You don't have to be a nerd to be a teacher;Platform;Opinion

15th January 1999 at 00:00
The proposal that new teachers should have 67 competences in IT is ludicrous, say Tom Conlon and Peter Cope

THE NEW Scottish Office proposals on information technology and initial teacher education have so far failed to prompt much debate. Given the welter of recent changes in education, perhaps that is not surprising. But it would be unfortunate if the proposals were to pass without extensive scrutiny for they are far-reaching and profoundly misguided.

At present, students on primary and secondary teaching courses are assessed using 32 statements of competence. Just one of these statements refers to IT. The rest cover skills and knowledge in the main areas of curriculum, pedagogy, school organisation and professionalism.

The original introduction of the competences framework was controversial, mainly because of fears that it would undermine the "reflective practice" model of teaching central to most current courses. In time these fears were allayed. The 32 competence statements are now generally regarded as providing a workable framework for assessment that avoids excessive prescription.

That consensus may not survive the latest proposals from the Scottish Office. These would replace the existing solitary IT competence statement by no fewer than 67 separate requirements. Here is one example: "The newly qualified teacher should have a knowledge of basic trouble-shooting procedures and ability to perform routine maintenance". Although the new competences are presented as "guidance" nobody doubts that the Scottish Office will enforce its usual interpretation of that term. All primary and secondary courses will need to be revised.

We can see at least three problems with the proposals. The first concerns the sheer impracticality of what is asked. Teacher education courses nowadays are both demanding and crowded, a situation made worse by recent Scottish Office demands to take on board issues such as target-setting and performance indicators. There is simply not the space to accommodate a massive expansion in the treatment of IT.

The second problem is that the proposals could damage the credibility of courses which are properly based on partnerships with schools. Whether the Government likes it or not, IT is still a peripheral activity. Courses for student teachers that do not resonate with the real situation in schools will lose credibility. Just as bad, students who are compelled to devote a large slice of their courses to a technology that offers only a marginal contribution to school placements may become disaffected.

The third problem concerns the nature of the competences themselves. The Scottish Office alludes to an apparently impressive consultation process. Yet on close reading it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the competences are out of touch with reality. That is illustrated by the reference to "routine maintenance". Teachers simply do not (and should not) have time to double-up as computer fault-finders.

The lesson of hard experience is that if the technology is not of top quality and supported by proper technical back-up then it will not be used. In fact, the entire report is afflicted by a deeply uncritical view of IT. The only sources recommended for study are Scottish Office and Government ones. Independent research sources are disregarded and the growing body of critical IT literature, from authors such as Dreyfus, Stoll, Landauer, Norman, Roszak, Postman and others, is totally ignored.

So, too, is the actual classroom experience of many teachers who have found to their cost that computers are over-complex and unreliable machines that too often produce frustration and humiliation. Even Steve Jobs, the man behind the latest "easy to use" Apple iMac, says of current computers:

"Awful, far too complicated and they don't do the things that you want them to."

What is most disappointing is that the Scottish Office appears to be disregarding even its own commissioned research. The recent study by Mary Simpson and her colleagues showed that a very high proportion of students had IT experience even before starting their courses. By the end a large majority were confident they would be able to integrate IT into the curriculum.

The survey also showed that local authorities regard new teachers generally as "comfortable" with IT. So the evidence hardly supports extreme measures of change. In fact, it seems likely that a major difficulty in terms of IT usage is the scarcity of resources in schools rather than the incompetence of students.

The education institutes should be trusted to continue to give proportionate attention to IT. At they same time, they must maintain their proper focus on the deep principles of teaching and learning that students need to plan effective practice. Deep principles, it should be noted, are applicable to all kinds of resources and media, including computers, television and video.

Might the latest proposals have a hidden purpose? Some would point to the Scottish Office's preoccupation with the inflated political rhetoric of the National Grid for Learning and the so-called "superhighways" initiative, which have still to deliver anything of real significance. Others would recognise the remarkable similarity with an earlier report by the Teacher Training Agency in England.

But these are mere speculations. What seems clear is that an explosion of competence statements will add not a single iota of resource or insight to teacher education. Neither will a bullish pro-technology stance help student teachers learn to distinguish what is educationally valuable from the hype that surrounds a technology driven heavily by politics, profit and vested interest.

Dr Tom Conlon is in the faculty of education, Edinburgh University, and Professor Peter Cope in the department of education, Stirling University.

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