You can't beat a book

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Computers are a useful tool but reading, writing and maths are still the key to learning, says David Halliday

WE have been having our great debate about education - perhaps you didn't notice. And yet there is little doubt that teaching and learning in Scottish schools, from primary to secondary, is beginning to change. The long awaited ICT revolution, which seems to have been talked about for decades, is beginning to transform schools. New Labour has put its money, or should that be our money, where its mouth is and injected considerable sums of dosh. Schools that for so long could only boast of overhead projectors, video recorders and a solitary stand-alone computer now have a plethora of networked computers with access to increasingly appropriate learning materials, technical back-up, digital cameras, camcorders and even the occasional smart board.

New Labour's vision of "education, education, education" is taking shape.

And this is no superficial vision consisting only of stuffing the schools with hardware and software. The most far-reaching part of the vision has been the drive to win the hearts and minds of teachers.

The first big assault was the training programme supported by the New Opportunities Fund, now being superseded by the Masterclass vanguard pouring back into the trenches, fired up to lead their colleagues into the glorious future using the "white heat of technology".

Time to confess. I am one of the troops - having undergone one of the intensive four-day Masterclass training sessions at Stirling Management Centre. What impressed me most was not the organisation of the course, the access to broadband, all the latest technical gizmos or the sumptuous setting - but rather the enthusiasm, creativity and raw talent of so many colleagues from Shetland to Scottish Borders, determined to make a difference.

So will the vision to transform the delivery of education in Scottish schools using ICT succeed in enriching children's education and assist in raising their attainment? Even with our existing technology, it is possible to begin to tackle some of the most intransigent problems in the system, such as the inflexibility of the curriculum and lack of differentiated learning experiences for pupils.

However, we should not underestimate the problems or the possible pitfalls.

Ensuring that a sufficient number of teachers are proficient and willing to incorporate ICT into their teaching and learning may be the least of them.

Perhaps the real problem is the pitfalls that the new technology brings with it.

A brief anecdote will illustrate. Several years ago a colleague informed me that he knew something was going wrong with one of his lessons when he found himself acceding to the pupils' request to rewind the video so that they could watch a violent scene again.

Video has almost become ubiquitous in our schools. Has it enhanced the educational experience? It would be fatuous to dispute that, used judiciously across the curriculum, the visual media can bring a perspective that it is difficult to capture in other ways. But as all good teachers know, we need to be on our guard to avoid becoming the dispensers of mere entertainment. Most children enjoy watching a video. Compared to having to write an essay it is easy - easy, that is, for the children and substantially easier for the teacher than instilling, for example, good writing skills.

So what has all this to do with our headlong surge into using computers? As computer labs become a home to subjects that, just a few years ago, would not have considered invading the binary citadels, should we be rejoicing at the alacrity of so many teachers to embrace the new technology? Well, the response has to be an ambiguous yes and no.

here are some very creative lessons being taught today in Scottish schools making full and appropriate use of ICT. However, there are instances where it would have been far better if children had remained in their class grafting away doing their reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead they are often found in the entertainment suite of the school, surfing, often aimlessly, achieving little but being very on task at doing so and hence not a discipline problem.

Many of us are becoming more familiar with different learning styles and strategies. That we should be more flexible in providing a more varied multimedia, full-sensory, educational experience is axiomatic. However, we must not fail to recognise that the most accessible, widely used and arguably efficient system of transmitting knowledge and understanding will continue to be the written word. Any school that does not give top priority to developing their pupils' writing and reading skills, because it may not be the preferred learning style of some, or in the fallacious belief that priority should be directed to ICT proficiency, is going to disadvantage them severely.

While we need to continue to explore the appropriate use of ICT in our schools we have to beware of pandering to what appears to be the growing appetite for "movie" education. Books - fiction and non-fiction - need to remain central. Schools have to remain communities where teachers transmit their love of learning - not become third-rate entertainers or babysitters, presenting a diet of cool videos and unfocused lessons using ICT.

We need to reassert and secure space in our curriculum for reflection, reading and writing and not be seduced into believing that using ICT necessarily means progress. It is time to share with pupils our passion for the fundamental importance of simple, old-fashioned books as the central medium of our learning communities.

David Halliday teaches history and business education at Eyemouth High.

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