On the line

7th January 2000 at 00:00
As BETT speakers coo over the latest in educational technology, Niel Mclean intends to focus on "teachers and teaching". Remember them?

People have been asking about my BETT speech this year. Given that we have entered a new millennium, they expect something forward-looking and radical. I seem to be disappointing them. When I say my topic will be "teachers and teaching", the response is "Why?" Either that or they assume I'm pandering to my audience.

Now I'm the first to admit it's better to receive a positive response than a negative one - memories of explaining the ill-fated paper and pencil tests for Key Stage 3 IT are still fresh - but there is a serious message to my topic.

One of the big problems of fast-changing technologies is that every time they move on, people are tempted to forget the lessons learned and revisit the bad ideas of the past. And it's a trait that becomes doubly dangerous when those with a preference for machines over people get involved. The machine is made a focus and everything else must adapt. Historians have debated the impact of train timetables on the First World War. Some say Germany was forced to act precipitously by the necessities of scheduling the rolling stock. It would be tragic if future historians end up debating the impact of infrastructure pricing and policy on schooling.

Technology should be used to serve our ends, not define them. Learning is something human beings often do in the company of, and guided by, others. I know we can learn a lot by ourselves, but something special happens when we try to describe our experiences to others. Things slot into place in a way they didn't at the time. Reflection is an essential ingredient, particularly when we want a pupil to learn from a difficult experience. Left to ourselves, we rationalise our mistakes rather than learn from them.

Good teachers have a whole repertoire of questions and prompts aimed at provoking this crucial reflection. Good eucational software attempts to encourage users to think about what they are doing. I am sure we'll see the emergence of more software that aims to emulate this questioning. But we are not there yet and simply adapting material to the user's level of performance is not the same thing. Such software is better at helping users practise, develop and refine something learnt than introduce something new.

The crucial role of the teacher is so obvious it shouldn't need stating. However, while few of us believe that machines will ever truly replace teachers, the interesting questions of how teachers work best with computers to support learning have usually been left unexplored. I cannot tell you how many reports I read on the use of information and communications technology (ICT) assume the only things present in the classroom were the children and the machines. Usually the teacher appears just before the report fails to reach a conclusion, and the reader is left with the blindingly obvious finding that the effectiveness of a system depends on how the teacher uses it.

Equally infuriating is the rhetoric that speaks of "empowering the learner" while failing to recognise the role of teachers in achieving this. The move towards life-long learning signals a greater role for schools as centres of learning in their communities and the key resource that schools bring to the party isn't the buildings or the equipment - it's the teachers.

We now know quite a lot about what makes a good teacher effective. Wouldn't a rational approach to ICT be to start there. So how should we place the teacher at the heart of ICT developments in education? That's the question that will wait till BETT. See you there.

Niel McLean is head of the schools directorate at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency.He delivers the TESkeynote speech, "Putting the teacher at the heart of ICTdevelopments" on January 13, 11am in Theatre A at BETT 2000

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