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Hang Ups

Last week's Panorama, "Worlds Apart", offered viewers a glimpse of a typical maths lesson at a primary school in Taiwan. The teacher, equipped with nothing more than a cake (to demonstrate fractions) and a stick of chalk, faced a large mixed-ability class.

Every eager eye was fixed firmly on her and every question she asked inspired a forest of perpendicular arms. But it wasn't only the children who reckoned they had all the right answers. Professor David Reynolds (author of the latest Office for Standards in Education report on teaching methods) and Chris Woodhead were convinced that British schoolchildren should be taught in the same way.

This whole class approach means that pupils in Taiwan can only progress at the speed of the slowest - but as a consequence the slowest go a darn sight faster than their counterparts in this country. It might be tough on the bright sparks who have to hang around watching yet another cake being sliced for the benefit of their less able chums, but whatever its deficiencies, the results proved that the system was more successful than the child-centred approach common in British classrooms.

It's comfortingly old-fashioned and doesn't involve all the hullabaloo of differentiated course work and the nightmare of charting each pupil's progress. Other than chalk and cake, all that British teachers will need in order to follow the Taiwanese example is a supply of sack cloth and ashes. They can then do proper penance for things they have done which they ought not to have done and the things left undone which they ought to have done during the years they wasted trying to implement unworkable educational theories. What was depressing about the programme wasn't Mr Woodhead's insistence that British schools must turn back the clock to those allegedly golden pre-Plowden days, but the fact that everyone who spoke took it for granted that the choice available to schools is between two manifestly imperfect systems. Mr Woodhead has initiated a great debate - the same dreary debate that's been going on since anyone who is still in the teaching profession can remember. As with the Boat Race, everybody feels obliged to support one side or the other, when really we know that both of them would be thoroughly trounced by a rubber dinghy fitted with a half decent out-board motor.

In the past there might only have been two alternatives, but new technology now offers schools a new way of doing things. Indeed, what we should be importing from Taiwan isn't their educational system, but plenty more of those competitively priced computers that they seem able to churn out with such breathtaking efficiency.

With a suite of Multimedia PCs, for example, a primary school could operate SuccessMaker, an American maths package that would appeal to even the most die-hard traditionalists. It's an "integrated learning system" that both devises and monitors individualised programmes of study for every pupil in a class.

Rather than go at the speed of the slowest as in Taiwan, or be left too much to their own devices as Mr Woodhead thinks too many children are in this country, they are always challenged by material that is pitched at exactly the right level for them. And it works.

Researchers at Leicester University found that pupils who used the system for half an hour a day over six months made gains in maths of up to 20 months. This isn't surprising as SuccessMaker enables pupils in an ordinary classroom to enjoy the extraordinary advantages of what is virtually one-to-one tuition.

The Department for Education and Employment has been reluctant to endorse the system - probably because they realise that to equip a school with only 15 workstations running SuccessMaker would cost Pounds 60,000. You don't have to be a pupil in Taiwan, to work out that a supply of chalk, cake, sackcloth and ashes works out a lot cheaper.

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