Hang Ups

31st May 1996 at 01:00
I've just spent a fruitless few pints trying to argue the case for information technology in education with an electronics engineer who has been using computers since the days when you needed to wear a lab coat and to speak fluent Fortran before you were allowed anywhere near one.

I had a hunch that his sudden antipathy towards IT was a direct result of the parent-teachers' association meeting where he had been dragooned into taking charge of the collection of Tesco computer vouchers.

He claims that it has got nothing to do with this. He says his doubts stem from the time his nine-year-old came home from school proudly proclaiming that "we didn't do any work in school this afternoon because we were messing around on the computers".

Of course I pointed out - explaining things slowly as you sometimes have to do with engineers - that his son hadn't really been "messing around". His choice of that expression simply signifies that IT isn't a chore, like so many things in school are, but something that children really enjoy. It's a reason that's often advanced for having computers in the classroom. He snorted belligerently.

Children also enjoy picking their noses, and sucking ice-cream cornets from the wrong end - should these activities, therefore, be included in the curriculum? I reminded him that it was vital that children should master the skills of The Information Age in order to prepare them for the world of work.

He almost choked on his beer. By the time his son reaches man's estate, the only place that he will see anything that remotely resembles the computers that he's using now will be on The Antiques Road Show.

The boy's teacher has not helped the cause. At a parents' evening she admitted with a cheerful giggle that when it came to new technology it was often a case of the pupils explaining to her what to do.

Simple soul that he is, he cannot wrap his brain around this: he clings doggedly to the principle that it's teachers who should teach and the children who do the learning.

If the educational process doesn't amount to anything more than pupils and teachers mucking in together and learning as they go along, why not find room on the timetable for open-heart surgery?

I explained that IT is a valuable tool which can help children with other aspects of the curriculum. A tool, he said, is only any good if it makes life easier.

If anyone bothered to conduct a time-and-motion study, it would soon become obvious that children find it quicker to write with pen and paper than a word-processor, and that books are far less hassle than CD-Roms.

Then he asked the fundamental question - and did so with the confidence of one who is about to check-mate a hopelessly inadequate opponent. Was there any proof that IT has raised standards in education?

Of course there is, I assured him, and, feeling on safe ground, set about regaling him with an anthology of those uplifting tales usually told by computer salespersons, IT advisers and other fellow travellers with a vested interest in enthusing about IT.

But the trouble with engineers is that their training has made them impervious to anecdotal evidence. He wanted boring facts and figures and he wanted them to be based on extensive and reliable research. I admitted that I didn't know any.

As they called "last orders, please", he announced to anyone willing to listen that the massive investment schools have made in new technology has been based on nothing more than an act of blind faith.

There was no proof that they served any function at all, other than to keep parents busy trying to raise the cash to buy them. As I guessed: he's miffed that the PTA lumbered him with the Tesco job.


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