A culture clash to frustrate staff

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Information Technology and Authentic Learning. edited by Angela McFarlane. Routledge Pounds 14.99 pbk.

We have the information technology, but how can we use it to enhance learning in the climate of today's primary classroom? As Angela McFarlane discusses in the penultimate chapter of this book, there is something of a culture clash between the national curriculum-centred, task-driven, teacher-centred classroom of the Nineties and the free-ranging, user-oriented perspective of IT and especially multimedia. She talks of the "frustration amongst teachers" when they find that children who are let loose with multimedia spend a lot of time "off task". Given that the nature of the multimedia market dictates that few materials will be designed specifically for the national curriculum, teachers may either have to accept that free-range, off-task (or incidental) learning by browsing is "authentic", or relegate multimedia to lunch-times or libraries.

Thankfully, the dilemma is not that stark, as a range of chapters point out. Promoting authentic learning is the aim of the book, and this term is usefully defined at the start as "learning which has personal meaning and substance for the learner". Chapters from a range of curriculum areas suggest ideas for achieving this goal.

Although the book is not a manual of how to do IT, specific chapters give valuable guidance for reflective teachers, especially if they already have some ideas about, and enthusiasm for, IT. The chapter on science, for example, describes how spreadsheets can be used to help investigative work and lends the general discussion a strong air of reality by describing two case-studies of Year 5 and 6 pupils using spreadsheets in East Anglian schools.

The chapter on humanities takes a more general line by showing how IT use can develop generic skills such as thinking, communicating, interpreting and dealing with evidence. Earlier chapters describe the potential of IT in promoting problem-solving skills and the ability to understand and use variables. One chapter which makes an original and novel contribution is the description by Avril Loveless of the way in which children can develop ideas by working with images. She uses numerous examples, with illustrations of children's work, to show how IT can contribute to visual education and quotes an observer who describes IT as "a medium with which children engage, work with ease and express their ideas with a freshness and liveliness". With chapters on control technology and writing using IT, the curriculum coverage of the book is impressive if not exhaustive.

At a more general level, the book includes discussion of basic issues such as: why use IT? what counts as "quality"? and, again, what is authenticity in the context of IT?. Mike Bonnett gives a clear and well-reasoned account of some of these "values issues". For this reader, the most interesting section is on the questions we should raise about the selection, filtering and presentation of material on CD-Rom.

McFarlane has written five of the 12 chapters herself and uses them well to raise both general and specific issues. For example, she describes the confusion which exists in the minds of children and teachers over which graph to use for which purpose, and precisely what a graph can show. Line graphs are sometimes used in totally the wrong context, so that points on the line are quite simply meaningless. In my view, she has touched a crucial point here for the training of teachers, including scientists. The visual presentation of data is so important in the new media that its misrepresentation and misinterpretation cannot be ignored.

More generally, McFarlane discusses the role of on-line technology and quite rightly points out that much of the material on the Internet is neither edited, checked, censored nor proof-read.

The underlying tone of the book is that IT can enhance authentic learning but none of the authors is guilty of the "missionary zeal" or abandonment of healthy scepticism which has characterised many books on this subject in the past. Wild claims for the wonders of technology are less likely to be listened to than the reasoned, pragmatic, well-grounded illustrations of the potential of IT which abound in this excellent book.

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