Writing's on the wall for gadgets as chalk and pencils endure

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Old-fashioned materials remain teachers' flexible friends in Bahrain's technology-heavy future classroom. Michael Shaw in Bahrain

In the "classroom of the future" the most impressive teaching technology turned out to be pencils and chalk.

The experimental classroom was put together by international experts on teaching at The Education Project conference in Bahrain, which took place last weekend and attracted big education names from around the world.

The room was equipped with handheld voting devices, a large projector screen and the latest interactive whiteboard among many other gadgets. But the more high-tech equipment suffered glitches, including problems with voting on questions about "childrenc" (sic) and the loss of a live feed to an educational computer game being played by students in the Netherlands.

Instead, the show was stolen by a digital technology expert from Edinburgh, Ewan McIntosh, who covered a wall with chalk notes and doodles, assisted by Gever Tulley, the co-founder of the Tinkering School in California.

Mr McIntosh, director of NoTosh Digital Media, said: "I think we fetishise technology at the expense of thinking about physical space. Chalk is much more interactive than an interactive whiteboard."

Pencils, featuring pictures of Mickey Mouse, were another attraction and could be seen being twiddled by fully robed officials from the Gulf states. They were a gift from Dr Kathleen Hagstrom, the principal of the Walt Disney Magnet School in Chicago.

The state school, founded in the 1970s, only established links with the Disney family itself around eight years ago, and now receives $100,000 a year from Walt's eldest daughter. The school has invested heavily in technology, and set up an animation lab which it uses in subjects including biology so that pupils can can demonstrate how the heart works.

"I think there will always be a place for a pencil," Dr Hagstrom said. "But it might be a talking pencil."

The role of technology in education was a recurring topic at the conference, which attracted more than 500 delegates from 50 countries, including several from the UK.

Kapil Sibal, India's minister for human resource development, suggested it was a less pressing concern for many schools in his country, as some areas still did not have electricity and the education system was missing more than 1.2 million teachers.

However, Charles Leadbeater, an author and former advisor to Tony Blair, described research he had been doing into education in slums. In the favelas of Rio, teenagers involved in drug gangs have been lured back into education by computers in free learning centres, he said. "The only thing that is as visceral as the appeal of drugs is technology," he said. "Education plus technology equals hope, broadly speaking."

Technology was also discussed as a potential solution to problems with teaching to the test. The computer giants Microsoft, Cisco and Intel are developing a new form of computerised assessment, which they believe will give a more nuanced check of how pupils understand their work.

Rather than simply getting pupils to type in answers or click on a multiple choice, the system will make students work through processes, effectively making them reveal their thinking as they solve problems.

Systems from this project, Assessment amp; Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S), are due to be trialled by around five countries, possibly including the UK, from next year.

Bill Fowler, director of global education for Cisco, said: "We think this is going to be for assessment what Gutenburg was to education."

Other ideas discussed at the international event would seem less innovative to British teachers. Dan Lea, a teacher at Gearies Infant School in Ilford, Essex said: "The UK schools get kicked in the press, but you come to the sessions here on new ideas on technology and SEN and think, `This already happens in nine out of 10 schools at home.' You come away feeling UK schools are doing great."

Bahrain budgets

Pay staff more than heads

The small Middle Eastern island nation of Bahrain has begun paying some of its best teachers more than heads in an effort to keep them in the classroom.

Shaikh Mohammed bin Essa al-Khalifa, chief executive of the country's economic development board, told The TES that the aim was to ensure teaching was seen as "the noble profession it is". The pay difference was only a few per cent but sent out a message to school staff, he said.

"In the past you would always promote teachers into administration, and you would lose them from the classroom," he said. "This is a way to keep good teachers teaching."

Bahrain's economic development board runs The Education Project and helps guide education strategy for the country, which has a population of just 1.1 million and around 200 schools.

The world should not go independent crazy, says Ofsted chief

Ofsted's chief schools inspector has suggested that countries should not get carried away with making state schools independent.

Christine Gilbert spoke positively about academies at The Education Project conference in Bahrain, saying that the fact 11 of the 43 inspected in the last year were "outstanding" and ten "good" showed there was "something really significant happening here". However, she stressed that the qualities of the best academies - including a focus on teaching and strong leadership - could be found in other good schools.

"It isn't the independence of the provider that is making a difference," she said.

Ms Gilbert shared the platform with representatives from three independent education groups working in the US - KIPP, Aspire and Green Dot - and Ralph Tabberer, previously director general of schools at the Department for Education, now chief schools officer for the profit-making company GEMS, headquartered in the United Arab Emirates.

The debate asked whether the private-sector approach to education could deliver better outcomes than the public sector.

Mr Tabberer, also previously chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, said: "The most important thing of all the freedoms of not working in the public sector is the ability to concentrate on the customers - the parents and the students."

He stressed that the private sector had to reassure people that it would not abandon poorer communities if it was to have a greater role.

However, Ms Gilbert warned that treating parents as customers could give advantages to the middle classes, noting that the intake of some academies had already changed as they had attracted more affluent parents

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