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Playing catch-up with digital realities

By Dale Spender - posted Wednesday, 27 February 2008

When most of today’s teachers started work, their role was clear. They themselves had done well at school (and college and university): they were good at writing and reading, at studying and passing exams - which was how they had qualified to become teachers. Their training had taught them what it was they were supposed to teach, and they were usually informed that the greatest challenge they would face in the classroom was how to maintain discipline!

A quiet and orderly classroom was a precondition for teaching and learning. So students were seated in rows - often on their own. Such isolation discouraged talking, minimised copying and cheating, and made concentration easier.

Teachers were the knowledge keepers and they were in charge: they could do the chalk and talk. The students could take notes, study their books, memorise the material, and prepare themselves for providing the right answer in the exam. A silent classroom was the sign of a good teacher - and of a good learning environment.


In those days, grading and assessment was a big job: marking took a lot of time - but it was relatively easy work. The syllabus usually set out what the students needed to know - and the teacher decided whether they did or didn’t know it. When they did - and they passed the tests and exams - the students could move up to the next level at the year’s end. (Most parents well remember these experiences.)

Even homework was fairly straightforward. Some kids had encyclopaedias at home and could look up and copy out extra information, and get better marks for assignments. But if teachers just handed out basic exercises from work sheets or textbooks, it was a pretty level playing field: learn these spelling words for a test; do these maths problems for tomorrow’s lessons; finish this work sheet on rust in wheat, the alimentary canal, the kings and queens of England; read this chapter and make some notes. Homework tasks that could be quickly and easily marked in class were often favoured.

Professional skills were involved in this transfer of learning from teacher to student. In the basement of Sydney Teachers’ College for example, there was corridor upon corridor, each one lined with blackboards on either side. Student teachers spent hours in these grimy conditions practising their writing - until they reached the required standard with the chalk. Some took lessons on Gestetner and Fordiograph machines (that could produce multiple copies of a work sheet from a stencil), and even learnt the basics of setting up the projector - “for a rainy day”.

But such a calm, quiet and controlled life was not to last. While classrooms in the developed world might not have changed much from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, they have become almost unrecognisable as the classrooms of the 21st take shape. Because there has been an education revolution. And it wasn’t the teachers who started it all: the pressure for such dramatic change came from the students - the digital natives.

The home computer came first. Adolescent boys changed over night. They were no longer all that interested in taking cars apart and even bike-riding lost some of its appeal: they wanted to play computer games, experiment with software programs, do some music “pirating”. And they wanted to do some of these things in the classroom.

Teachers struggled to maintain order. But the forces of disruption were too great. The new gadgets had already captured the minds of their students - who seemed to have lost to their ability to study and concentrate. Students didn’t want to read and memorise things; they wanted to do things, to create new works - everything from web-pages to music mashes and movies!


It became harder and harder for teachers to persuade or push them to sit still, to be quiet, to read - and get on with their work. For early childhood educators it was shock and awe when even the very young ones who had just started school kept pestering their teachers to let them play computer games or send emails.

But the battle of the books was lost. For the first time in history, the home was likely to have a computer and Internet connection - and a resource base that was bigger and better than that of the average (book based) school. The students brought into the classroom new knowledge, new sources of information, and new experiences from their online networks, that could dwarf the knowledge base of an individual teacher - or a textbook.

Once Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube and essays online became the realities of everyday life for the students, teachers lost the control of the information that had been crucial to the ordered classroom. Lesson plans would not work: answers were questioned, and assignments and assessments were suddenly in doubt.

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About the Author

Dale spender is a researcher and writer on education and the new technologies.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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