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The joy of verbal intercourse

You probably heard the story of the three-year-old who climbed down from her mum's knee as they watched a tots' education programme on television and started searching behind the set. She was "looking for the mouse".

The days of the passive learner are over. We're all converts to the democratisation of teaching and learning, with the learner participating in and controlling the experience towards a seemingly obvious goal of individual study programmes and a pick-and-mix timetable.

Electronic life coaching will extend outwith the classroom to support life planning and goal setting, and offer a shoulder to cry on. Hey, it may even nag the learners to tidy their rooms or turn down the volume on Mystery Jets.

The individual experience, however, is low on developing interpersonal skills. I reflected on this one Tuesday morning, as my class worked, each neatly positioned at a station, with no sound but the soft clack of computer keys. A couple of years ago, a class like this had a definite rhythm to it. They'd work conscientiously for a time, chewing pens. Then, gradually, chatter would build, concentration would be lost, you'd nag them, and they'd get back to work.

How much chatter might be missed was brought home to me in the afternoon when, because of a timetabling blip, I had only half a class and a raggedy time to fill. We spent some time in discussion. They clustered together, and some sat on the floor cross-legged. They were animated and reluctant to stop, and we covered some good stuff.

Later in the week, I had a roomful of learners hostile to "poems and stuff". As I'd gone over the scope of the literature unit, one student had snuck her blue hood up, so that it all but covered her face and she had gradually sunk so low in her seat that only the tip of her hood remained visible. A fan, obviously. I read to them. They began to brighten. They liked being read to - even the hooded one who began to emerge from her carapace.

Talking and listening. Turn-taking. Being patient. Waiting. Such obvious skills, but apparently in decline now in a "me" society, trained to expect immediate attention. How do we halt that decline? How do we teach interpersonal skills? I've never been a fan of personal and social development modules. Too often they deteriorate into speed-ticking through boxes. But we cannot ignore the importance of interpersonal skills - and at all levels.

I read recently that in some areas, up to 50 per cent of five-year-olds can't string a sentence together. The figure includes children with specific learning and speech difficulties, but also suggests there are many more who are simply not being given the opportunity to develop these skills. Suggestions being made to parents such as "speak to your children", highlight both the problem, and the solution.

Personalised learning delivered via technology has a great deal to offer, but it must not undermine the importance of developing good interpersonal skills. There must always be space for ordinary, human interaction, with all its bellyflops.

When I'd finished reading the poem, I could hear a snuffling noise from under the blue hood. "Are you all right?" I asked, fearing that my convert had been overcome.

"Yes," she said. "Just yawning."

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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