If This, Then That: If only teaching were so simple

"Every time I send an email, somewhere in the world a cat goes to the toilet."
“Every time I send an email, somewhere in the world a cat goes to the toilet.”
Forever the gadgeteer, and prone to solving life’s non-existent problems with botch-job solutions, I downloaded an application called IFTTT: ‘If this, then that.’

It is a startlingly simple and dangerously addictive little app that enables you to set up little routines on your smartphone, connecting two applications in an automated process. Here are some examples to illustrate:

  • Every time you publish a blog, it is automatically promoted on your Twitter feed.
  • Every time you take a photo on your phone, it is instantly sent to your cloud drive.
  • As soon as you arrive at home (according to your GPS), your Philip’s automated heating system (which we all have, don’t we?) switches on.

I immediately set about automating aspects of my existence that I didn’t even know needed automating. For example, now, whenever someone tweets using the hashtag #primaryrocks, it instantly populates a little list I’ve created on my Twitter feed called ‘Primary Rocks’.

I now need do nothing; I don’t even need to read the tweets. Essentially, I need not partake in whole swathes of my own life, secure in the knowledge that somewhere, along endless tracts of optic fibre, some part of the ether is talking to another at my behest – possibly forever.

Before I allow my ego to disperse and collapse into an existential dark star, I will say one thing: all of the above bears no more than passing scrutiny before it dissolves into a banal nullifying circularity. I have generated processes that eddy into themselves repeatedly, and have the appearance of value-add without the substance.

  • What if, for whatever reason, I don’t want to promote one of my blogs on Twitter? How much of a kerfuffle would it be to unpick this automated process?
  • Why is my cloud drive full of pictures of myself gurning in front of national monuments?
  • Why does my heating turn on when I am in the supermarket, but not when I am at home?

I’m no Luddite, but my tolerance of the ‘fuzzy benefits’ of tech is more diminished than ever. One tiny microbe of learning I have gleaned from working as a teacher is this: nuance is everything. Thinking deeply and thinking beyond the first couple of steps in a process or solution is absolutely vital in evaluating effectiveness or otherwise.

Here’s an example of inescapable nuance in teaching. I am marking the work of students and I’m trying to use directed improvement and reflection time (D.I.R.T) to improve my learning dialogue with them and to give them time to tackle chronic issues in their literacy.

So here’s what I do (in the style of IFTTT): I give them a task that matches their needs. The low ability kid has to highlight sentences in alternating colours; the high ability kid has to add a paragraph with additional detailed description. All sounds quite plausible: it’s differentiated, personalised – ticks a lot of neuro boxes.

But, oh, the inescapability of nuance. The high ability kid learns that each time he writes well, he will have to write more. He also sees that the low ability kid gets to play with the highlighter pens. It doesn’t take a genius to figure what might happen next.

‘If this, then that’ as a solution to problems in teaching only takes us so far, and for only a very short time. Which is of course why we have to keep developing our practice and learning from the many observations we make along the way. We should be wary of automation in education: any attempt to devolve a human, nuanced process to a system is only going to be effective for as long as it takes the first penny to drop through that system.

Now, every time I use IFTTT, my phone automatically takes a picture of me and sends it to me. So I can take a long cold look at what I am become.

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