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On the trail of the snail

Searching the web can take students in surprising directions, says Alan Pritchard

When children become hell-bent on finding out how long it would take a snail to make its way to school, and then desperately want to compare their findings with the time taken by a cheetah - and they will not stop until they have done so - something is going well.

If this comes out of an information collection task about favourite animals, and leads to much enthusiasm (numeracy, literacy, art and, almost, PE), something powerful must be at play.

It all began as an activity in which each child chose a favourite animal and then focused on something they wanted to find out about it. The importance of focus when children use the internet cannot be stressed enough. The plan was that to use a simple search engine to find the answer; the children would then present their findings, and the class as a group would make suggestions about where to take the research next.

Sammy wanted to know what the fastest animal was and he had an inkling it might be a leopard. He had been encouraged to "activate prior knowledge" (another important feature of work of this nature) by writing down three things he knew about leopards. He found more than one site which gave him the answer, and he also took note of the slowest animal. It transpired that his prior knowledge was not quite accurate, and the cheetah is the fastest, at 70mph. He was interested to see that the top speed for a human was either 27.89 or 23mph, according to which website was to be believed. This conflict did not cause a problem for Sammy.

At the reporting-back stage, the class was interested and full of ideas.

The best came with the shouted comment that "It would take a long time to get on your holidays". This led to more ordered thoughts, and two linked questions: how long would it take the fastest animal to get to school? How long would it take the slowest animal to get to school?

The project had moved on from being a fact-finding mission to a problem-solving investigation which was engaging, not only for the boy working on the solution, but for many others in the class, too.

Good work emerged from the simple beginnings. In particular, search skills were developed, writing and presenting were practised, and the number-crunching was a very good application of skills and processes which are often taught out of context. Other outcomes included haiku poems and cartoon-style artwork, and in PE the introductory activity of trying to move as slowly as a snail on its way to school proved both challenging and hilarious.

It is true that all the information needed to work through these lines of investigation is available from other sources. The internet displays it on screen at the click of a mouse. It allows for a change of tack without having to wait, or to do a fruitless search in the library, and gives the possibility of collecting appropriate pictures and diagrams to support the facts and figures.

It was possible not only to accurately measure the distance from home to school on a street map (try or www., but also to incorporate an annotated map and a cartoon snail (and a sloth for good measure) in a race with a cheetah. The spreadsheet used to work on the figures was also included. The end product was good, but the processes involved were even better.

Alan Pritchard is a lecturer in ICT at Warwick Institute of Education

* Learning on the Net: a Practical Guide to Enhancing Learning in Primary Classrooms by Alan Pritchard is published by David Fulton, pound;16

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