Spelling? My phone takes care of that

2nd August 2013 at 01:00
Education guru Sugata Mitra challenges the `right' way to write

Learning how to spell and construct grammatical sentences has long been considered a basic pillar of good schooling.

But now one of education's most radical and influential thinkers has claimed that the growth of technology makes spelling and grammar a "bit unnecessary", at least in their conventional form.

Professor Sugata Mitra - famous for his "Hole in the Wall" experiment, which allowed children to teach themselves after he installed an internet- linked computer into the wall of a slum in Delhi, India - said that resisting developments such as "text-speak" could be a mistake.

"This emphasis on grammar and spelling, I find it a bit unnecessary because they are skills that were very essential maybe a hundred years ago but they are not right now," the academic, who is based at Newcastle University in England, told TES.

"Firstly, my phone corrects my spelling so I don't really need to think about it and, secondly, because I often skip grammar and write in a cryptic way."

Professor Mitra said this suggests that the importance of good grammar is declining. "My entire background tells me, `No, no, it is really bad what you are saying', but I think there is a change and we have to learn to live with it," he said.

The academic, who is now using the $1 million (pound;670,000) TED prize he won this year to set up seven internet-controlled "cloud schools", suggested that technology may have changed what good grammar means.

"Should (students) learn how to write good sentences? Yes, of course they should," he said. "They should learn how to convey emotion and meaning through writing.

"But we have perhaps a mistaken notion that the way in which we write is the right way and that the way in which young people write through their SMS texting language is not the right way.

"If there is a generation who believe that SMS language is a better way of expressing emotion than our way, then are we absolutely sure that they are making a mistake and we are not?"

Professor Mitra's comments run counter to the thinking of England's education ministers, who introduced compulsory national spelling and grammar tests for half a million 10- and 11-year-old students in May.

The country's National Association for the Teaching of English is also unconvinced. "The skills of using grammar effectively in the context of writing and spelling accurately are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago," said Joe Walsh, the association's co-director. "Electronic devices can suggest alternatives but they cannot think for you."

Mr Walsh added that English teachers may study and discuss different forms of language, such as text-speak, with students. "But they would always focus on the contexts in which it is appropriate to use such language and the contexts in which it would be inappropriate to do so."

Professor Mitra also argued that the advent of Google has implications for the way in which schools impart knowledge.

When asked whether students would always need a body of knowledge to thrive in society, the academic said: "My entire schooling tells me what you are saying is correct. But I have a little voice inside me which says that too may be under threat."

Professor Mitra said people could excel in business without coming from a traditional academic background or knowing "about Byron or Shelley".

"My question is, `Are we missing something?'" he said. "And are we missing it because we are coming from a background where it is very hard for us to say that they can be as good as us?"

Photo credit: Corbis

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