Ahead of the game;Watershed;Interview;Chris Thatcher

12th March 1999 at 00:00
What's always excited Chris Thatcher about technology is its great potential to re-motivate pupils. But, as he tells Chris Johnston, education now faces its own watershed if it is to succeed

Two decades ago, Chris Thatcher did a pretty good job of crystal ball-gazing into what computers would allow teachers to do in the future. Addressing an inspectors' conference in Bournemouth in 1979 on educating gifted children, he predicted that they would allow teachers to tap into the expertise and skills of colleagues in other places, and pass on their knowledge to pupils at schools other than their own.

This was long before the Internet and technology such as video-conferencing were what they are today, but Thatcher's comments reflected his faith in the usefulness of computers in the classroom.

Computers have played a role in his teaching since 1978, when an academic from the then Coventry Polytechnic lent him a chunky Commodore Pet to use with his class. Even with such primitive technology and simple self-written programs, he realised the potential that the machines held in helping children to learn.

Thatcher wrote programs presenting, for example, 10 simple arithmetic problems. Each pupil would complete them and receive a score. "In those days, that was quite a strong motivation for children, because it was new - it was before PlayStation or anything like that. This sort of technology was a great motivator and that hasn't changed really, but now it is so much more sophisticated."

It soon became evident that using the Commodore could get his pupils excited about even such mundane tasks as a times table test. Thatcher says the potential of the technology was apparent, but much less certain was just how it would be realised when software could not be purchased and programming was somewhat laborious. "That was a long way behind - we're only just starting to get there now in educational terms," he muses.

In 1982, Thatcher became headteacher of Potter's Green primary school in Coventry, a position he still holds. His interest in information and communications technology (ICT) in education led to chairing the National Association of Head Teachers' IT committee on its formation in 1994, before being elected vice-president of the association last year. In June, he becomes president.

Thatcher is convinced that the value of computers in education will continue to grow. He cites a trial IBM is conducting in Florida in which very sophisticated software is being used to successfully re-motivate students who have dropped out of school. If these programs can work with such a difficult group of pupils, he says, they cannot help but benefit more ordinary students.

Individualised learning accounts are also on the horizon, and once children have learned the basics, Thatcher contends, the world will be their oyster. "The challenge to us is to make sure that what they do is both meaningful and valid to the lives they are going to have. I think schools will change fundamentally in the next 10 to 15 years to take account of that change."

The reappearance in the curriculum of personal and social education is evidence of this shift. He says this reflects a growing awareness that the basics are easily taught, but that some other skills cannot be conveyed on screen.

Developments in technology will, Thatcher says, force the education system's structure to change. "At the moment it is based on this notion that you start at three with an empty brain, and leave school at 18 with a full brain that contains everything you will need for the next 50 years. But it just isn't going to be like that." However, the impetus for change will have to come from society because, as he points out, schools can only do what they are told or allowed to do.

The advent of the Internet and digital television, and the vast amount of information they can make available in the home, are also reasons why schools will have no choice but to embrace information technology. "They have got to keep up - we can't afford to have a system of education that takes youngsters out of technologically rich homes and puts them into a school environment that is technologically poor. If we do that, they will just become disaffected," he asserts. "We have to be ahead of that game and that presents a major challenge to the teaching profession, the Government and all of the agencies involved."

In a roundabout way, this reflects Thatcher's belief that the value of computers in education lies in their ability to motivate students. He returns to the Florida trial to reinforce the point: "If youngsters who have switched off from the education system can be turned around to become excited, enthusiastic learners, then it can motivate everybody else as well."

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