Pale imitators of the imagination game

14th April 1995 at 01:00
Woody Allen once said that every time he got into a lift, it took him down to the basement and beat him up. The feeling that technology has a mind of its own, is beyond human control, and may well turn peevish and malevolent, is what prevents me from believing that teachers will one day be unnecessary.

That teachers might be dispensable is a beguiling thought to politicians. There is the faint hope that at least one of the new technologies will eventually sideline teachers. Think of the benefits to the Government if the teaching profession did not exist and children were taught by machines. Since salaries account for some 80 per cent of a school's annual budget, as much as 90 per cent in small schools, billions of pounds would be saved.

Machines do not belong to professional associations, so there would be no threat of industrial action by the National Union of Virtual Reality Kits. There is no chance of computers boycotting key stage 3 SATs, just because the British Federation of English Assessment Software Packages takes a dislike to the Government's anthology of English literature. I cannot see screen messages appearing, saying "Government philistinism rejected. Access denied."

"Ah, but can machines do the important things in education?", I hear you ask, "like pick up litter, play cards in the staff room, decide whether Darren Rowbottom hit Elspeth Scattergood first?". Well they can pick up litter, and distinguishing crisp packets from A4 paper is no problem, but deciding between a paper that has been deliberately discarded and one that has fallen on the floor accidentally, might be. So it could be goodbye both to old versions of the national curriculum and this year's draft budget.

Playing cards and chess is not difficult, as there are plenty of good quality programs around, but what makes staffroom games worthwhile, like watching the losers burst into a torrent of profanities, might be more elusive. Sorting out tiffs between Darren and Elspeth would be beyond machines unless a human were present, as children would either switch them off, ignore them, or, nowadays, re-programme them. The biggest advantage of computerised schools would be that machines don't cry when the Office for Standards in Education calls.

You can see how the possibility of never needing teachers again comes to be raised. Technology is a tease. Whenever a new form is developed, the manufacturer invariably over-hypes its possibilities. In the 1920s radio was first used in schools. The reaction to the early broadcasts was that schools would one day have a box in every classroom and teachers would be redundant. Television provoked the same response - who needs teachers when David Attenborough can tell children all they need to know about insects?

In the 1960s, when elementary teaching machines were developed, it was said that this really was the beginning of the end for the teaching profession. Behaviourist learning theory was supposed to have shown that children learn best in small steps, with self-pacing, active-responding, immediate reinforcement and feedback. Unfortunately, nobody ever told the pupils that this was supposed to happen, so most threw up at the brain-corroding banality of endless piddling globs of information with silly, self-evident questions every few seconds.

In the 1980s the microcomputer was expected to do what 1960s teaching machines had failed to achieve, but, like other forms of technology, it simply took its place alongside teachers, rather than replaced them. Now, as the 21st century dawns, interactive technologies, like CD-Roms, virtual reality and the information superhighway, are supposed to be poised to deal the final death blow to the teaching profession.

According to the Government's view of teaching, this should not be too difficult. After all, in their simple-minded perception of the profession, anyone in possession of the subject knowledge of the national curriculum can teach it, no training is necessary. Also, any fool can assess either teaching or learning, since ticking boxes is not exactly mind-stretching. Teaching is supposed to consist solely of imparting information, so the superhighway, the ultimate repository of the world's films, sound records, texts, only has to be switched on.

But information is not knowledge. It takes skill to get the stuff from out there into someone's head. Fortunately the attempted de-humanisation of teachers in recent years has not worked. Despite all the box ticking, most teachers have clung on to their craft skills. There is still some imagination in the profession, and though the critical faculties of some teachers may have been dulled, there are many who think for themselves and encourage children to do the same, and that is what frightens politicians.

I once watched a superb music lesson, as the teacher tried to encourage small children to interpret a particular song. "Spread jam on it," she eventually said. It was just right and achieved the desired effect. I am not sure by what century machines will have that sort of distinctive individual and spot-on response. Then there was the maths teacher who was so enthusiastic he ran maths clubs, got families to tackle maths problems and made a subject that many find frightening, a source of inspiration. Machines hold the content, but none has the personal charisma, even when programmed in an off-beat and amusing way.

A few years ago Frank Muir and Denis Norden invented a character called Rudolph. He was a foreign spy whose job it was to sabotage British life. When nothing comes out of a tomato sauce bottle, you bash it underneath. It then explodes all over your plate. That was the work of Rudolph.

The ultimate reason why technology will never replace teachers is quite simple. A few years ago Rudolph moved into new interactive technology. Day after day he sits there just waiting to bog everything up. If you doubt that, then ask yourself this. If OFSTED descended tomorrow to watch a carefully planned lesson based on new interactive technology, wouldn't you put your mortgage on it breaking down?

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