To be more precise, what does “digital technology” mean and, precisely as possible, how is Digital Technology X used in Year Y of schooling?
It is now impossible, of course, to write a document on education without genuflecting to the God of Technology. The repetitious chanting of “technology”, like a wired Tibetan monk, is the way people with no sense of the past or the present indicate how hip they are with the future. But, what do they mean? What technology are they talking about? It is a serious question, of which we only vaguely know the answer. We want help.
Of course by “technology”, the Education Experts are never intending to refer to something like blackboards and chalk. They would not even recognise such primitive devices as products of technology, although of course they are. No, what the EE mean by “technology” is electronic devices, mostly computers and computer programs, and preferably devices that are internetted. So, calculators and electronic whiteboards and Mathletics and Reading Eggs and iPads, and so forth.
The question is, precisely how are these devices used in specific classrooms? For example, are calculators used in Year 5 to perform arithmetic calculations, or to check calculations that have been done by hand? Is Mathletics used in Year 7 to teach ideas or to test knowledge and/or skills?
The same question applies to all subjects. Are word processors used in Year 6 to check and/or teach spelling and grammar? Are iPads used in Year 8 to check the definitions of words?
We want to know as much as possible, and as specifically as possible, what electronic gizmos are being used, and with whom and how.
The questions below come from something called Essential Assessment and, to be upfront, the questions are somewhat misleading. To give EA some micro-credit, not all their questions were this bad, even if plenty more that we’d seen could have been posted. So, EA is not quite as bad as these questions suggest.
On the other hand, EA, like pretty much all teaching-replacement software, appears be utterly aimless and, thus, utterly pointless and, thus, much worse than pointless.
Predictably, last week’s talk ran short of time, and we were forced to skip some slides. The most regrettable omission was a slide titled “How to Teach …”, the motivation for which was to talk about the man in the photograph above, and about the photograph.
Our approach to teaching is, shall we say, eccentric. We won’t comment on the effectiveness of our teaching but, if “method” is too strong a word, there is an underlying idea. This idea is best captured by Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing upon writing: “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent”. Even if it indicates one way to teach, however, Emerson’s quote is of course not a dictum on teaching. Teaching is communication, and every teacher has to determine for themselves how they can best communicate ideas to their students.
Which brings us, almost, to the man in the fuzzy photograph. For the twenty years we were involved in the popularisation of mathematics, including the giving of and arranging of presentations, we were privileged to witness a number of great teachers. The brilliant John Conway was a stand-out, of course, as was Art Benjamin. But there were also two Australian mathematicians that were truly and particularly memorable.
The first mathematician was Mike Deakin. We mentioned Mike in last week’s talk, as one of our go-to guys when we started LunchMaths at Monash, and he gave a number of beautiful talks. Before that, Mike was, for decades, an editor, proofreader, janitor and mega-contributor for Monash’s mathematics magazine, Function.
The other mathematician was, finally, the man in the fuzzy photograph above: that is E. R. Love, who was professor of mathematics at the University of Melbourne for about three hundred years. In 1992, when Professor Love was 80, Terry Mills encouraged us to invite Professor Love to give a talk to the mathematics department at LaTrobe, Bendigo. We did so and Professor Love accepted. Declining multiple offers to be driven, Professor Love took the train to Bendigo and gave an absolutely beautiful talk on Legendre functions. Afterwards, over lunch, Professor Love entertained all with stories of Cambridge in the 30s.
Why write about Mike Deakin and, especially, Professor Love? Well, why not, of course; Deakin and Love were great contributors to Australian mathematics and deserve to be remembered and honoured. There was a specific reason, however, why we thought they were relevant to our talk, and why we particularly regret not having included acknowledgment of Professor Love: they were great teachers in a manner ceasing to exist. They were great lecturers.
Mike Deakin, who was an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne and then a Masters student under Professor Love, reminisces here on Professor Love’s teaching:
Love, in particular, was a superb lecturer. It was said of him that he was a menace because he made his subject seem so straightforward and logical that one missed seeing its difficulties.
The point is not that Mike Deakin and Professor Love were popular lecturers; the point is that they lectured in a careful, scholarly manner that is being lost. Their lectures had no gimmicks, had none of the crazy showmanship of the Mathologer, or of the writer of this blog. They simply lectured, conveying carefully crafted ideas to an audience willing and keen to listen. And, the point is that almost no one now recognises this, or cares, or can even properly understand. Almost no one under the age of fifty can realise that what is being lost is an art form, and an extremely beautiful and valuable one.
The title of this blog post is a play on Neil Postman‘s book titled Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, which was in turn a play on a Clintonism. Postman’s excellent, and final, book was written in 1999. It was concerned with society’s inability to understand and to cope with technology, and the consequent loss of tradition and authority, of wisdom and plain meaning. Subtitled How the Past can Improve our Future, Postman’s book argued that we should look back to the 18th century, to the Enlightenment, for guidance into the future.
And now, twenty years later? The idea of building a bridge to the eighteenth century seems utterly fantastic, and perhaps always was. Twenty years on, and there is scarcely a memory of the twentieth century. The photo above was the best, the only photo we could find of Professor Love.
Mike Deakin and E. R. Love are dead, and they are being forgotten. The scholarly tradition they represented, the gift they gave, is being lost. And no one cares.
Gareth Ainsworth has contacted us, noting that Scotch College had an obituary for E. R. Love, which included a short biography and a photograph.
A big thanks to Lawrence and Emma-Jane for arranging the talk, and for making the zooming as painless as possible. A couple of aspects that I intended to talk about, and some probably valuable clarification, were only covered in the Q and A. I’ll leave it be except in reply to comments, except for one aspect that I really regret not getting to and which I’ll cover in a separate post ASAP.
Following the lead of France and Ontario, the Victorian Labor government has decided to ban mobile phones in government classes. One stated reason is to combat cyberbullying, but they’re probably lying. The good and blatantly obvious reason is that smart phones destroy concentration.
Still, any change, no matter how compelling, will have its detractors. There is the idiotic argument that the ban is unenforceable; the claim is almost certainly false, but if true points to such a profound loss of authority that schools may as well just give up entirely. And, there is the argument – one in a stream of tendentious half-truths – that occasionally the internet is down, meaning a lesson can only continue aided by a mobile’s hotspot. The argument is based upon a falsehood but in any case is much worse than wrong; any teacher so addicted to the internet for their teaching may first wish to heal thyself. They may also wish to consider a new profession. Please.
And of course there is discussion of the suggested educational benefits of smart phones, proving only that there is no idea so idiotic that some educational hack cannot be found to support it.
Luckily, it would appear that the Labor government is holding firm, and students will be able to get back to the intended lessons. On their fucking iPads.
No one appears to have a bad word for Eddie Woo. And no, we’re not looking to thump Eddie here; the mathematics videos on Eddie’s WooTube channel are engaging and clear and correct, and his being honoured as Local Australian of the Year and as a Top Ten Teacher is really cool. We do, however, want to comment on Eddie’s celebrity status and what it means.
What do Eddie’s videos exhibit? Simply, Eddie is shown teaching. He is explaining mathematics on a plain old whiteboard, with no gizmos, no techno demos, no classroom flipping, rarely a calculator, none of the familiar crap. There’s nothing at all, except a class of engaged students learning from a knowledgeable and engaging teacher.
Sure, Eddie tapes his lessons, but Eddie’s charmingly clunky videos are not in any way “changing the face of mathematics teaching“. Eddie’s videos are not examples of teaching, they are evidence of teaching. For actual instruction there are many better videos out there. More importantly, no video will ever compare to having a real-live Eddie to teach you.
There are many real-live Eddies out there, many teachers who know their maths and who are teaching it. And, there would be many, many more real-live Eddies if trainee teachers spent more time learning mathematics properly and much less time in the clutches of Australia’s maths ed professors. That’s the real message of Eddie’s videos.
Well, sort of. Since 2010, France has already banned mobile phones from classrooms; what is controversial is the French proposal to ban mobiles from schools entirely. So, countries like England and Australia are only actively considering what France has accepted without question for years.
Of course, following the consideration to do the blindingly obvious, there is the backlash from the professionals. The ABC quotes NSW Secondary Principals’ Council president Chris Presland as saying
We talk about trying to stimulate STEM education in our schools … it seems quite bizarre that we’re talking about banning the most obvious forms of technology at our disposal.
Dr Joanne Orlando, an “expert on children and technology” at UWS is also against any such ban. Responding to government comments, Dr. Orlando responds that
it takes us a few years back from all the work we are doing in education and training … There are so many new ways that mobile devices can add to the classroom.