As our children left school for the long summer holidays, I’m sure the first thought on the minds of some was that an endless period of uninterrupted game-playing stretched ahead of them.
We know only too well how much time children already spend hooked up to machines – and if they are left to their own devices, how problematic that can be.
So to read on the Tes website that Mohit Midha, CEO and co-founder of Mangahigh, which develops maths games, has suggested that we should give up on traditional forms of teaching and just hand the children over to the machines, did not fill me with joy (bit.ly/MathMachines).
I’m not one who opposes all technology in school – far from it. I’m not even against Mangahigh. Although Midha has yet to persuade me to part with any cash for his products, I have encouraged teachers to make use of the free games available on his website. After all, there are some elements of maths that benefit from repetitive practice. If playing 20 minutes of maths games every now and then helps children to become more secure in their knowledge of number bonds and tables facts, then I’m all in favour.
But let’s not pretend that’s all there is to maths. And it’s certainly not all there is to the whole curriculum. Midha thinks that we can do away with the traditional “instruction phase” of schooling – or “teaching”, as I like to call it. That’s a tempting thought when your main focus is playing computer games. It’s rather like saying we can all throw away the instruction manuals to our washing machines.
Yes, it’s true that when we play with a new gadget or game, we can often work out the basics of how to use it, but schooling requires a little more than that.
It’s not enough to develop a new generation of game players – we’ve got that already. And playing a few maths games certainly won’t be adequate when it comes to producing the next generation of games designers.
Midha also seems to wildly underestimate children. It’s his claim that children no longer have the attention span for being taught, and instead can cope with listening for only a few minutes before they must launch themselves into some sort of unguided exploration of … games, presumably. That might work for trying to find which buttons to press on a simplistic maths game, but I hope we’re preparing our pupils for something slightly more challenging in the future.
I don’t know much about gaming, but I can tell you with certainty that I have yet to come across a class who can’t listen and learn for a decent period of time.
Indeed, there have been times when children have done little else for well over an hour in my classes. When teachers have the whole world to draw upon, there are lessons to be had that are far more engaging than piling up junk food or racing motor cars.
Of course, Midha makes a good point when he explains that there is no instructional phase for playing his computer games. It might surprise him to know that the same is true of reading a book. It’s quite possible that, 500 years ago, people thought we could do away with instructional teaching, since children could just learn everything they needed from a book. That, it turns out, was an equally foolish suggestion.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps Midha is right and his computer games will change the world. Although, he’ll probably need us teachers to get the kids logged on first.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets as @MichaelT1979