Delete the predictive text

12th November 2010 at 00:00

Predictive text is such a bully. Instead of the cheery reply "isn't he a lovely, sweet boy?", it insisted three times on changing it to: "Is not he a lovely sweet boy?" This sounded overly Shakespearean and not a little bit daunting coming from your mother-in-law. So I gave up and sent a smiley emoticon instead.

I felt as if I had been pushed around. Why is a text message always such a compromise? Texting or tweeting, we submit to the formula. Too many characters, we are told. So you start again. Or you change a word because it's easier.

We recognise we are being bossed by the medium here but, in actual fact, it's what happens with language all the time. Just like text messaging, the language we use hands us a script, and it is hard to deviate.

I attended the book launch recently of a student who had been a regular at my writing classes for many years. She always joked that she was bilingual. She had been schooled in proper English, but her mother tongue was the Dundee dialect. And though she wrote many pieces in proper English, it was her stories of Dundee which burst into life. When she stopped using the imposed language of her school compositions, she was freed to write about her upbringing with a masterful ear for the rhythms of the Dundee dialect. She has just had her second book published at the age of 69.

We are open to different languages and dialects in education now, but there are other prisons we must negotiate, more subtle ways in which our learners can be bullied into submission: producing an assessment which fulfils expectations, which ticks all the boxes or which chimes with the model answer. Education has a long history of telling our learners what to think, instead of teaching how to think.

Further education has always led the way in creative learning, in giving learners responsibility for their discoveries. Admittedly, it's a way of learning that can cause panic if learners come to college scared to make a mistake.

One learner took weeks to build her confidence. She would ask timidly: "Are you allowed to..?" Or sit with a worried expression that said: "Tell me what to think. I just want to do what you want."

Many learners just want to get it right - and, in their book, that means accepting the received wisdom. I would find myself in front of a whole class of well-behaved, passive learners who simply wanted to be told. "Come on, argue with me," I would tell them. The Curriculum for Excellence should mark a sea change in attitude and produce confident, responsible learners who may, thankfully, cause their lecturers no end of trouble.

Interestingly, it has been noted that Nobel prize winners who teach students have produced clutches of graduates who have gone on to win the Nobel prize, suggesting that they have been taught ways of doing, seeing, learning. They have been taught how to think, not what to think.

The future for our students may not include a Nobel prize, but it is an exciting and unknown one. We need to encourage our learners to think and solve problems creatively, and to come up with new answers to new problems. In an unpredictable world, we must dispense with a predictive text.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer.

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