When teacher turns into a mouse

By Brenda Despotin (THE TIMES, 08/05/06):

IN RAY BRADBURY’S apocalyptic tale Fahrenheit 451 firemen are employed to burn all books, driving underground those who cherish them. That such a stark warning of what happens in a bookless society should appear in the very medium made illicit in the tale is an irony not lost on his readers.

We return Bradbury’s book to the shelf alongside the Orwell, Huxley and Atwood, safe in the comforting knowledge that we are far too wise in the real world to allow anything of such magnitude to happen. Surely before any major change to our society becomes a reality there will always be referendums, debate in Parliament, media coverage and discussion everywhere? Besides, aren’t there experts even now considering the ethical dimensions of genetic engineering, of alternative fuels, of identity cards and of cloning? What is there to fear?

Some of us in education, however, share a growing discomfort with the relentless, unchallenged inclusion of information and communication technology (ICT) into our schools and thus into the lives of the young. But, rather like Bradbury’s book lovers, we are almost afraid to raise a word of opposition. There is a pervading belief that ICT will solve all classroom ills, will “personalise” learning and will lead to higher standards of literacy and numeracy in ways that no human being ever could. It is difficult to argue with such powerful aims.

Books are passé, we are told; schools were only ever convenient centres where students could access available materials. Now a bungalow in Australia can service the learning needs of 90,000 “Moogle” aficionados. We must think outside the traditions: teachers will soon morph into facilitators in a virtual classroom’s sound-bite superhighway.

Everywhere, at each national and international educational conference, at every Whitehall think-tank, are those gurus of technology, mostly young and male, all promising educational Nirvana with a religious zeal. They speak a special language not always understood by the older people in power whom they seek to persuade and whose coffers they target so persuasively.

Meanwhile, at the DfES innovation unit, the imminent shortage of head teachers has been neatly resolved. ICT to the rescue! It’s simple. Appoint a “Superhead” electronically linked to a group of affiliated schools. From CCTV screens in all corridors and classrooms this distant demigod can then address thousands of pupils at once. And the technology exists already for full interactive dialogue from that screen. Sounds familiar? It was the world of Winston Smith, of course.

Now here I should come clean. I’m no Luddite: I believe ICT is an exceptionally clever tool. My laptop and palmtop are an invaluable part of my working life, and I make sure that all my pupils leave with a first-rate understanding of what ICT can do.

But I question a future without schools, without teachers, without books. Where is there the serious debate on the desirability of so much technology in our schools? Who is asking where it will stop?

Does the eventual replacement of teachers by ever smaller, affordable machines not have as great a long-term repercussion on society as genetic engineering? Are our elected leaders failing to ask the most basic of questions, namely: just because it is possible, does it mean we should do it?

Where is the evidence, for example, that proves a machine will teach literature any better than my English department? Have we decided that it will no longer matter how children write and spell, since all examinations will be online soon, with the spell checks in place for the multiple-choice answers required? Who monitors these decisions? Were parents asked if they wanted their children to spend hours in front of a screen each day? It will be only a few years before the “virtual school” will be accessed from a child’s bedroom. Has any politician discussed the dangers of such a potentially isolating social development? It’s time they — and we — did.

The best lessons come from inspired individuals passionate about their subjects. ICT can enhance and support, but we fool ourselves if we believe it will ever replace the rigour and the magic of face-to-face interaction. I’ll bet all those advocating the onslaught of technology in schools were themselves inspired by an individual. Machines are one step removed from passion. Facts may be acquired swiftly online, and shallow learning is quick and easy to assess. Deep learning, or the power and serendipity of robust debate, and a wisdom that lasts for life all come much more slowly — and I have yet to access the computer programme where they lie.

I know I am not alone in my concerns. Others abhor the paucity of public debate about where ICT is taking education. We owe it to the next generations to at least consider the wisdom of such developments. It could well be an area where independent schools, able to select an alternative means for delivery of the curriculum, stand firm in the belief that machines assist but never replace teachers, that the actual social experience of going to school matters, not just the way a child has access to a curriculum while there.

Bradbury’s is a book to revisit, as we hurtle into this techno-future. His rebellious outcasts “become” books at the end, each committing to memory a favourite text and reciting it continuously. I’ve chosen mine already, just in case . . ..