‘Guide on the side’ - the changing roles of teachers in ICT-rich learning environments

Cramlington school have a learning platform in which they can build all sorts of useful sections and systems. One of the most interesting is a ‘random name generator’. It takes the names of the pupils in the class from the school’s management information system and at random selects and displays one of the pupils’ names.

My immediate thought was “what on earth for”, but on enquiry it was explained that this is a vital bit of the school’s question and answer policy. Remember how question and answer worked for you, as a teacher or pupil. Teacher asks a question, keen pupils stick their hands up to volunteer an answer, pupils scared of answering should the teacher pick on them move slightly so as to hide from the teacher’s view behind another pupil, or if extremely scared of talking in class prepare to instantly grab their handkerchief and blow their nose if picked (works every time!). Pupils who are disengaged from the lesson remain disengaged and only start thinking (poorly) if actually picked on. Whereupon the frightened feel relieved and those who have sensible contribution to make resign themselves to listening to some very poorly thought out answer.

For the teacher the job is to politely resist always going to those pupils with most to contribute and to encourage the disengaged and frightened to speak up. But it is the teacher who picks who answers, leaving some pupils feeling picked-on and others reinforced in their view that they are the ones with the views to be taken account of.

Now think about the inter-personal interactions when it is the random name generator that picks who answers a question:

- there is no getting out of it, you might have to answer no matter how you hide, so better start to think what you might say.

- there is no question of the teacher picking on you, to show you up or to force you to think, so this kind of ‘edge’ to the process is not there.

- even if several random names are generated, there is no guarantee for the teacher that one of the brighter pupils will be asked to answer, so the job becomes one of drawing out from those who do answer the key points that need to be brought into the discussion.

- there is also a good feeling of equalty, everyone’s view matters.

The computer has here done something almost magical. It has completely changed the classroom dynamics and enabled the teacher to relate differently to the pupils.

But this kind of impact does not stop there. In the early 1980s there was a neat little piece of software for the BBC B computer. I’ve remembered the impact better than precisely how it operated; my memory says it was based around biological keys and identification of specimens. The key point is that it could be used several ways. You could use it to present information for the pupils to learn from and to use in identifying things, in other words to be a teacher that the pupils learnt from. But you could also use it with the pupils deciding how specimens would be differentiated and categorised. In this case the computer was acting as the learner and the pupil was the teacher. And what they taught the computer could then be used to teach other pupils to look at differentiating specimens in the way it had been taught to.

With the pupil able to be learner or teacher, and able to work with other pupils as co-learner or guide, the teacher could also adopt whatever role they thought most profitable to promote learning.

There was some keen interest in this kind of impact of computers back when they were fresh and young. Steve Davis, a history teacher in Hull created a great program, ‘Survival’, that simulated a spaceship in trouble and about to crash and presented a group of pupils with tasks to do to save it. It had to be introduced as nothing to do with history and with no other agenda than that the teacher needed the pupils occupied while he attended to something else and here was a treat to do this.

Little did they know that crashing was inevitable and the games had been designed to cause argument. There was only one manual on the games and the group of four or six pupils had only one minute to read it before the games started. Some of the games required all the group to take part, others could only be done if one pupil grabbed control and pushed the others aside. Controls on the games were deliberately designed to be awkward to use leaving those in control to be criticised by their friends. Arguments in the groups rapidly ensued as the spaceships spiralled down.

Having kept his head down as the groups got going, Steve would then observe the discussions and arguments, and on one occasion tears and nearly a fight - this program really got the groups wound up.

Why? Because after half an hour of game playing, Steve had the raw material and the pupils had the personal experience for a history lesson - about democracy, dictatorship, oligarchy, leadership and other forms of social organisation. They could appreciate the pressures that could lead to the different structures being established and the discussions were excellent.

There are teachers in schools all over the UK getting excellent learning from their pupils because they are using computers to change the inter-personal relations and dynamics of learning. They know it works, but how do we measure the impact? One thing is certain, there is no tool other than a computer that can do these things.