The Carbon-Fibre Classroom?

It’s the Tour De France in a month or two with Le Grand Depart coming to Yorkshire, which has led to a bit of a surge in cycling in the county where I live. None of this is a bad thing, writing as a cyclist, or at least a person who rides a bike, because there is a bit of an infrastructure improvement going on (admittedly a little random in Leeds, and wholly absent in Huddersfield, where it is still impossible to ride a bike safely and legally across to my workplace from the train station). All for the good, but it does also mean there has been a surge in the purchase of Stuff. Cycling is one of those hobbies which can be a real “Stuff” hobby. Something that appeals to a certain type of gadgety (usually) man: like angling, only with less torture of fish and more actual activity.

At the base level, riding a bike is a fairly uncomplicated business, practised with gusto by amateurs, but beyond which point can be relied upon to “require” the purchase of stuff with which to do it. This then leads to discussing said Stuff in pubs or on Internet forums. For most people, probably, a bike is a bike is a bike. Wheels, pedals, chains, handlebars, that sort of thing. And it can be just that. You can pop out and buy yourself a bike from a mainstream multiple retailer or off ebay and you can just get on it and go for a ride, which is awesome, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Or you can research online, read blogs, and have serious discussions with men with serious beards in small, serious shops, comparing the relative merits of steel, carbon fibre, aluminium, or titanium frames; frame geometry, wheel sizes, tyres, flat handlebars or drop handlebars, disk brakes or caliper brakes and so on. What kind of pedals do you need? Flat old fashioned ones or clip-in ones that make you fall off every time you stop for the first few weeks? And if that’s what you go for, then what model of pedal do you get? And then you need to go and buy appropriate shoes to go with the pedals. And this is just the bike, and you’d think this would be enough. But oh no. Next you need to find the right helmet, aerodynamic, the right number of vents? Can it be lined for winter rides? How many grammes does it weigh? And do you wear shorts or a bib (yes, really, there are articles online where grown men (for it will, again, be men) discuss this in some detail)? Underpants. Chamois cream or not? (If you don’t know what chamois cream is, don’t find out. I’m still recovering). Special wicking fabric for the top? Which base layers, mid layers and outer layers? Then there are tools, pumps, lubricants and all these things: again there are genuine serious articles online where the relative merits of different models of pump are discussed. This is absolutely true.

Fortunately, or perhaps not, I have neither the funds, nor quite that degree of passion for cycling to justify ever spending lots of money on most of these things. Yes, I would be more than happy to own a £2000 bike, and I do wish I had two bikes, one for zippy road riding, the other for bouncing around off road. But really, at my very entry level of cycling ability, ownership of excessive volumes of stuff is just daft. It would be nice, and owning a featherlight carbon-fibre bike tailored to my exact body size would probably help me be faster. But not a lot faster, because as a cyclist I am still very much the amateur, and not terribly good at it, in high end professional terms. Then there are riders like me, but fitter and faster, and who still just get on an old steel rattler from ebay, wearing cut off shorts and a pair of trainers, who cycle every day and cycle damn fast. And then you get riders with more money than sense, who’ve been seized by the bug, and they have all the gear, a carbon fibre Pinarello road bike for summer, and another for winter, who will never go faster than 9 miles an hour on the flat. There’s nothing especially wrong with these, mind you, each to their own – after all, it’s your money to spend as you like, but the technology doesn’t, itself, make you better.

And here, you’ll be glad to know, is the link to teaching. Teachers can get really excited about Stuff. Resources stuff. Technology Stuff. They can have whole weeks of discussions about the relative merits of different iPad apps for drawing pictures, different blog platforms for students, different tricks on an interactive whiteboard. We can analyse in detail the benefits of using a Moodle quiz over a Google form for an online quiz (yes, fiddly to set up but other benefits can offset this, depending on what you want to do). We can explore Socrative in the classroom, do Padlets and Linoits, we can go crazy! Trouble is, like with the slow cyclist with the £9400 bicycle and Lycra to the ears, the stuff doesn’t make you significantly better in and of itself. I’ve seen (and taught) lessons where the technology use has been entirely pointless because the underlying teaching methodology sucks.

If I want to become a better cyclist, my first step needs to be to improve my fitness and my technique, not spend thousands on a new bike. The same goes for teachers: you want to become a better teacher, the very last thing you should go and focus on is using Socrative. Socrative is a really good example, actually. It involves posting questions to students which they can answer via PC or mobile device and which all goes into a central spreadsheet publicly displaying how many each student got wrong. I rather like it. But if you don’t know how to make good questions, Socrative is a chocolate teapot of the highest order. In order for most technology to work well, you need to know how to do the job in the first place. Sadly, because integrating technology into teaching is very easy to put onto your post appraisal action plan, and because it’s a Hot Topic, it’s all too easy for a teacher to get distracted by this, rather than focussing something which will genuinely improve their teaching, like learning more about questioning, or how to make sure the strong students aren’t bored. Or, you know, ESOL teachers, learning how language works. If you don’t know how to structure a good listening lesson, then it makes no odds whether that listening takes place through an iPod or a gramophone. Students can read in any media you like, and respond in any media you like, from online quiz to stone tablet, but there are things you need to know about how people read and how to teach reading. Throwing technology at the process is going to make no difference, unless you know your onions first.

When you know your onions, of course, then technology can be fabulous, and I think you can learn to use technology while you learn teaching skills and techniques. What a reflecting teacher has to do is separate the two: did the lesson bomb because the technology didn’t work as you had planned, or did the lesson bomb because you didn’t plan it right? Indeed, did the technology not work as planned because you missed something vital in the planning of the activity? These are the questions you need to ask yourself when integrating technology use into your lessons. A cyclist can be an awesome cyclist with or without an awesome bike. Just about every single person doing La Tour this year would totally whup me in a race if they were wearing a ballgown on a 1970s Raleigh chopper, and I was in lightweight lycra on a high end racing machine, simply because they are better athletes than I am. By the same measure, a teacher can be awesome with or without stuff, and while stuff can improve what the teacher does, they need to know what they are doing in the first place. And that needs to be the primary focus for improvement.

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