PCs are not the only tool;Talkback

29th January 1999 at 00:00
There's more than one way to learn, says Alan Dodson Shopping for DIY materials recently, I went to the builder's merchants. "I'd like one of those corner guttering pieces there, please," I said, pointing to the items in the bin behind the counter.

"I'll look on the computer to see if we have any in stock," the youth in charge replied.

I am wise enough now to know that any attempt to enter into conversation at this point would be like spitting into the wind, so I waited silently.

He was lost for five minutes, staring at the screen, poking the keyboard and rattling the return key with the staccato violence that only prolonged training in the games arcade can achieve. A triumphant jab signalled he had finished. "Yes, we've got some," he said, turning to the bin. "How many do you want?" I went next to the timber merchant, where they cut the exact piece of wood I wanted - four feet long, six inches wide and one-and-a-half inches thick. But the computer knew only that it cost pound;40 per cubic foot. This time I pointed out that the sum was easy and offered my tenner. The assistant did not believe me. He also refused to believe the answer from two calculators on which he worked out the price.

In a long career teaching science in further education colleges, I have been at the forefront of many new developments in teaching and in science. There is not a Luddite bone in my body. Distressing though I find it, I can cope with the idea that young people are helpless without their computers. What I can't accept is their belief that, when it comes to doing simple tasks, there is no other way.

We now have pressure from all sides to move this dependency into basic learning. It seems school work is becoming impossible without a PC. There used to be a joke that knowledge was something that passed from the teacher's notebook to the pupil's notebook by way of the blackboard, without going through the mind of either. There is no need now for the notebooks and the blackboard: homework can be printed off a CD encyclopedia; assignments can be completed by surfing the Internet.

When this approach was in its embryo stage three years ago, I was being offered work for assessment that had clearly not been read, let alone edited.

Neither do I subscribe to the idea that such things as communication skills and decision-making are being picked up, and can, therefore, be credited. This is another misguided policy of recent years. Competence picked up in this way is neither rigorous nor is it efficiently learned.

Of course, PCs have a place in education. The growing belief that they are essential does not. It is but a small step from there to believing that they are the only way to learn.

Even learning to read can no longer escape the PC's overwhelming influence. I remember when we were forced to introduce so-called real working practices to elementary students in vocational courses. Real situations in science laboratories today means the use of instrumentation, previously used only by advanced students who understood the principles. As a consequence, beginners got the impression that the instruments were essential for the simplest decisions. They demanded to have a spectrophotometer to decide if a liquid was coloured or not.

What, then, do you think the class of '99 will believe is indispensable to read a piece of text for pleasure? Send your suggestions to the Department for Education and Employment. Answers on laptops only, please.

* Alan Dodson lives in Herefordshire

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