A pioneer of computers in classrooms, Jim Wynn's years as a teacher stood him in good stead when he joined ICT supplier RM. Now back in teaching, he has a unique perspective of life on both sides of the fence. Dorothy Walker reports
Don't tell me how many computers you want, tell me what you want to do with them." Jim Wynn made this plea almost every time he entered a school. Over the last three years, he visited schools UK-wide for supplier RM extolling the benefits of information and communications technology (ICT) and offering common-sense advice on how those benefits can be achieved. Now the long-time teacher is back in the teaching profession. And he relishes the chance to put his advice into practice.
Wynn first discovered the power of ICT in 1972 while taking a maths degree at Hatfield Polytechnic. "I was programming in the Basic language. I had never seen automation in action, then suddenly I could write programs that solved equations. I was in awe of ICT and wanted to find ways of using it."
The chance came in 1976 when he joined Simon Balle School in Hertford as a maths teacher. Encouraged by a forward-thinking deputy head who was already teaching computing, Wynn started showing his maths classes how they too could write equation-solving programs. He says: "I didn't know it at the time but I was using ICT as a tool to help with a subject that was hard to teach."
Wynn realised the wisdom of this approach two years later when he moved to Geoffrey Chaucer School in Canterbury. There he became involved in the Chelsea College Computers in the Curriculum project, to which he was eventually seconded for a year in 1983. "I worked with academics Margaret Cox and Richard Millward. They were really tuned into finding parts of the curriculum which were difficult to teach, and commissioning software to help."
Returning to Geoffrey Chaucer as head of maths, Wynn began to explore new teaching and learning methods, collaborating with education staff at nearby Christchurch College. He says: "Until then, I was the most didactic teacher on the planet. Christchurch opened my eyes to pupil-centred learning - I saw the light." And when he attended a course given by lateral thinker Edward de Bono, Wynn started to reappraise his ideas on how children solved problems.
Wynn's enthusiasm for technology grew with every development - he was amazed by the arrival of desktop publishing software, for example - but he admits he was in danger of being carried away by the novelty of it all. "You would basically lie to your mates about how easy things were. You'd spent your summer holiday putting together a brochure and then you'd say: 'It's dead easy, really.' I eventually realised I had to think more about how I could help my colleagues use ICT in thir teaching."
In 1987 the school became one of the first LEA-funded technology colleges and Wynn, in charge of curriculum as deputy head, welcomed the chance to put his learning into action. The teaching of thinking skills and problem-solving techniques was to form a central plank of the college's strategy. And with the aid of a pound;250,000 ICT budget - "real money" - Wynn planned to install a computer network so easily accessible as to be almost invisible. "If the children were working on a machine and the bell rang, I wanted them to be able to go up to the library, log back on, and pick up where they left off."
Rather than make a high-tech shopping list, he explained his vision to potential suppliers and asked their advice about kit. Supplier RM won the contract and Wynn began a staff training program. From the first session on producing a good CV it was met with enthusiasm. "You have to provide people with good individual reasons for using ICT," he says.
In 1997, four years after being promoted to head, Wynn was invited to join RM as adviser on the application of ICT in the curriculum. "I didn't think twice," he admits.
As head of school research, he visited over 300 schools, offering practical advice and pointing out that ICT in itself was no substitute for good teaching practice.
"People say ICT is a fabulous motivator, but I have seen it used in classrooms where the teacher was enthusiastic and none of the children were motivated simply because people weren't thinking enough about the shape of the lesson. A school will have a way of starting a lesson, of achieving the right pace and flow - all the traditional craft of the classroom considerations - but I didn't find anyone who thought in that way about ICT."
Wynn says senior professionals, many of whom had disappointing experiences with technology in the Eighties, need encouragement as they attempt to support staff. He has identified three ways in which people can start using ICT: "It can help solve an inefficiency, such as a lack of resources; it can help attack a mode of teaching - a stage such as simulation, modelling or enrichment; and it can help the self-improving teacher make specific improvements, such as teaching fractions better, for example."
Last June, Wynn visited John Cabot City Technology College in Bristol and liked it so much he applied for and was appointed to the vacant position of principal.
"The school had a lot of ICT not being used the way I saw it could be. It has friendly staff and fabulous kids. We are still in the honeymoon period but already people are saying: 'Let's make this work.'" The mathematician adds: "Teaching is great. Every job has minuses but the pluses from the kids are much higher than the pluses anywhere else."