The quiet man who shaped ICT

5th January 2001 at 00:00
When Gabriel Goldstein first came into contact with computers he realised they would change the way both teachers and pupils worked. Dorothy Walker talks to him about his career

Throughout his 25-year career, Gabriel Goldstein has been instrumental in helping shape policy on ICT. Yet Ofsted's specialist adviser on ICT and computing remains remarkably modest about his many achievements and, as he reaches retirement, is characteristically shy: "I retire during BETT, but I don't want to mention the exact date," he confides, lest any of his admiring colleagues organise an impromptu leaving party.

Goldstein first began to realise the potential of ICT back in the mid-Sixties, while he was working as a maths teacher at a secondary school in Hampstead, north London. Passionate about his subject, the maths graduate had eagerly joined a new project, Mathematics in Education and Industry, on which teachers from a number of schools were collaborating to help fire children's enthusiasm for maths through an understanding of how it was applied in industry.

As the youngest member of the team, Goldstein enthusiastically volunteered to spend his summer holidays working in a variety of companies, putting together realistic examples of how they employed maths. He was invited into firms specialising in everything from petrochemicals to insurance. And when he began to realise the power of the room-sized computers they employed to do their calculations, he became fascinated.

"I realised that ICT was making something that is very intricate and complex much simpler. That was really very exciting," explains Goldstein. "I wrote a text called Straightening the Crooked, named after a phrase in the Book of Isaiah which describes how, when the Messiah comes, everything that is crooked will be straightened."

So fascinated was Goldstein that the text became a book, Problems in Computing, published in 1969. It set out practical examples of how computer programming could be applied to solve problems, and Goldstein used it in his own classroom. "My pupils will never forget it," he says. They drew flowcharts to help with the logic of solving a problem, and programmed by punching cards which were processed by a petroleum company.

Gradually he noticed that the programming was beginning to change the way both he and the pupils worked. "We were all beginning to talk in flowcharts, and thinking much more about planning." Goldstein decided it would be fascinating to research the impact the teaching of programming could have on children's thinking. The Institute of Education backed the idea, and Goldstein set about qualifying as a teacher trainer, a role that would give him the opportunity to pursue his research at a variety of London schools.

n the early Seventies he opted to take time out of teaching and go into industry, "to really steep myself in ICT". He went on to become director of a company that rented out time on its computers. Whenever software had to be tested, Goldstein always employed youngsters as would-be hackers.

In late 1975 he returned to education: "It was my first love, and I wanted to repay what it had done for me." He joined Her Majesty's Inspectorate as a maths inspector, and was heartened when the organisation took on board his own experiences with ICT - experiences that helped shape the Microelectronics in Education Programme (MEP) launched in 1980.

He went on to specialise in ICT, focusing on how it was applied in the classroom, and for the last 18 months has also been responsible for the project evaluating the progress of the National Grid for Learning and New Opportunities Fund ICT teacher training initiatives.

Looking back on his career, Goldstein says he has been privileged to see how the use of ICT has developed across the curriculum, as technology has become increasingly sophisticated. First it was applied in maths and English, before more powerful machines and CD-Roms produced rewards for artists, musicians and historians. Now the Internet and video-conferencing have brought a long-awaited revolution in languages: "Now you actually have a chance to speak the language!" He continues: "We are still not applying ICT across the curriculum as much as we should, but the applications we have are increasingly powerful and well used. However, there is still a lot to do. School managements need to understand what kind of changes can result from the use of ICT, and how it must be used with great sensitivity. ICT is a great empowering tool, but it doesn't always straighten the crooked - sometimes it has the opposite effect."

Goldstein points out that the latest state-of-the-art computer is not always the best solution for the task in hand. "A simple fax machine can be a very powerful communications tool in the right environment. And a digital camera is worth its weight in gold."

And he stresses the need to strike a balance between the commercial values often promoted on the Internet, values that determine how information is positioned and presented online and the values teachers wish to nurture in their young charges. "As we move into the third Millennium, it will be the values we have that are important. They will help us interpret content, to provide meaning."

"In this country we are lucky to have organisations like the British Educational Suppliers Association," Goldstein muses. "We have suppliers with an intelligent interest in education, who serve a sophisticated market - and in BETT we have a unique forum."

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