Children of Sydney’s Elite Attend School That Bans Screens in Classrooms*
By Natasha Bita
A top Australian school has banned laptops in class, warning that technology “distracts’’ from old-school quality teaching.
The headmaster of Sydney Grammar School, John Vallance, yesterday described the billions of dollars spent on computers in Australian schools over the past seven years as a “scandalous waste of money’’.
“I’ve seen so many schools with limited budgets spending a disproportionate amount of their money on technology that doesn’t really bring any measurable, or non-measurable, benefits,’’ he said.
“Schools have spent hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on interactive whiteboards, digital projectors, and now they’re all being jettisoned.’’
Sydney Grammar has banned students from bringing laptops to school, even in the senior years, and requires them to handwrite assignments and essays until Year 10. Its old-school policy bucks the prevailing trend in most Australian high schools, and many primary schools, to require parents to purchase laptops for use in the classroom.
Dr Vallance said the Rudd-Gillard government’s $2.4 billion Digital Education Revolution, which used taxpayer funds to buy laptops for high school students, was money wasted.
“It didn’t really do anything except enrich Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard and Apple,’’ he said.
“They’ve got very powerful lobby influence in the educational community.’’
Sydney Grammar students have access to computers in the school computer lab, and use laptops at home.
But Dr Vallance regards laptops as a distraction in the classroom.
“We see teaching as fundamentally a social activity,’’ he said.
“It’s about interaction between people, about discussion, about conversation.
“We find that having laptops or iPads in the classroom inhibit conversation — it’s distracting.
“If you’re lucky enough to have a good teacher and a motivating group of classmates, it would seem a waste to introduce anything that’s going to be a distraction from the benefits that kind of social context will give you.’’
Academically, Sydney Grammar rates among Australia’s top-performing schools, and is frequented by the sons of Sydney’s business and political elite. Almost one in five of its Year 12 graduates placed in the top 1% of Australian students for Australian Tertiary Admission Rank university entry scores last year.
The school’s alumni includes three prime ministers — Malcolm Turnbull, who attended on a scholarship, Edmund Barton and William McMahon — as well as bush poet Banjo Paterson and business chief David Gonski, the architect of a needs-based funding model to help disadvantaged students.
The private boys’ school, which charges fees of $32,644 a year, routinely tops the league tables in the national literacy and numeracy tests.
Dr Vallance said he preferred to spend on teaching staff than on technology.
“In the schools where they have laptops, they get stolen, they get dropped in the playground, they get broken, you have to hire extra staff to fix them, you’ve got to replace them every few years. They end up being massive lines in the budgets of schools which at the same time have leaky toilets and roofs and ramshackle buildings.
“If I had a choice between filling a classroom with laptops or hiring another teacher, I’d take the other teacher every day of the week.’’
Dr Vallance — who will step down as headmaster next year, after 18 years in the job — is a Cambridge scholar, a trustee of the State Library of NSW Foundation and a director of the National Art School.
In 2014 the Coalition government appointed him as a specialist reviewer of the national arts curriculum, which he criticised as “rambling, vague and patronising’’ with “a tendency towards the elimination of rigour’’.
Dr Vallance said yesterday laptops had “introduced a great deal of slackness’’ in teaching. “It’s made it much easier of giving the illusion of having prepared a lesson,’’ he said.
He also criticised as “crazy’’ plans by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority to computerise the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy tests next year.
“That means generations of students will be doing NAPLAN on computers, they won’t be allowed to write by hand, which I think is crazy,’’ he said.
“Allowing children to lose that capacity to express themselves by writing is a very dangerous thing.’’
Dr Vallance said Sydney Grammar had been studying the difference between handwritten and computer-typed tasks among boys in Year 3 and Year 5.
“In creative writing tasks, they find it much easier to write by hand, to put their ideas down on a piece of paper, than they do with a keyboard,’’ he said.
Dr Vallance said he was sure people would call him a “dinosaur’’. “But I’m in no way anti-technology,’’ he said. “I love gadgets. It’s partly because we all love gadgets so much that we have these rules, otherwise we’d all just muck about. Technology is a servant, not a master.
“You can’t end up allowing the tail to wag the dog, which I think it is at the moment.’’
Dr Vallance said computers in the classroom robbed children of the chance to debate and discuss ideas with the teacher.
“One of the most powerful tools in education is conversation,’’ he said.
“The digital delivery of teaching materials across Australia has had a really powerful normative effect.
“It’s making it quite difficult for children to learn how to disagree, how not to toe the party line, because they can’t question things — the possibility of questioning things has been taken away from them.’’
Dr Vallance said it was a “really scandalous situation’’ that Australia was “spending more on education than ever before and the results are gradually getting worse and worse’’.
He said it cost $250,000-$500,000 to equip a moderate-sized high school with interactive whiteboards, which are only used at Sydney Grammar if teachers request them.
“That’s a huge amount of money in the life of a school, that could translate to quite a few good members of staff,’’ he said.
“I think when people come to write the history of this period in education … this investment in classroom technology is going to be seen as a huge fraud.’’
The OECD has also questioned the growing reliance on technology in schools. In a report last year, it said schools must give students a solid foundation in reading, writing and math before introducing computers. It found that heavy users of computers in the classroom “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes’’.
“In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching,’’ the OECD report concluded.
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