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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 12:18 GMT
Can technology help schools?
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

Teacher Simon Mills with class
Simon Mills encourages children to discuss ideas

How do you turn a spider into a man?

Either divide it by a cat or take away an ant, of course.

A modern maths lesson might make little sense to those of us brought up on multiplication tables and calculus, but interactive computer programmes are changing the subject beyond recognition.

Around 50 teachers in Bristol and south Gloucestershire are taking part in a project to customise existing classroom software, making it more useful.

The government has promised 900m for information and communication technology in schools by 2006, but are ministers throwing money at computer suites and interactive whiteboards without thinking about the effects?


Professor Andrew Pollard, of the Economic and Social Research Council , said: "This project has a lot to say to the present government who, to a certain extent, believe in magic."

Simon Mills is one of the teachers involved in the Interactive Learning experiment, run by Bristol University.

He has adapted Microsoft's Excel package into a maths learning game for primary school children.

Working two to a laptop, they are told that animals equate to numbers. A man is worth two, a cat four, an ant six, a spider eight and a crab 10.

The children then have to find a way of making up a sum to equal every number on a grid from one to 100. For instance, 12 = man x ant.

Rosamund Sutherland
Children are pretty experimental. Often it is the teacher who is more cautious. We have to change that
Prof Rosamund Sutherland

Mr Mills said: "It seems to work. The children respond to the idea of the animals. What we are trying to encourage is more confidence in their ability and teamwork.

"These are not middle-class kids from a wealthy area. This way of working allows them to develop and ask more questions."

The class of nine and 10 year olds, from Teyfant Community School, Bristol, was encouraged to work in pairs.

Pupils approached the task in different ways. Some went through the numbers in sequence from one to 100. Others jumped around or worked out the multiples of 10 first as they found them easier.

They were told: "Work together and discuss things. It isn't cheating." It was far from the traditional classroom set-up.

The government's interest in computers has often been seen as a means of educating children cheaply, the theory being: plonk them in front of a screen and leave them to it.

During the 45-minute lesson, however, Mr Mills had to work hard, moving around to deal with multiple questions.

'Talking more'

He said: "What the children are doing is algebra on a very basic level. They have to use the animal values to make up numbers.

"Far from just watching a screen, they are talking more. They develop their communication and teamwork skills.

"The children also get instant feedback from the computer. This would be impossible if I had to mark loads of exercise books."

The approach appears to be working. Pupils at Teyfant were voluntarily entered early for government tests last year. All reached at least the level expected of 11 year olds.

Computers, it seems, can help the teacher when used properly; in other words, when the teacher is involved in working out how best to use them.

Dan Sutch
Dan Sutch is teaching children the ancient origins of words

The Interactive Learning project has spent three years, and almost 1m, looking at this.

Professor Rosamund Sutherland, of Bristol University's graduate school of education, said: "Rather than try to develop new, hi-tech solutions, we've focused on what's already available.

"Most schools have this sort of technology already, but lots of teachers aren't integrating it into classroom practice. We want them to do things that are creative and help with learning.

"Children are fairly relaxed using computers, as many have them out of school. They are also pretty experimental. Often it is the teacher who is more cautious. We have to change that.

"Good teaching is still the most important aspect of anything we do."

A thousand primary and secondary pupils have taken part in the project.

Latin and Greek

Teachers have used the technology to tackle surprisingly traditional areas of learning, some of which had been largely abandoned by state schools.

Dan Sutch, who teaches at St Michael's Primary School in Stoke Gifford, Gloucestershire, has been using the Word Root programme to instil better spelling, a national curriculum requirement.

To do this, he provides a historical understanding of the English language, using basic Latin and Greek.

On an interactive whiteboard, modern words are broken down to their ancient roots. So kaleidoscope, for example, becomes three Greek words - kal (beautiful), eido (shape) and scope (view).

Children using computer
Children work two to a laptop

Pupils learn the origins of English and, with that, some of its logic.

Mr Sutch said: "Spelling is difficult to teach well. It's something teachers spend a lot of time on. Some children find it hard and some don't.

"The traditional way was to stick 10 words on a blackboard and get the kids to spell them. There was very little about learning how to spell.

"So we developed the spelling of two or three core words at a time. If you get the idea, you start to build up a picture.

"The kids might look at the word autobiography - meaning a picture written about one's own life - and break it down into parts. The word graph then turns up in other words involving pictures.

"They then see the word in other contexts, having had it explained, which makes future spelling easier."

He added: "The usual focus on spelling at the moment is on phonics - the sounds of words. That doesn't help with the understanding of hard words.

'Wow factor'

"The computer allows the kids to take part in putting the words together on the whiteboard. They can move stuff around using just their fingers on the screen. They also create pictures to make it more fun.

"At first it is the 'wow factor' of the technology that draws them in. But after that is over, it is the love of words that keeps them interested."

Mr Sutch's class of 33 pupils has compiled its own dictionary. Word Root has also been popular with children who previously preferred maths to English, as it works along more logical lines than phonics.

Mr Sutch said: "The kids love it. All of a sudden, subjects which were difficult or dull have become exciting."

So, according to the research, technology can be useful in the classroom, but only with innovative teaching to accompany it.

Perhaps the last word should go to one of those ultimately affected - the pupils.

Chelsea, 10, from Teyfant Community School, said: "I like using computers in class. It helps me in maths and it's good to work together with the other children. But I wouldn't want to use a computer in every lesson."

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