On the line;Hands on
I once heard that Mao Tse Tung solved the problem China was having with flies by asking every adult to kill 10 insects the following day. OK, so the story may not be true but it highlights the power of concerted action.
In a similar way, the Internet is an excellent example of the power of putting the tools for developing and communicating ideas into a large number of hands. But it also shows what happens when the use of those tools is ill-focused or inappropriate.
Research has found that teachers value the ideas of other teachers over those of education experts or advisers. And since there are about half a million teachers and educators in the UK imagine what might happen if all those teachers had access to the means to develop and share their ideas. The National Grid for Learning, as it develops, must provide a means for teachers to make their own contributions, and to develop content that meets real classroom needs.
To return to my China story, for all I know the majority of the population may have ignored Mao's edict, leaving it to the enthusiasts, sycophants and those seeking a photo-opportunity with a fly swatter. Which illustrates a dilemma. In principle, most people agree there are gains to be made from collaborating and sharing ideas and resources. In practice, few do it. Teachers are busy people and few have time to polish a worksheet for publication on the web. (In fact I often feel those who do have the time to do so are the ones least likely to produce interesting ideas.) The National Grid for Learning shouldn't become a home for vanity publishing - there's more than enough of that on the Internet already.
In addition, the how of teaching is as important as the what. In one of the best lessons I have seen a teacher was reading Macbeth with a Year 8 class. Each pupil had been given a picture from a magazine and was told it related to the play in some way - the challenge was to identify the link.
The boy with the picture of the traffic light recognised that he was hedging his bets when he argued the three colours were linked to the three witches. But when the class reached the part where Lady Macbeth fears the blood on her hands would turn the seas red, he was convinced he was on to something.
What the class hadn't been told was that the pictures had been taken at random from whatever magazines were in the staff room. The lesson worked because of the teacher's skills in asking the right questions, drawing in the whole class to comment and challenging pupils to argue their ideas from the text. The skill of those who produce educational software and resources is in building these elements of pedagogy into their materials. It is simply not realistic to expect teachers, given their other commitments, to develop fully-fledged educational resources for publication on the web.
It's interesting to look back at how well-organised teachers' centres achieved this in the days before the web. I knew one that held resources packs which had been collected by teachers, and all the resources were useful and straightforward to produce. One pack contained nothing more than a set of photographs of faces. Any teacher could borrow it, but they were asked to write a few lines about how it had been used.
Their comments made fascinating reading. A French teacher had pinned the faces to a wall and pupils took it in turns to think of a face while the others played 20 questions in French to work out which it was. Another teacher added a note saying she'd developed the idea like an identity parade. After a while, the simple pack had developed into an effective teaching resource.
How about a contributory site on the Grid which builds content in the same way?
Niel McLean is head of the schools directorate at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency