Why the OECD study conflicts with what good Headteachers know to be true.

We seem to be getting a rash of studies that show that lots of use of technology by young people correlates with lower exam results. We have had the study showing that schools banning mobile phones raised results, then the study that showed that children with high ‘screen-time’ achieve less (though they acknowledge this was mainly TV watching not Internet access) and now the OECD study shows that countries with lower average class-time use of the Internet score lower in PISA scores.

Yet the Headteacher interviewed by the BBC, and many other enlightened Heads, firmly support their spend on technology and can justify it to governors, parents and of course their own teachers. Why is there such a conflict between what good Heads say and what the studies seem to say?

The answer is that it is easy to use technology in education very badly, and far too many schools do. We all know of schools that have bought class-sets of tablets before they asked the question as to how they were going to use them. And we probably all know lazy teachers who use computers and tablets as glorified worksheets, getting initial extra engagement that soon wears off. Even whole states and countries can get this wrong, as the California iPad debacle showed.

How can so many people be blind to what the increasing number of digitally aware schools are showing is possible – hugely greater engagement in learning that leads to all sorts of achievements, often by pupils who previous to the introduction of technology into the school were classed by teachers as ‘hard to reach’?

Getting huge impact on learning from technology is not rocket-science, but it does require clarity of thinking by the Headteacher and strong leadership. So what are the steps? Not, I hope you will not be surprised to hear, rushing out to buy technology. That should only happen when the need is clear and the groundwork has been done.

Step One – Get behaviour right. If there is poor behaviour by pupils and low-level disruption, it will increase significantly when technology is introduced or use of pupils’ phones in school permitted. With poor behaviour and concentration lowered by disruptions, everything is a distraction. Technology is powerful both ways, it can be hugely positive and helpful but it can also be hugely distracting. It may well be necessary to initially ban pupils using mobile phones in school, to get behaviour right, so the conditions can be created where it is possible to have pupils using their own devices in school sensible, safely and highly productively. Many schools are now achieving this – go and look at some before you write headlines that say banning phones is the way to increase results.

Step Two – In parallel with acting on behaviour for learning, the curriculum has to be relevant. That is the whole school curriculum, not just the content taught. If pupils do not see most of the curriculum as relevant to themselves, they are candidates for distraction and low concentration. I do not believe in our connected, media-rich world that it is possible to make a school curriculum engaging and relevant without considerable use of multimedia, the Internet and interactive activities of all kinds, some involving technology but the majority based on social interactions. Though out of school the majority of interactions with information or classmates will involve technology.

Step Three – Outstanding teaching, again in parallel with acting on behaviour. Pupils engaged in lessons don’t misbehave. As one miscreant pupil when asked (in a technology-oriented lesson that had been been set up as part of making the school curriculum more relevant) why he wasn’t misbehaving as he usually did said, “I haven’t got time to misbehave! I’m busy.” I do not believe it is possible to be an outstanding teacher without a clear understanding of the role of technology in learning. But that does not necessarily mean that pupils in class will spend much time using technology. They will spend time watching and listening, thinking, discussing, collaborating, creating and making. The fact that technology tools may be used, or that instant look-up is available, or that Internet research may be part of the task is almost irrelevant. It’s just the fastest and most effective way to work, to keep the thinking flowing. Pupils using the Internet in this way are unlikely to report this as ‘time on the Internet’, which they will think of as long periods when they are exclusively using the Internet.

Step Four – Use audiences for pupils’ work and generate feedback. There is a great deal of research showing that giving young people better and more feedback on their work is a major factor in helping them improve it. The possibilities in this area are hugely increased when a school makes effective use of a digital environment that complements the classroom environment.

Step Four – Record evidence of progress. Seeing clearly what you are struggling with in comparison to others helps you see what you have to learn. Seeing that you can improve feeds your feelings of success and growth mindset. Paper exercise books are a very poor way to record progress. Using digital methods enables selection, and much easier and better commenting by teacher and peers.

Step Five – Scaffold and support work that pupils do out of class with online information and systems. Instead of homework being the poor relative to classwork it can become an engaging activity. And it can be collaborative even though pupils are in their own homes.

By this stage the school and the teachers will be seeing the results of the ways they are using technology every day. They will be talking to the pupils about how they manage to learn more effectively because of how they use technology. They will know clearly what the impact is and why they, in their school, don’t believe the headline conclusion of the OECD report.


I cannot think of any other area of human endeavour where conclusions are drawn and headlines created by studying those companies or organisations that are getting it wrong, and putting their approaches on a par with those who are getting it right.

Of course in most other areas the actions of customers soon make it clearly obvious which companies are getting the introduction of technology right. Though we can see digitally evolved schools attracting more applications from parents and becoming over-subscribed, young people don’t have much choice once allocated to a school. Nor can they clearly see what is on offer from neighbouring schools. But they can react to what their school either does or does not offer. They do this by altering their level of engagement with the school and with learning. And this alters their level of concentration and the amount of time they are prepared to commit to thinking about and doing things that enhance their school achievements.

Measure these and you will have a way to assess which schools are getting it right. And from these schools you will be able to assess how technology should be used in school and out of school.

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