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An arresting way to teach without Cherry Lips

DID you take part in the quest to test the nation's IQ? I now know my short-term memory's pretty good, I can after all do sums, and I have no spatial ability whatsoever. But then I knew that last bit. My car is the one in the car park that looks not so much parked as abandoned after a bank hold-up.

Haven't we all become just a wee bit obsessed with inquisitions and inspections? In this, George Orwell's centenary year, there seems to be an epidemic of Orwellian-inspired programmes on television, whether it's kitchen cleaners with fur-trimmed Marigolds, dinner party police or wardrobe inspectors.

Here's a niche pitch for you. A programme about Scottish Qualifications Authority external verifiers: Call This a Checklist?. It seems we all want to know when standards are dropping. We are even policing the police.

Reported results from police recruitment examinations show ever-increasing numbers of recruits just scraping through. Luckily, criminals don't seem to be so bright these days either, so there's a neat correlation in degrees of dumbness.

Recruits are tested on literacy, numeracy and logic. Core skills. I can see why these are problem areas. They're just not sexy enough. When I take a class in communication, for example, I am aware that the discovery that a full-time course in dance or mechatronics includes "English" can cause dismay.

A colleague was bemoaning her lot yesterday. "We have a hard job, you know.

We want them to work with pen and paper analysing, and they want to be doing," she said. Doing, after all, is what further education and skills acquisition is all about. The schism between the two and the problems it causes still irks her after 15 years in the job.

I remember teaching young police cadets who came to college one day a week to brush up language skills. They were a grand bunch, but probably thought they should be out doing criminals, not analysing. They sat in my first class with little white paper bags of sweets in front of them - Cherry Lips, Parma Violets, Flying Saucers - primary school sweeties. Faced with regression like this, what do you do? Sensing disapproval, they asked did I mind? I told them I didn't mind. But I did think it was - dramatic pause - unprofessional. There were no sweeties after that and the report writing improved.

Finding ways to make core skills interesting without the help of Cherry Lips and Flying Saucers isn't easy. As lecturers, we teach within a sophisticated information industry and with fewer resources at our disposal.

Sometimes you get lucky. Judy, a college student from Germany, has joined our sector on an internship for a few months. At the moment, she's working on a project which looks at stereotypes of Scotland. As a class, we helped with her research and examined the cover of a magazine which played ironically with images of Scotland - romantic castles, Highland coos and tartan.

"Give me five instant stereotypical images for France," I said. Then we did Germany, Spain, Italy. It was fast and furious and Terry, not the keenest of learners, joined in with enthusiasm. The next week, he was in class early. "Are we going to play that game again?" he asked. Game? How to make all learning taste as sweet, Terry.

This month I'm attending a seminar on new ideas in teaching and learning.

Everything you ever need to know on how to make core skills sexy and close the gap between analysing and doing? Probably not. And I bet there won't be a Cherry Lip in sight.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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