Look, no hands...'Spam

10th March 2006 at 00:00
A school in Dagenham has banned pupils from putting up their hands when they think they know the answer. So instead of having to pick from a self-selecting shortlist of arm wavers, the teacher can feel free to take her pick from the whole class, thus ensuring that everyone has a turn in the spotlight.

That's bad news for the reliable stalwarts always ready with an answer whether they know it or not. And even worse news for all those poor souls who, with their hands rigidly facing south, are always much happier staying shtum.

So as not to embarrass these shrinking violets, the school implements a phone-a-friend policy. A child who is stumped by a question can nominate a classmate to answer for him. But even that can seem unnecessarily stressful for youngsters who regard lessons as the one opportunity they have in their busy lives to get down to some serious daydreaming.

I write from experience. Except for a reluctant "Here, Sir" during registration, I'm sure I never volunteered any information to a teacher from my first year in the infants until my French O-Level oral exam when - to avoid an embarrassing silence - I felt obliged to tell a visiting examiner that the weather was tr s agreable and that I fancied Les Spurs pour La Tasse.

Otherwise I kept myself to myself, happy to remain ignored and anonymous. I caused no trouble and expected, in return, that my teachers wouldn't cause me any. The arrangement worked because there was always a cohort of hand-raisers ready to shoot their arms into the air and protect the rest of us from the dreary business of having to think if the teacher suddenly needed to know the causes of the Thirty Year War, the principle exports of New Guinea or whether XYZ was or was not an equilateral triangle.

That's why my heart goes out to pupils in Dagenham, doomed to spend their school days on tenterhooks, scared that Sir will single them out and they'll have to pretend at least a passing interest in the lesson. And it can only get worse for them if the Department for Education and Skills'

(DfES) excited talk about using ICT to facilitate "personalised learning"

and "tailored education" amounts to anything more than a swarm of buzz words.

When education is personal, the teacher doesn't teach a whole class but tailors individual lessons for each of the 30 or so individuals in it. New technology makes it perfectly possible to do so - and to keep tabs on every single kid. Integrated learning systems, for example, can provide a constantly updated and scarily detailed analysis of each pupil's strengths and weaknesses. Any half-decent school management system can reveal every skeleton in the cupboard from a pupil's test scores to whether she's had the MMR jab, is allergic to nuts or has paid her school fund. Her academic performance can be correlated with that of pupils across the UK using the vast database at RAISEonline. So the teacher - or to be exact the teacher's PC - can deduce how the child compares with others of her gender, ethnicity, precise age (the odd month can make a difference) and socio-economic background. If that wasn't enough, a virtual learning environment (VLE) can log every web page she has visited, every word she typed, her every mistake, error of judgement or moment of madness. In my school days only God watched our every move. Today so can teachers - and, unlike the Almighty, they know how to contact parents by email.

The teacher (sorry, the teacher's PC) can also use the data to tailor a programme of work specifically for the individual pupil. It will be guaranteed to keep his nose firmly to the grindstone until he bags the crucial five GCSEs that will nudge the school a little further up the league tables, and the Government a little closer to meeting its targets.

Don't write to tell me - I know this isn't all that Ruth Kelly and the DfES have in mind when they talk about personalised learning. They want every child to be personally involved in determining his education. Instead of being straitjacketed by timetables and a one-size-fits-all curriculum, he will have a say in what, when, where and how he studies. New technology could bring an end to traditional class teaching. Indeed it could bring an end to the traditional classroom. Instead, the net will allow pupils to pick 'n' mix from the vast resources and expertise that lie beyond the school gates. A discussion paper, Personalisation and Digital Technologies (nestafuturelab.org) explains it all beautifully and contains a blueprint for "A Learner's Charter" which offers a tantalising glimpse of how exciting education could be in the digital age.

But see it from the headteacher's point of view. To make the Charter a reality for every child, the head would have to ditch ye olde timetable, jettison centuries of custom and practice, spend even more on ICT - and sweet talk the staff into totally re-thinking their approach to teaching.

The potential rewards are inestimable - so too are the chances of major cock-ups, mutiny and mayhem.

The headteacher can opt for this rollercoaster ride or decide, instead, to keep things just as they are now. Faced with that choice, I don't suppose too many heads will need to phone a friend.

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