You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Or can you?


My wife’s uncle owns a smartphone. But rather than storing his contacts in the phone’s address book, he writes them down on a piece of paper and sellotapes them to the inside front cover. My not yet two-year-old son, however, has started swiping every screen he sees. Whether we know how to use it or not, technology is ubiquitous and the debate about whether to use it in education has largely moved on to how it should be used. The educator’s goal, then, is the judicious use of technology; that’s to say, using it in a way that enhances learning rather than for its own sake. However, it’s clear that some teachers are more ‘sold’ on technology than others. Does this really come down to age?

Received wisdom would have us believe that younger generations are more likely to try something new. They (we?!) are carefree rather than cautious and conservative. Implementing an LMS in school, or using the latest app in class might necessitate trying something new. What could prevent a teacher from doing this? One factor is perceived risk. We’re willing to try something new when we’re relaxed, confident and we don’t fear the consequences (such as a rebellion in class). My experience is that trainee or newly qualified teachers begin with bells and whistles, before the realisation hits them that they need to get the basics like timing and classroom management right first. Seasoned veterans, however, have largely mastered these frontline demands. And experience means that when something goes wrong (technology, anyone?), these teachers have a plan B up their sleeve, so experimentation is less likely to be seen as a risk. I would argue that experienced teachers have an advantage here.

Hesitant about trying new things? That might not be as bad as you think…

Reticence to use a particular technological tool can also stem from doubts about its utility; is it really bringing anything new to the table? You could write a composition on your computer in class and email it to your classmate’s tablet for them to read. Or you could write it by hand and pass it over (maybe even talking in the process); technology doesn’t necessarily add much here. Having your students collaborate on a Google doc from home, or using a digital workbook with automatic grading to free up class time for more speaking, might make more sense though. A cautious teacher is not a bad thing. I remember my time as a student teacher and telling my mentor I wanted to try out this new idea. Her reply was: “Hang on, hang on, what do you want them to learn?” I hadn’t taken a step back to make a judgment about whether this new tool would make sense pedagogically. I would argue experience helps us make this judgment.

So, experienced teachers may be well-placed to use technology, but do they? The debate makes me think back to my time at school (in England, in the 90s). I remember that while studying A-level German the head of department – with 30 years’ experience and one of the people who inspired me to become a teacher – set up a video-conferencing link with a school in Germany. The internet speeds, hardware and software weren’t what we have today. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t (there was always a plan B in place). But the problems didn’t dampen her enthusiasm, as they were far outweighed by the motivation those classes gave her students for language learning. She’s an excellent example of an experienced teacher embracing a technology still in its infancy.

But what does research say about the age divide? In fairness, it is not a fallacy. There does seem to be a disparity, though it is perhaps not as pronounced as some might expect. The biggest difference seems to be when it comes to confidence in using new tools; according to a study at the Pew research centre, teachers under 35 are more likely than teachers aged 55 and older to describe themselves as “very confident” when it comes to using new digital technologies (64% vs. 44%). However, when it comes to actually putting technology to use in the classroom, the divide is not quite so stark. For example, 45% of teachers under the age of 35 ask their students develop or share work on a website, wiki or blog, compared with 34% of teachers aged 55 and over.

What really makes a difference?

Nevertheless, I believe there are other factors that have a greater influence over the use of technology in education, or, what is more important, over the successful use of technology in education. Perhaps somewhat predictably given my occupation, I am going to emphasise the importance of training and collaboration. Obviously, the model of training is key here. Training sessions which are one-off affairs at the start of the year and that are not followed up on are unlikely to make a profound change; it’s all too easy for teachers to fall back into a familiar routine given the day-to-day pressures of the job. What is required are training sessions with action points and follow-up sessions to share outcomes, which, from my experience, isn’t the norm with in-service training. The sessions and action points could start small. Let’s say that when setting up an essay task you normally get your students to brainstorm ideas on a spider-diagram at the start of the lesson. Why not try getting them to do it at home on a Padlet before analysing their ideas together on the board at the start of the lesson? At the next meeting we would discuss the pros and cons of each method and decide which one made the most sense pedagogically. If those teachers who are more reticent to use technology in class have their appetites whetted in this way, perhaps they will show more initiative and independence in the future.

As well as the reticent teachers, you tend to find that most centres have ‘early-adopters’ (of all ages) who hit the ground running when it comes to using new technologies in the classroom. Why not harness their power to help devise and deliver training sessions, as well as encouraging other teachers to observe them?

In all the centres I have worked in, both as a teacher and trainer, I have found that effective training that is followed up on and the diffusion of innovation among staff has far more influence on the motivation of teachers to implement technology than their age. Not only can old dogs learn new tricks, they can teach them too!

Share your innovation for a chance to win the Pearson ELT Teacher Award
We’ve just launched a new Pearson ELT Teacher Award! Aiming to recognise and celebrate teachers, the Award is open for any English teacher who has developed innovative ways of teaching in their classrooms. You may have used technology or digital tools in unique ways or re-invented traditional tasks. The Award encourages teachers to enter who can show that their ideas are not only unique but have improved learner engagement, motivation and success.

Prizes include all-expenses paid trips to IATEL or TESOL. Deadline for entries is 1st January, 2017 – enter or nominate a teacher today!

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