The tiger has become a mammoth

4th October 1996 at 01:00
The Sabre-Toothed Tiger Curriculum allegory is the part of my teacher training I remember best. Not the details, mind you, but the gist of it. Communities whose young are taught a curriculum only relevant to the past are vulnerable to new and untaught dangers. More graphically, knowing how to deal with a menacing tiger is pretty futile if the environmental balance changes and there is a surfeit of dangerous mammoths around. Some preparation in school on mammoth-tackling could be indispensable.

Highlighting the curriculum's limited shelf-life keeps it on the agenda more than it keep us on our toes because resolving the problems is intricately bound up with policy and resources. One of the largest areas of concern is curriculum and course development in information technology, where the state of the art changes so much from one moment to the next that it hardly has a state at all.

Occasionally people ask me when I first started working with computers, and some of them treat my answer of 1965 as if it were of value. What I learnt then at college, of expensive machines in big secure rooms, and later at university, of punched cards and Fortran programming, is as useful today as my skill in using log tables or a hula hoop. A project manager, looking for a consultant recently, enquired if I had a computer degree. No? Well, never mind, I'm sure it doesn't matter. And I'm afraid he was right.

More and more people are coming round to this point of view. Hoffer's observation - "In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists" - is exactly right for learning about information technology today. And our students are becoming aware of this change.

Jenny said it to me first. She is a new graduate, very skilled in online and technological matters and, since she is involved in web authoring and such, I asked whether she had studied such subjects at university. You must be joking, came the reply, it would make no sense. Had I taken as my options subjects whose content would be out of date within a couple of years they would be of no lifelong value. I elected to study areas where the curriculum is more stable so I will gain recognition for them over a longer period. After all, I can study the technical bits in my spare time, and keep up to date through practice and friends. If we start to see a fall in the number of students coming forward for these courses in information technology, we should remember Jenny's comments.

If, as education providers, we want to avoid the mammoth-tiger complex, we have a responsibility to provide courses in today's subjects, giving them the structure and recognition they so rightly deserve. Scotvec is to be applauded for developing its new Internet unit, and has done so in general terms to maximise the shelf-life related to this fast-changing medium. Nevertheless, one wonders just how long that life will be? To develop such a course requires considerable time as well as effort and by the time these products get to market the state of play may have moved on, as Bill Gates knows too well.

And what of those who are destined to follow these old courses? In some schools pupils are learning from old IT courseware, and only succeeding by giving what could be termed historical answers. If a pupil has a modern computer at home, and are presented with questions relating to out of date practices, then they either use their existing knowledge and face a possible penalty, or move their brain back to the time when the coursebook was written and give acceptable but useless responses.

An example would be a question which expected a pupil to use LOAD for gaining access to a computer file, when these days OPEN is the convention. Didn't someone say something about the past being like a foreign country - they do things differently there? Our children know about today's mammoth; it is folly to ask them about the long-gone sabre-toothed tiger.

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