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Key in to how pupils learn, then let them

A Dundee project has shown that carefully managed use of technology can let children of all abilities blossom, reports Douglas Blane

It is hard to predict what schools will be like in the future and those who try are often remote from the daily routine that gives a glimpse of the shape of things to come. However, information and communications technology is always likely to be a big factor.

Personal ICT is a project funded by the Scottish Executive and launched in November 2001 in two Dundee schools, Whitfield Primary and Harris Academy. The objective was to equip a group of pupils and teachers in both schools with the latest technology - wireless laptops for everyone involved and interactive whiteboards and data projectors for the teachers - and to evaluate the effects on learning, teaching and attainment.

Executive funding has ended now and full details will be available when the external evaluators publish their report shortly, but Dundee City Council will continue to monitor use of the technology.

Whitfield Primary's experience of the project is particularly interesting because of the response of the children as a whole and those with short attention spans - who lose interest in a set task before completing it - in particular. While normally such pupils struggle in class, the school found that carefully managed use of technology can let their abilities blossom.

"Some of the laptop group came to me for maths," says Anne Latona, a class teacher seconded to Dundee City Council as an ICT staff tutor to help schools enhance their ICT capability. "So I would have a class of 24 children, a third of them with laptops.

"At the start I would use my laptop and whiteboard to give a lesson. Then I'd set the children four tasks: an online activity, a textbook task, a number practice task on the computer and maybe a revision sheet. When someone with a laptop finished the online activity, they would turn the computer around for the next person and get on with another task.

"It sounds complicated but it ran really smoothly. At the end of the lesson every child had completed all four activities. The children were very focused, even the ones who wouldn't normally be."

Not only did the children cope well with the apparent complexity of sharing laptops, they revelled in it, says Ms Latona, who discovered that children's attainment as well as motivation increased.

The variety of tasks and tools appealed to them all. And for some, one unexpected outcome was the emergence of a new way of working: genuine multitasking.

"The children had freedom to complete the tasks in their own way. The normal way - finishing one task before moving on to another - suits some children well. Others lose interest quickly. I call them 'flitters'," says Ms Latona. "They were able to flit from one task to another, doing a bit, then moving on to something else and coming back later.

"Children have their own preferred ways of learning and we teachers don't always accommodate them. We like to do things our own way, to know that we've finished one task and assessed it before going on to the next."

Other subjects in which Ms Latona saw motivation enhanced and learning accelerating through using ICT include physical education, modern languages and enterprise education. It is probably no coincidence, she says, that Whitfield Primary recently had a winner and a runner-up in the Skene Awards for enterprise.

"In PE the kids filmed themselves doing long jumps, then took sections from each and tried to put together a perfect jump. They produced some lovely films.

"In German lessons the kids exchanged CD video messages with friends in a German school. Talking to a person they could see really motivated them to learn the language."

Ms Latona's experience at Whitfield Primary has convinced her that teachers' classroom management skills make the benefits of ICT accessible to all.

"I didn't know a lot about ICT when I started this project," she admits.

"The important thing is to be open and willing to learn. Sometimes you have to rely on the children. They can take you forward as well as you taking them. It means you and they are learning together, and that is exciting."

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