Hang Ups

It's years since I taught him, but he is printed indelibly on my mind little Brian (or was it Derek?) Whatsisname. He had trouble with the 3Rs, but then he had trouble with most things. It's not surprising he was prey to mood swings either oozing a frenzied bonhomie or, more often, a taciturn menace. In a black mood, his metabolic rate plummeted like a hibernating animal's, so he became virtually inanimate. In a good mood he was unbearable.

It was in the very best of moods that he started a particular spring term. He had made a New Year's resolution "to gerr an O-level for writing". And he'd come prepared for the uphill task. Some thoughtful auntie, keen to give him the tools to do the job, had decked him out with an armoury of scholarly accoutrements: India rubbers, protractors, novelty paper clips and suchlike. They were all contained in a pencil case that she had knitted herself ideal, if it weren't for the erratic zip.

The rest of the class would be half way through their essays "What I Did in My Christmas Holidays" while poor old Brian would still be struggling to get into his pencil case.

When he did, he always plumped for an ostentatious silver retractable engraved with his name. This was no ordinary pen. It offered a choice of about 20 different colours. So he had to spend another 10 minutes choosing between garish magenta and indecipherable aquamarine before he was ready to put ballpoint to paper: "Wor i DiD on my XmAS Holls".

And that's when the real trouble would begin. His pen might not have been mightier than the sword, but it was almost as lethal. Twenty refills were obviously more than the delicate inner mechanism could safely accommodate.

The pen was unstable. A primed bomb. The class held its collective breath waiting for the inevitable. And then it would happen: he'd cross a "t" or dot an "i" with too much determination . . . Capow! . . . the 20 refills would scatter like Exocets about the room. On hands and knees, Brian would fuss around squealing girls' ankles, accidentally tipping over bottles of Quink, and creating general mayhem. Remonstrate and he'd go into hibernation. Humour him, and he might manage two lines before the bell went. He never got his O.

Poor old Brian is proof of how self-defeating it is to let the hardware get in the way of the learning process. Forget the pencil case and the flying refills; if he were a schoolboy today, his auntie would probably have knitted him a 486 notebook. While his classmates chewed pens and generally got on with it, Brian would be sizing windows, degunging his mouse ball, puzzling over file hierarchies, and looking for a power point to recharge his battery. I read of primary classes who go on farm visits, laden with personal organisers, cassette recorders, Ion cameras, video cameras, and sensors.

They should be spending an unforgettable day worrying sheep, skidding in slurries and subjecting the farmer to the third degree. Instead, they are fully occupied taking light-readings, and logging data into their spreadsheets. Instead of surveying a new and strange landscape, they're squinting at tacky LCD displays. If they saw a sign saying "Beware The Ram", they'd panic, scared that they were running out of K.

Children need to learn how to use IT, but it's as important that they should know when it gets in the way. Just because it's technically possible to do something on a computer, doesn't mean that they have to. Brian's knitted pencil case containing his silver ballpoint was washed away by a mountain stream during a field trip high in the Brecon Beacons. Apparently, he learnt a lot more once it had gone.

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