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History at its own pace

ICT is important, says Christine Counsell of the HA, but as a motivator, not just to speed things up

What is ICT in the history classroom for? To motivate pupils? Computer technology is now so commonplace that such a defence wears thin. Besides, motivate pupils to do what?

Sifting through all the other justifications they boil down to one thing: ICT helps us do things more quickly. Its speed and functions allow for manipulation of data - and of evidence, argument, wording and ideas - very fast.

Yet there is a clash here with the whole point and process of learning. It is a clash that starts to explain the growing gap between outstanding ICT practice in history and practice that is of questionable value. It is a sad, harsh fact that greater information access, prettier newspaper front pages, smarter graphics and clever web pages do not guarantee, one jot, any improvement in historical skill, knowledge or understanding.

The root of the problem is that learning does not always involve doing things more quickly. Quite often, it involves doing things more slowly. In fact, it can involve doing things unnaturally slowly. Sometimes, imaginative but essentially artificial exercises will help pupils to understand. Very often, the skilful teacher makes elaborate or circuitous moves to help the reluctant learner to discover what is historically interesting, or difficult, about a problem.

Here lies the hidden power of ICT. What its speed allows is precision of teaching focus. I do not want my Year 7s to spend an hour typing in data; I do want them to see the historical relationship between two ideas. I do not want them to search for yet more information; I do want them to select items, to convert them into causes (or consequences) and to experiment with language for doing so. I do not want them fuss over designinga table; I do want them to choose and reject alternative field or paragraph headings, or different classification structures. I want to clear away the clutter and to focus on the interesting historical puzzle. I want to slow them down.

This is the genius within the brilliant ICT practice we see in history teachers like Lindsay Rayner (Teaching History, August 1999). The skilful history teacher's task is to make certain intellectual moves the point of pupil fascination - the things that pupils might ordinarily skip over, see as unproblematic or simply avoid. Pupils need to have processes that we take for granted made explicit and made interesting. ICT can do this very directly. It allows us to shine a spotlight on a particular abstract process. It makes intellectual effort discernible to the learner - and makes it fun.

This is the deep reason why much ICT in history is still sloppy. Instead of using it to screen out the low-level stuff and illuminate the point of historical interest, the area of historical learning that will move pupils on, many teachers think that it is about avoiding effort. It is not. Motivation matters, yes, but motivation to think. The whole, missed point of ICT is its power to create motivation in surprising places. Technology is certainly about replacing effort. But its special function in pedagogy is to get rid of some kinds of effort in order to make other kinds of effort more interesting.

Christine Counsell is a member of the Historical Association's secondary committee and author of the history examples in 'Using Information and Communication Technology' (TTA, 1999), and of 'Defining Effectiveness in History Using IT' (BECTA, 1999), a study of excellent history-ICT practice in two schools HA enquiries: 020 7735 3901 E-mail: Website:

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