Tackling a Myth? Don’t dive in feet first

Tackling a Myth? Don’t dive in feet first

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.


Image credit


Link to the book


  1. Well, apart from all that you have said, it does cause young children to develop incredibly bad posture and poor eyesight! I guess it is all about perspective and no one is right or wrong !

    Naini SIngh (India)

    • Some interesting claims there Naini! Any evidence? My eyesight deteriorated throughout my teens and early adulthood. My mother said it was too much Championship Manager. My optometrist told me it was genetic astygimatism. Not only was she wrong in her assertion… it was actually her fault!

  2. No one, not even a Tom, would say that iPads have no possible use in education.

    The problems are from the way they are imposed on teachers (you should see the number of threads started on teacher forums that begin “I’ve been given a class set of iPads and told I have to use them in my lessons. Does anyone know of any good apps? “) and of the lost opportunity costs. The money spent on a class set of iPads could have paid for an awful lot of textbooks….

    • Thanks Teacher_P, I agree. I read with horror the decision of a council in the Scottish highlands to do exactly as you describe – for every pupil. Where technology on this scale (e.g. a device per child) has impact, it’s because its woven into the fabric of the teaching and learning culture. This can only come from within, not without, in my experience.

    • Further to Dom’s comment, I would say that what you are describing is not a technology problem but rather one of questionable staff development. Whenever a school has successfully gone down the 1:1 route, this has always been accompanied a great deal of visioning and training, precisely to avoid the feeling among teachers that they are being made to do something they have not bought into.

      Secondly, I would also suggest that using microeconomic concepts such as opportunity cost in the field of education, although useful sometimes, can only go so far. This is because it is often used to justify subjective and/or normative stances. For example, you suggest that the money spent on iPads ought to have been spent on more textbooks. This is a normative statement, as it describes what you think ought to have happened. However, it also ignores that textbooks are not very good at accessing the internet or recording science experiments in high definition, for example.

      Another similar argument I hear is that the money spent on iPads could have paid for more teachers. If you take my school as an example (London based, 1400 ish kids), not buying iPads this year could have paid for between 5 and 6 extra teachers. This would have meant an overall class reduction of around 1 to 2 pupils per class. Our school made the decision that going 1:1 would probably have a greater beneficial effect than reducing class sizes by 1 or 2 pupils. I can’t say I disagree.

      In short, the opportunities lost (extra text books or slightly smaller class sizes) need to be balanced against the opportunities gained. Which is why, coming back to my original point, it’s so important to get staff development right, so that everyone learns about these new opportunities, and, in doing so, they can make informed comparisons between what may be lost and what might be gained. Otherwise, we will continue to hear the words “opportunity cost” uttered in circumstances where people are not really aware of the opportunities or, for that matter, the cost.

  3. Hi Dom

    Glad you think I’m awesome, sad to see that you’ve misunderstood one sentence, then built an entire blog around what is essentially one of the longest straw men arguments I’ve seen in a long time.

    I’m happy to defend, or amend at any time, whatever I’ve said. I’m less happy with someone creating a position, attacking it, and then super gluing my name to it. It would have been the work of a moment to ask me to clarify what was- I’ll concede- a short ambiguous statement with a variety of possible meanings *before* you wrote about it, but I understand that it wouldn’t have been such a controversial blog.

    Here’s my quote:

    “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.”

    What I meant was that in my not-inconsiderable experience of looking at research claims for IT adoption, an enormous amount is often the produce of commercial interests, or simply advocacy and sales dressed up as sober investigation, something which you as good as admit yourself. So far, so good. That’s the ‘rubbish’ on which children don’t have time to waste- the poor research. Not iPads or tablets or apps or any variety of edu-tech wonders. I have no issue with such things per se. More importantly, I don’t have an axe to grind. I love using tech myself, and I sometimes find it useful in the classroom. I do rail against those who claim it has magic powers, or those who argue for its whole sale adoption without considering the consequences of poor integration, or those who think that, by itself, it will be the simple solution to a complex problem. And I’m sure that you have no axe to grind either, given that you have no personal interest in whether or not schools integrate tech.

    Of course tech can be integrated well, given the right context, strategy and users. a statement of such obviousness scarcely need be said; you could say that of any tool. I once used a carrot as a key prop in a lesson. You don’t hear me railing against carrot adoption though, because they don’t cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to install, maintain, and they don’t break very often. It’s the practitioner far more than the tool that counts.

    I grant all that isn’t conveyed in one sentence, but few sentences could labour so hard. It was a phone conversation between myself and the journalist who has, to her credit, faithfully transcribed what was said. If it had been a pre-written manifesto or a mission statement, I’d understand your reaction perhaps, but from a snippet of conversation? I fear your standards of idiomatic clarity are high indeed.

    And while I enjoyed reading the blog overall, now that I’m here, I’ll point out how easy it would be for someone to take exception to lines like ‘without any evidence to back up this prejudice.’ Or ‘reveals rather more about his ideology than it does about his interest in understanding what works in education, ‘ both of which seem slightly unfair ad hominems. Given you didn’t bother to find out what I meant, nor can you infer my motives unless you possess telepathy, that felt unnecessary. Or ‘I guess what I’m feeling is disillusionment that one of its champions has fallen far short.’

    I’m not free from bias- no one is- but I struggle against it as much as I can. I try to make my observations based on evidence. That’s why I started researchED, because I was tired of the swamp of claims that people could make about the classroom without much to back it up; not just tech, but also tech. And it must be said, as far as tech vs no tech goes, tech won, congratulations. People like me are like John the Baptist, raving in the wilderness. Tech adoption is the norm, from the ubiquity of the IWB to the modern dogma that classes should be blogging and using VLEs. To argue against tech adoption is an act of insurrection these days. Given what I do, and what I campaign for, the implication that I’m peddling my own ‘prejudices’ is a serious claim indeed.

    Finally, to end that paragraph with the words ‘especially poor children’ is a particularly low rhetorical coup de grâce.’ Poor children have fewer chances than anyone else, and if a school or a district or an LEA floods their classes with ill conceived IT strategies that could have been profitably spent on another teacher or similar, then yes, that does matter.

    If tech adoption were cheap or easy, and didn’t take much time, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. But if you want to persuade people that it’s right for them then it’s not unreasonable to ask ‘what evidence is there that this will have a positive impact before I spend $$$ on it?’ That’s just good governance. And you’re right, it’s early days yet for the evaluation of its efficacy. All the more reason to show caution along with all that exuberance and zeal, especially when tax dollars are at stake.

    So, to summarise: I don’t think tech is rubbish, because I’m not especially stupid. So to read a tweet like:

    My response to the trashing of educational technology as ‘that rubbish’ by someone who should know better http://bit.ly/1FHUmX1  #ukedchat

    …encourages me to ask one small favour of you; next time, be as keen to ask for a response before you post, as you were after you did.

    Tom Bennett, who should know better.

    • Thanks Tom, I appreciate the time this reply will have taken.

      As I hope was abundantly clear from the start of my post, I respect the work you do.

      Nothing which followed was intended to be, in your words, ad hominem, though I can see how you may have inferred this intention. It wasn’t there.

      I accept your explanation that your ambiguous statement did not mean what I (fairly reasonably) assumed it did. I also think that when you are speaking to a huge and diverse audience through a national publication such as the Telegraph, you have a duty to be clear. Anyway, moving on, in the light of your explanation, I’ll stop talking about this issue.

      You say a couple of things above that I think it’s worth giving some response to:

      Firstly, that I created a position, attacked it and then stuck your name to it – again, I can understand why this is your perception. The reality was that I read your piece and wrote a response, nothing more. The was no hijacking of your ‘name’ to lend credibility or create controversy, trust me, I don’t have the time. I saw something which I felt needed challenging and I challenged it – probably similar to the targets of your TES blogs. Your view is that I don’t have that right, that I should come to you first for clarification.

      Your line about ‘And I’m sure that you have no axe to grind either, given that you have no personal interest in whether or not schools integrate tech.’ is very funny. Like I say, I’m a fan. It may also surprise you to know that I spend most of my time at work slowing down and stopping poorly conceived uses of technology in education and would describe myself as a sceptic.

      I find this truly interesting: ‘To argue against tech adoption is an act of insurrection these days.’ I feel totally opposite and experience the ‘howling in the desert’ you describe, but that’s the thing with perspective – it depends on where you’re standing.

      For the record, I’d like to restate my support for the work of ResearchEd and its overall aims – the main thrust of my argument was that tech needs more research and an open mind if its usefulness or otherwise is to be better understood.

      Your initial response to the blog was, to be fair, polite amusement/ slight bafflement. It seems to me that it’s the tweet following it up this morning that has angered you, and for that I apologise.


  4. We obviously disagree on a few points- for example I could never deny (or want to) your right to criticise, merely that if there’s ambiguity it might be safer to check first what I meant- but that was a gracious answer at any rate. Handbags holstered. My response was proportionate to how much I care about provenance in education.

    Best wishes


    • Thanks Tom – It’s also worth pointing out that when I wrote my response, I saw your comments as being pretty straightforward and therefore worthy of challenge. It’s only now once you pointed it out that I saw the ambiguity and the potential for double meaning


  5. It was interesting to watch this debate play out today and I think it’s been a very valuable experience for anyone following who doesn’t have the level of experience that Tom and Dom have with technology in education.

    There’s a definite need to raise awareness in the education community around clear reasoning behind deploying technology into schools. While the piece Tom originally wrote has merit I dislike articles that put forward problems but don’t offer solutions. The iPad may be the poster boy for the mobile learning movement in schools at the moment but I do believe the research papers produced by Apple do have value across the education sector. I agree that there is no causal link yet identified between iPad and improving grades but there are dozens upon dozens of examples of correlation. The real question for educators is not “Does this research have value?” but instead “What steps did this school undertake to achieve a positive correlation between iPad and results?”

    Once the right questions are asked then everyone in education benefits.



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