The future of education: What if we switched off the Smartboard?

I teach GCSE English to students in a college of Further Education. This is my vision of what I would like an ideal learning environment to look like.

Take a moment to imagine your classroom without a smartboard, without the internet, without PowerPoint. Unplug it all and think about what it would be like to teach without screens, without wifi, without all the trappings of modern technology.

What would you do? How would you bring your lessons to life? How would you engage your FE learners?

I, for one, long for the day when Smartboard slide shows are wiped out and relegated to the (virtual) dusty archives.

Photo by Dids on

We’ve all sat through those awful lessons where the teacher has read, word-for- word, everything that’s on their PowerPoint slides. It drives me to distraction; instead of paying attention to what they’re trying to teach, I find myself critiquing their teaching style, thinking of all the different things they could have done to make it more engaging.

We all know that lessons in FE have to be engaging. Standing there while reading out text from PowerPoint slides just doesn’t cut it; that’s boring, and your learners will not listen to what you are saying. Don’t be a slave to PowerPoint. Switch it off.  Do something more interesting instead.

Photo by Pixabay on

This idea of switching off technology and teaching without using Smartboards or PowerPoints came to me after reading this book:  Present Naked! How to deliver your presentation with substance, style and sizzle! By Brad Waldron (2015). Although this book is primarily about how to deliver effective presentations in the business world, the ideas within it can be adapted to teaching. And don’t worry; you can keep your clothes on!

At the time that I read this book I was working in an academic library and was sufficiently inspired to put together a CPD session for our staff development day. I ran a session for academic librarians on how to present naked, without a PowerPoint. During the session, I engaged groups with different sets of toys to interact with, to manipulate as they wished to answer questions that I posed to them. For example, one group had a bunch of Star Wars figures and I asked them to use the figures to show the best way to conduct a staff meeting. Another group had Play-doh and were asked to show how staff members commute to work.

So, what if we actually did switch off the Smartboard? How could we engage our FE learners?

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Well, I’m imagining a FE classroom that’s full of manipulatives. I want FE learning environments to look more like primary school classrooms, with plentiful supplies of Play-doh, Lego, wooden blocks, train tracks, whiteboard tables you can write on, dressing-up boxes, colourful markers, pens and pencils, beads, counters, reams of coloured paper, buttons, dice, and other sensory items to allow every learner to get hands-on and physically involved in the learning processes.

Yes, I know that’s a long list, but certainly not exhaustive.

How I dream of teaching resit GCSE English language using all of the above manipulatives, to make the learning a 3D, visual and sensual feast.  To get as far away from the dry PowerPoints as possible and instead lead the learners into a vibrant, fully engaging, lush and nourishing learning paradise.

Photo by Markus Spiske on

Why can’t we use Lego as prompts for story-writing? Why can’t learners use Play-doh to create 3D models of punctuation marks? Why can’t we use train tracks to show the structure of stories? Why can’t we get out the dressing-up boxes to help learners write persuasively from different perspectives? What’s stopping us from mapping out answers to questions on massive pieces of paper on the floor?

I see lots of primary school teachers (for example @Mr_Minchin) tweeting images and videos of playful activities and I find myself wondering how we can adapt these same ideas into FE.

Merrill-Palmer Scale of Mental Tests (Merrill-Palmer Scale of Mental Tests) by Unknown maker is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

I suppose what I am proposing is a FE variation of the Montessori method, whereby learners explore concepts through manipulating physical objects. Of course, many courses already learn through practical methods, especially vocational courses, but this is more challenging in subjects like GCSE English resits or Functional Skills English.

I do appreciate that PowerPoints are frequently necessary; to convey learning objectives, for example, or for learners who need to see the written words as well as listening to spoken ones. However, for the most part, I really do believe in a Further Education pedagogy that speaks to all the senses, not just what we can see and read.

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published by Joy FE in the JoyFE magazine in 2022.

I’m curating a collection of resources about this topic on Wakelet.


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