Helping homozapiens

13th June 2003 at 01:00
Education is playing catch-up with a new breed of techno-savvy pupils and not just in terms of its ICT - new research concludes that teachers must address their mindset too. Arnold Evans reports

Despite the education world's passion for acronyms, BAI and TAI remain surplus to requirements. They were coined by Dutch academic Paul Kirschner to draw attention to the fact that we never feel the need to talk about Book-Aided Instruction or Teacher-Aided Instruction because books and teachers are so fundamental to our notion of the way children are educated in schools.

He argues that ICT must have a similar status if it is to fulfil its much-hyped potential in the classroom. As he puts it: "It's time to stop pretending the computer is something special." And this won't happen in schools unless ICT is given a far more pivotal role in teacher training.

Fortunately, some schools are already blazing a trail. Kirschner and his colleagues identified 26 of them and reflected on the elements of good practice they shared. Their findings are in the latest volume of Technology, Pedagogy and Education.

As with most academic research, it doesn't make light reading, but it provides valuable guidelines for teacher trainers, school managers trying to plan in-service training and, of course, for teachers, who, in the day-to-day struggle with a dodgy network and double-booked computer room, can easily lose sight of the bigger picture.

The contributors to the journal recognise that it's crucial for student teachers and those in harness to be proficient users of ICT. Unless they are, the profession will soon be left behind by a generation of techno-savvy kids, a new species that Professor Kirschner labels "homo zapiens". These kids will naturally expect ("demand" is probably the more appropriate verb) that the latest technology plays as pivotal a role in their education as it does in every other aspect of their wired world.

What's more, even the best-equipped schools with well-trained staff can't afford to be complacent. As one academic puts it, when new technology arrives in the classroom it is too easily "domesticated". Instead of opening up new routes to learning, it's made to serve existing practices.

So, for example, the whiteboard is merely used as a substitute for the old blackboard - albeit a very expensive one.

The contributors advocate an exciting alternative in which ICT is a catalyst for a revolution in learning. In this brave new world, lessons are pupil-centred, with a strong emphasis on collaborative learning, experimentation and developing high-level thinking skills; in fact, just the sort of thing computers can facilitate when they are used imaginatively. It goes without saying that it's the students on their teaching practice who have the task of turning their lecturers' pipe dreams into reality. And all too often they end up marooned in woefully ill-equipped schools.

In Northern Ireland, educationists have made a concerted effort to address this problem and their work over the last three years has been singled out by Kirschner as an example of what can be achieved with a bit of joined-up thinking. From the outset, the assembly recognised that "a major drive on training needs to go hand in hand with the provision of sufficient modern equipment".

The Classroom 2000 initiative delivers quality hardware and software to all the schools in the province and the university education departments took up the challenge by designing a training strategy that extended from students' pre-service time in university to their first years in school.

ICT is embedded in all PGCE courses and students are expected to spend at least three hours a week working with new technology. From day one of training, they have access to all the software provided to schools as part of Classroom 2000, so they can familiarise themselves with the programs long before they have to use them in class.

In Northern Ireland, students do not have to take the IT tests prescribed for trainee teachers in England. Instead, they are expected to create a digital portfolio in which they can chronicle and reflect upon their experiences during teaching practice. It means lecturers are able to assess not only student confidence with the technology, but also how effectively they are able to use it in the classroom. Perhaps even more important, it offers students a sense that they are contributing to a collaborative process that also involves lecturers, practising teachers and the sundry movers and shakers who make the big decisions.

Other examples of the good practice featured in Technology, Pedagogy and Education also highlight the importance of this "bottom-up principle".

Government targets, prescribed tests and all the rest of the ballyhoo might create a few headlines but they are unlikely to make much of a difference.

Teachers in the small town of Sipoo in Finland prove the point. Hannele Niemi, who teaches at the University of Helsinki, explains how teachers from the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors have co-operated to explore the benefits of network technology.

Kirschner believes the work at Sipoo and the 25 other initiatives studied share common factors. He presents these as benchmarks for other institutions striving to enhance the profile of ICT in teacher training.

Top of the list comes the obvious need for students and practising teachers to be competent personal users of new technology. However, that is not easy to teach or to assess or even to spell out as our ideas about what constitutes computer literacy are always evolving. New skills soon become old hat - and there's always another innovation that needs to be embraced.

This has particular implications for in-service training and, indeed, for the mindset of practising teachers. They will need to update their skills constantly but to do so they can't rely solely on traditional teaching and training situations. The rate of change is so fast that no formal programme of courses would be able to keep pace. So teachers will have to be prepared to take more responsibility for their own training, which won't come as any surprise to many in the profession.

As well as keeping up to speed with the latest developments in ICT, teachers will have to determine how the advances can be used creatively in the classroom. One benchmark identified is that good training programmes encourage student teachers to treat new applications as "mindtools", potential "intellectual partners" that can help unleash new ways of thinking and learning; "it's not that they make things easier but rather that they make new things possible".

If trainees can be encouraged to treat new technologies in this way, there's a chance they'll foster the same attitude in the children they will teach. It's quite a tall order, but homo zapiens will be short-changed if it's offered anything less.

Technology, Pedagogy and Education is published by the Association of Information Technology in Teacher Education (

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