clarity’ or ‘feedback’ and to consider if technology might improve or accelerate these.
Finally, to end that paragraph with the words ‘especially poor children’ is a particularly low rhetorical coup de grâce. Almost every day I see technology providing children from disadvantaged backgrounds with unprecedented access to life-altering opportunities, removing barriers and making learning more authentic; please don’t sow the seeds of doubt amongst a credulous public that the only things that work – and the only things worth researching – are the things we’ve been doing up to now.