If children are working at the edge of their ability, they are bound to find it stimulating," says Owen Lynch, headteacher of Orgill Junior School in Egremont, Cumbria. It is this, he thinks, that accounts for the remarkable progress his pupils have been making in maths since they began using SuccessMaker.
This is an American "integrated learning system" (ILS) - a computer-based approach to teaching the 3Rs. But the improvements are not simply down to clever software. "The most valuable resource I have in this school," Owen Lynch insists, "are my teachers. They have been prepared to learn how to adapt their teaching strategies to make the most of the opportunities offered by ILS. "
His remark is significant since, in theory at least, SuccessMaker functions quite independently of the teacher. It is a totally self-contained system. As well as a vast reservoir of exercises in maths and English, it contains sophisticated management software which not only records how each pupil performs, but automatically uses the information to tailor a programme of study which caters precisely for the child's immediate educational needs.
In Orgill, the teacher is not usually present when pupils (half a class at a time) are withdrawn for their daily sessions with SuccessMaker. Under the supervision of an ancillary, each child sits at a VDU, dons headphones (yes, it does resemble a scene from a sci-fi movie) and for 30 minutes receives what amounts to individual tuition in the basics.
There is not a sound in the room other than the mouse-clicks and the occasional rat-a-tat of fingers on desks as pupils, surrounded by the newest technology, resort to the oldest known method of adding up. Although it is not obvious to the children, as each is too absorbed by what is on the screen to notice their peers, they are working on different topics and over a wide ability range.
One boy simplifies fractions, while his neighbour summons an on-screen protractor to confirm that the angles on a straight line add up to 180 degrees. Alongside him, a girl, equally determined to get her answers right, chews her lip as she puzzles over how many digitised apples will be left when four are removed. Only one child allows his gaze to move away from the screen. He has to consult a worksheet which tells him how many dimes are in a dollar - a British version of SuccessMaker is not due until later this year.
Seeing the intensity with which the children work, it is easy to believe the conclusions of an evaluation carried out at Orgill and at 22 other junior and secondary schools on behalf of the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET). A report published last month claims that pupils using SuccessMaker (but not any other ILS system) can make up to 20 months' progress in maths in just six months.
These findings are confirmed by teachers at Orgill. "I'm running out of material to use in class with some of my top pupils," says Andy Cannon, who teaches a Year 6 group. "I'm always being surprised by some of the stuff they've been learning on SuccessMaker."
Another member of staff, Emma Cox, says: "It's great to know that the children are getting regular practice in the basics and are being pushed all the time to go a little bit further." She is watching her pupils as they work on SuccessMaker - although her presence is not essential, she does so for one session every week. Owen Lynch explains that "for this to succeed, it's absolutely vital that teachers aren't isolated from the ILS process".
Not only does it give the teacher an overview of the tasks children are being asked to perform, but it signals to pupils that the work they do at the computer is being taken seriously. SuccessMaker might encourage self-motivation, but children still need to know that their progress is being noted by the teacher. Indeed at the end of the session, when the computer gives each pupil a percentage score, the girl who has been counting apples insists that Miss sees that she has managed to get 75 per cent of her sums right.
"Well done, love!" Emma Cox exclaims as if it is the best news she has heard all week: ILS and TLC - it's a winning formula. Of course, because the work has been carefully pitched within the child's capability, the raw score, although a marvellous boost to self-esteem, does not indicate what level the child is at or how well she is performing in comparison with the rest of the class.
What makes SuccessMaker so powerful is that it also provides teachers with a remarkably detailed analysis of the child's performance in 16 areas of maths. Now the school's "most valuable resource" comes into its own: armed with such data, teachers have a unique insight into each child's strengths and weaknesses. So, during the course of normal lessons, they can devise strategies for offering each pupil the appropriate help. "The use of ILS has had a profound impact on the psychology of our school. It's altering our understanding of how we can respond to individual needs," says Owen Lynch.
His views are endorsed by Paul Carter, headteacher of Frithville Primary, near Boston, Lincolnshire. "The more the teachers get involved and intervene, the better the children perform," he says. "We're still experimenting with how to get the most out of it."
He has abandoned the recommended 30-minute sessions in English and maths in favour of two shorter bursts. He does not like children "to have the feeling that they are going to be on the system for the rest of their lives", so gives them regular breaks of half a term.
Since the school only has six computers able to run SuccessMaker, pupils have to be withdrawn from lessons in small groups. "It's difficult to do, but I've had to work out a really tight timetable system so nobody misses out on the same thing week in, week out."
The NCET "is not at this stage advising rapid investment in ILS as a priority" but hopes that it can continue to monitor pupils who use ILS to see if they perform significantly well in public examinations. That's the 64,000-dollar question. Or Pounds 42,953, as pupils at Orgill and Frithville will surely say when the British version of SuccessMaker eventually appears.
* SuccessMaker is marketed by RM Learning Systems, New Mill House, 183 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4SE Some words of caution: Teachers using the system believe it helps with literacy, but the NCET survey found that pupils using ILS performed no better in reading tests than a control group.
Only an American version of SuccessMaker is currently available, and so all the assessment data are geared to the US education system. Teachers still have to translate this into the national curriculum attainment levels. Printed guidelines make the task easier.
SuccessMaker is expensive. NCET believes that eight networked stations could cost Pounds 38,650 to install and equip. But there is a stand-alone version, there are leasing arrangements and the software can be run on a school's existing 486 PCs.
The NCET evaluation highlights that although there are different ways of organising SuccessMaker sessions, major gains are only made when pupils are supervised, and teachers able to use the assessment reports diagnostically.
What is integrated learning?
SuccessMaker is not another drill-and-practice package, but a carefully structured programme of tuition developed in the United States over 25 years. The system is constantly being updated. The manufacturers claim that the Maths Concepts and Skills package contains "over 300 hours of activities", covering the whole ability range from reception class onwards.
SuccessMaker (unlike Global Maths, a British ILS package) is a self-managing system - each pupil's programme of study is structured by the software and not by the teacher. Like a keep-fit programme, it relies on a philosophy of "a little and often". Ideally, pupils should spend half an hour a day (which includes English and maths) on ILS. If pupils have fewer than three sessions per week, "the positive effect is greatly diminished" according to the NCET.
SuccessMaker has several separate modules. For instance, as well as the Maths Concepts and Skills package used in the evaluation, there is a suite of maths investigations that uses the full potential of multimedia. Although all tuition is on-screen, SuccessMaker can generate individualised worksheets and homework assignments.