"What can I tell people you do, Dad?" pleads John Davitt's daughter, overwhelmed by the range of choices. John is an inspirational speaker and journalist. He is author of New Tools for Learning, the thought-provoking book on the way forward for ICT in education (www.networkpress.co.uk). He runs creative projects with schools, develops software and has delivered hundreds of training sessions that help teachers make the most of new technology. And, in all his work, bright new ideas are tempered with good old-fashioned common sense.
"The more I think about it, the more I see myself as a guide to the blindingly obvious," says John, who persuades teachers to have faith in their own abilities. When it comes to ICT, he believes they should go with their instincts, rather than feeling compelled to jump on the latest technology bandwagon. It is one of the themes John will explore at Olympia, London, next Thursday week, when he delivers the TES keynote address at BETT.
John became excited about ICT in the mid-1980s, when he first used computers in class. Teaching English at a school in Stevenage, he introduced a database to help students explore the links between words. "We would look at something like 'pter', relating to flight, and search the database for words containing it. You couldn't make these connections with a dictionary."
The discovery of Apple's HyperCard software meant he could take the idea further, making links between pictures, sound and text. With the help of his pupils he used HyperCard to create word-surfing software that brought language alive. "You could click on a picture of a word, hear someone talking about it and then jump to another word that shared the same root."
In 1991 he founded multimedia company WordRoutes while still teaching full time. He secured funding to transform the software into a product, WordRoot, adding highlights such as an interactive map that featured recordings of regional accents. He is currently working on a new web-based version of the software.
Today, many of his projects with schools are built around digital storytelling. They employ a range of tools that appeal to all the senses and make the most of research on different styles of learning.
"I believe you could build a whole curriculum around telling stories," he says. "Some of the work schools are doing with still images, sound, voice and music, is quite profound. Digital creativity doesn't necessarily mean digital video-making, which is difficult and time consuming. Digital creativity may involve a lump of Plasticine and 10 still pictures."
He says there is a danger that video is becoming dominant because of the focus on interactive whiteboards. "People in an Education Action Zone say: 'We have to improve the quality of learning and that means more whiteboards. Too many schools feel pressure to take the same approach, without giving it any deep thought. Part of my job is to give schools confidence to do things in the way that suits them best.
"We got TV before we made the most of radio. I have been in a special needs school where students were running their own radio station. Given support and encouragement, children with a variety of learning challenges can produce work with narrative power that outstrips that on the BBC."
He believes we are at risk of building "new old schools", still based on a blueprint from Victorian times, and with too much technology trapped in computer rooms. "Even the Victorians didn't say, 'Hold that thought until we use the slate room on Tuesday.' We need to zone the tools around learning needs and opportunities: let's have an area where you can scan your drawings, and an area where you can record your sound and have it broadcast... let's redefine the technology by how it can help the learner."
* At BETT, John's TES keynote address, "How teachers change their practice to change the world", will be delivered jointly with Professor Tim Brighouse (Thursday, 12 January at 2pm).