The Tools of the Trade

The changes in teaching tools over 50 years

I first walked into a classroom as an underqualified teacher in 1972. Being a slow learner, there were still some units of study to complete at University. I had started in Economics but switched to History and this change caused a delay. So I wasn’t fully qualified until 1974. What I didn’t know or understand at the time was that I was on the threshold of huge changes in the way that education would develop in the next 50 years. Slow learner or not, I would have to keep my skates on to keep up.

Ocean Grove Primary School circa 1957 – Pieter with slate

A few years ago I visited a great indoor/outdoor museum in Ostersund, Sweden. In the schoolhouse there were desks made up of sand trays – a desk with a thin layer of sand so you could practise your letters or do you sums in the sand and then erase them to leave a blank layer of sand for the next exercise. In Grade 1 at Ocean Grove Primary School we had large black slates and a stick of chalk to do our writing and arithmetic. Things had been this way for a long time.

In 1972, when I began my career, if a teacher wanted multiple copies of a document, a spirit or ink duplicator was used. Spirit duplicators were good for handwritten documents and short runs of under 50. The colour in the stencil would disappear but the students loved the methylated spirits smell and held the sheets of paper to their noses. The ink duplicator would use a wax stencil that had the material typed on it or inscribed with a stylus. This could print hundreds of copies and be retained in a sleeve of blotting paper for future use. The downside was that playing with the dark ink was a messy affair. I would regularly be berated by my child bride for ink on the shirt cuffs. Newfangled photocopiers were too expensive to use for class sized duplication and most copiers still used a grey tinted photographic paper.

Overhead projectors were expensive and the few in the school would be in strong demand. Then video recorders started making an appearance in schools during the mid 1970s. They added some flexibility to the TVs that had been recently brought in, but they were hideously expensive and there were at least three different formats to choose from: Betamax, Phillips and the ultimate winner,VHS.

Even later in the 1970s and into the early 1980s personal computers such as the Vic20, C64, Atari, Apple and a myriad of others were making their appearance, starting off a format war far bigger than the video cassette wars. In this decade the first computers were making their way into schools but they were rare and seen as a gimmick by many.

Still to arrive was the Internet, Data Projectors, large class sized LED screens and apps and devices galore.

I write all this simply to show how much the tools used in education have changed over the years and I haven’t included the change from blackboards to white boards and then interactive white boards.

But all this leads to other questions: Has teaching improved? Have these tools made education a better experience? Have these tools enabled students to reach their potential?

A film can introduce a child to a new world of wonder. It can lead to questions, inquiry and further exploration. But it can also be used as a baby sitter and time waster. A printed sheet may sharpen a child’s maths or English skills or simply fill in some left-over minutes in a lesson. The same is true for a tablet and an app. At the heart of the tool’s effectiveness lies the competence and passion of the teacher. As a general rule I would suggest that a teacher with knowledge and passion, without these tools, is more effective than a teacher with these tools but without a deep knowledge of his or her teaching area and no enthusiasm for their craft. It is a roundabout way of saying that it is the teacher not the tools that sits at the heart of effective education.

Furthermore, it is the way we use these tools that carries with it another hidden layer of meaning. What are the values and attitudes that accompany them? What are we showing, living and implying to our students in the way we use these tools?

Are we reinforcing the pervasive and mind-numbing entertainment culture of our society? Are these fascinations available to us to while away the time and to titillate us or are we suggesting that these tools are there for us to explore the world, enhance our understanding and thereby serve God and our neighbour more effectively?

The way we teach and the way we use tools are laden with a subtext – for good or ill.

Has teaching changed over 50 years. I would suggest it has become even more complex, not simply because society is more complex, but our very teaching style can carry with it a sense of complicity with the values of our culture, or, in stark contrast, something far more radical – a critique of culture. Our teaching can reveal the good or ill of the tools we are using. It can encourage students to be, not just critical consumers, but more importantly, judicious and productive users of the tools at their disposal.

It was far simpler to practise one’s letters on a sand desk.

Categories: Education, Future | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Tools of the Trade

  1. I hadn’t thought of the spirit or ink duplicators for a long time. We called them mimeograph machines and were still using them in public schools in the mid-1980s. As soon as I read your mention, I could smell the ink and had fond memories of smelling the paper.

    My first computer was the Commodore Vic-20. It only did what the user wrote a program for it to do, and once you turned it off, the program disappeared until you wrote it the next time.

    Those were the days. Not sure they were good ol’ days, but in many ways they were better than today.

    My interaction with teachers today makes me very sad for the profession. Discipline problems in the classroom are criminal, students lack an ability to think for themselves, and education is purposely dumbing things down. In my state, there are 3 different levels of high school graduation: none of the three are based on exams, mastery or proficiency of basic knowledge. Every student graduates because school money is allotted by the number of students who graduate. I know students who graduate from high school and cannot add 3 to 4 without counting on their fingers.

    • The ink duplicators here used the brand name – Gestetner. I had forgotten about ink wells and nibs.

      Here there are still standards but the scary thing about state education are the social values that accompany the education. Social formation is becoming a Brave New World. Where we define ourselves in a post-modern way.

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