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What role for traditional skills in the digital era?

Ann Rennie, Teacher, Genazzano FCJ College

As educational institutions aiming to prepare our students for active contribution in the 21st century world of globalisation we need to engage in the contest of ideas where we can combine the best of the innovative, disruptive and future orientations and benefits of technology, whilst retaining the best of those traditional pedagogical practices which have brought us thus far.

My students astound me with their iMovies and PowerPoints. When presenting to the class they have the ease and authority of experienced TED talkers. They make links, work collaboratively on Google docs to share their knowledge and are not afraid of experimenting. However, in the new learning facilitated by the immediacy of the internet and the democratisation of access to information, how do we maintain standards of literacy and numeracy when anyone anywhere can post or blog and unmediated and puerile commentary is often given cultural priority? How do we enable our students to negotiate a post-truth world where click bait is king? The web has now become the go-to source of information for all while newspapers and books appear to be curiosities from the Jurassic age.

Remember the nature walks of primary school where learning was physically, socially and emotionally instructive? Looking at nature through an iPad may be safe and fun, but it doesn’t approximate with the hands-on learning of looking at leaves, smelling the perfume of flowers or letting a ladybird wander along your arm. We need to re-immerse ourselves in the real world, even though the attractions of augmented or virtual reality are entertainingly tempting.  Curvy new furniture, colourful learning spaces and creative hubs with interactive whiteboards are all very well, but we need to remember that schools are about teaching and learning, not the latest in magazine lifestyle lift-outs.  Soft furnishings and mood lighting, an artificial ambience or a student piazza will not accomplish what application, deliberation, clarification, revision and rehearsal do. Our job as teachers is to pass on skills and knowledge in a way that is engaging and embedding so that our students thrive as curious, adventurous and hands-on learners who are prepared to reach beyond their grasp. Our job is to judiciously harness the best of the old with the potential of the new.

Some of the schools whose ATAR scores are consistently high are those which rely on the old- fashioned virtues of rigour and high expectation. Students simply do the work, read widely, ask questions, write extra essays, challenge themselves and know that they have good teachers who will partner them in success. Research tells us that laptops in classrooms do not improve outcomes. In fact, laptop use has been correlated with lower than predicted performance in exams. Students who listen and write by hand are engaging in intellectual selectivity and the triaging of information whereas those who simply type in what the teacher says verbatim are simply taking dictation. Laptops are often responsible for divided attention and distraction as students flick between social media and miss what the teacher is saying. 

Multi-tasking is detrimental to the comprehension of content. I point to the fact, as numerous others have before me, that mental arithmetic and good spelling are a thing of the past. No need to know times tables anymore because the answer is on the mobile phone. But what if it’s not charged, or the network is down or the computer on the blink? What do the children think and know and do then? Mary Flanagan, Professor of Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College in the United Kingdom, strikes a cautionary note when she refers to the contemporary classroom as an arcade.  We must be able to distinguish between digital flummery that is shallow and decorative and the technology which can engage, challenge and inspire the student.

As we enter the infinitely expanding digital universe we still need the old school virtues of practice and persistence, of reading and writing, of purposeful revision and occasional rote learning. In that fateful Year 12 exam students will actually have to retain key information, quotes, dates, formulas, people, places and events. What is needed, practically, is for students not to rely on wiping and swiping when they have to handwrite for three hours. Copying and pasting, relying on spellcheck and setting things out with a designer edge is not going to help a jot or tittle when the 17 year old needs to write legibly to get their ideas across to an assessor who will become increasingly grumpy as hieroglyphs take the place of the alphabet. Having spent a number of years as a VCE English assessor, I know how important legible writing is for meaning. In our high-stakes testing regime it is important that students have every opportunity to maximise their marks and clearly convey their understanding. This is the system we are currently working with and, until it changes, we must be active enablers of the skill of handwriting.

We are incubating the next generation. We need to prioritise soft skills in a world of automation where the employment landscape will be very different. We need to continue to be alert and challenge the things that can undermine the human element in our everyday interactions. At the same time, we also need to embrace those breakthroughs that will build capacity and connection between us, whilst we maintain ethical frameworks that explicitly prioritise man over machine. 

The old and the new are not at war, but we must be discerning and long-sighted as we make advances in all sorts of technologies. In the future we will have coders and cyber-sleuths. We will still need our musicians and philosophers, our artists and writers and those who tell us who we are and who we should be.  As we traverse the unknown terrain of the 21st century we continue to seek an education for our children that is truly fit for purpose:  an education that provides a sense of individual agency - and collective endeavour - in whatever participative realm our students seek to follow. 

Published in TLN Magazine July 2017.