Hang ups

As if obeying some immutable law of physics, the best computers in a secondary school will always move inexorably upwards. So the special needs pupils in Year 7, who could benefit most from the latest multimedia wizardry, have to make do with a clapped-out Acorn, while the headteacher sits behind a gleaming Pentium - which is rarely called upon to do much more than run the screen-saver.

Similarly, if the sixth-form study area isn't already equipped with a network of expensive machines, the school's five-year plan will contain a solemn pledge - bold and underlined - that one will soon be installed. There is some justification for this. Sixth-formers should acquire IT skills - they are going to need them. And, from the management's point of view, snapshots of young women and men peering into computer screens always look good in a glossy prospectus.

Students will naturally appreciate having easy access to computers - especially those who have already decided that the best way to prepare for public exams is to settle into a routine of procrastination, panic and prayer. Don't knock it. Many of us have achieved respectable A-level grades and even gone on to gain degrees by adopting precisely this approach.

Students soon find that computers offer a unique opportunity to keep really busy without really working. For example, an essay that could be completed in a matter of hours can often take days on a word processor as they succumb to the urge to try out every one of the available fonts and to experiment with the impossible complexities of the most sophisticated desktop publishing package.

They will not cease from mental strife until they have tweaked everything that can be tweaked in the Windows 95 system folder: they will customise the background and choose a screen saver that is even flashier than the headteacher's. They will while away free lessons on a hop-skip-and-jump tour of their favourite CD-Roms or dive into that mass grave of good intentions, the World Wide Web.

There is, of course, a role for computers in the sixth form but only if students have already mastered a subject which seldom features on the school timetable: they need to learn how to learn. And the sooner they do so the better. They must look forward to a future in which a commitment to "lifetime learning" - what an ominous phrase that is for us in the panic-and-prayer brigade - will be essential if they want to stay in work or make sense of the seismic changes that newer and stranger technologies are certain to bring.

Ironically, the best way to prepare for this brave new world isn't to spend their free time glued to the keyboard, but to curl up with one of the many good books which explain the tried and tested techniques of independent learning.

They could do worse than start with Strategies for Studying by Mike Coles and Chas White. It's packed with down-to-earth advice, questionnaires, charts, fact sheets and an intriguing assortment of newspaper articles which cover a range of topics from coping with parents who nag to the mysteries of how the brain works. For instance, students will discover that there is evidence which suggests that during the process of dreaming, data is transferred from the hippocampus, the area of the brain that's home to short-term memory, to the cortex where it remains permanently stored. So, the more they sleep, the more they'll dream, the more they'll remember. Indeed, school managers might seriously consider shifting those expensive computers into the lower school and equipping the sixth-form area with some sensible bunk beds.

Strategies for Studying (Pounds 24.95) Carel Press, 4 Hewson Street, Carlisle CA2 5AU (01228 38928). arnoldevans@easynet.co.uk. * See this week's separate computers update for news, features and reviews of software, hardware and publications

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