Access across the board

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Secondary pupils and teachers are rising to challenges of the latest technology

All items of information and communications technology are useful for teaching science but some more so than others. Having evaluated countless lessons, HM Inspector Jack Jackson is convinced that interactive whiteboards have the potential to transform them.

"Through setting up problem-solving situations," says the national specialist for science, "they encourage pupils not only to answer questions but to ask them, often beginning to challenge the teacher's understanding. They empower pupils."

At Monifieth High in Angus, Rhona Goss, the principal teacher of physics, is introducing the topic of renewable energy using an interactive whiteboard. Most of her pupils are responding to the images conjured up by a touch of her finger - wind turbines, high waves, sunshine - with thoughtful comments and queries. However, a couple are asking silly questions, to gain attention.

A less patient teacher would take a hard line but Ms Goss continues to let them participate and gradually important issues begin to emerge from the discussion.

"Wave energy is a good idea because it's free."

"What about repairs?"

"How do you get electricity from out at sea into people's homes?"

This is a different style of teaching, with a less dominant role for the teacher, and it is easy to see why some would find it uncomfortable. Yet for Ms Goss the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

"Science teaching shouldn't be just about facts," she says. "We need to teach how to make informed decisions on vital issues. It can be difficult sometimes and you have to be ready to adapt.

"Also, it takes time to learn how to get the best out of the technology.

This project began slowly, with a number of technical difficulties - such as software incompatibility - adding to the potential for disruption, but we've been ironing out the problems and our teachers have gained confidence through familiarity and training. We are now beginning to see all sorts of exciting possibilities."

This session Monifieth High has been taking part in a project which aims to make ICT an integral part of science lessons. Two dozen laptop computers, two interactive whiteboards and data projectors and a local area network that lets computers connect wirelessly to the Internet have been bought with pound;62,500 from the Future Learning and Teaching programme funds.

"We were keen to get away from the idea of a central ICT facility that pupils and teachers troop along to when they want to use it," says assistant headteacher and ICT co-ordinator Jeremy Morris. "It's not effective.

"So, right from S1, pupils are now using technology in the classroom to experience scientific models and simulations, practise data collection and analysis and carry out research and investigations."

A key point the teachers make is that all the equipment in the world would just be a starting point.

"You can plonk kids in front of a laptop and they'll be entertained, but are they actually learning any better?" says Ms Goss.

"One challenge is to make sure they're not just skimming through websites.

We want them to extract, write down, focus and structure.

"The way in which pupils are asked to deliver their results makes a big difference to the educational value of their research. If they have to produce a report, they can just cut and paste and you wonder how much they have learnt. But if you tell them to give a presentation on the whiteboard, they need to analyse and structure their data. Without even realising it you find them engaging with the information, picking out important parts, thinking critically about what they have read and seen."

As a physics teacher, Jeremy Morris appreciates the value of the new equipment to teaching. As a manager, he would like to see its benefits spread more widely.

"Ideally I'd like a data projector and a Smartboard in every classroom. I have a problem, however. The FLaT funding that let us do all this was a very welcome one-off. What do we do in four years' time when hardware and software need to be replaced?"

Hard choices may have to be made. Schools can't bring science to life, says Mr Jackson, if they are denied the technology.

"I believe interactive whiteboards and data projectors are a very effective way to improve learning and teaching, motivate pupils and raise attainment," he says.

More on the Monifieth High project at www.ngflscotland.gov.ukconnectedc7NoMoreCrossedWires.aspOn Sunday, at the ASE conference in Aberdeen, Rhona Goss will give a talk on the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education programme

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