The triangle: Teacher, pupil, computer

Before digital the teacher-pupil relationship could not really be changed. Though the teacher could use peer tutoring, teamwork and presentational media, could establish group work and get pupils to lead discussions, the teacher was always the teacher and the pupils always the pupils. The underlying power relationship was that the teacher was in control of what happens, the teacher controlled what the pupils learnt.

Computers changed this. We used to talk about this as the teacher moving from 'sage on the stage' to 'guide on the side', but it's deeper than this. It involves pupils perceiving teachers differently. Interactions involving a computer can allow the teacher to step into a different role where they are not directly controlling the interactions or what is learnt. If the main teaching-learning interaction is between pupils and computer, then for that period of time the teacher can take another role.

Question and answer.
Cramlington school (2006) had a learning platform in which they could build all sorts of useful sections and systems. One of the most interesting little tools was a ‘random name generator’. It took the names of the pupils in the class from the school’s management information system and when started at random selected and displayed one of the pupils’ names.

My immediate thought was “what on earth for”, but on enquiry it was explained that this is a vital part 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 asked to answer (It works every time! I know from the lessons I had with the maths teacher who terrified me). 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 a 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 interpersonal interactions when it is the random name generator that picks who answers a question:
- for a start it makes it into a game.
- 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. It's not the teacher forcing you to answer, it's because it is part of learning to talk about how you understand something.
- 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 misunderstandings that need to be brought into the discussion.
- there is also a good feeling of equality, everyone’s view matters. And this is as much a test of how well the teacher has taught the point as it is of how good pupils' understanding is.

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. The wise teacher will already have explained to pupils that this process is not about producing the answer the teacher wants, it is about talking about what you understand and what you don't understand, so as to help others in the class.

Computer as agent provocateur.
In 1983 Steve Davis, a history teacher in Hull designed a program for the BBC computer, ‘Survival’. It was very innovative in how it was intended to be used.
It simulated a spaceship in trouble and about to crash and presented a group of around 6 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 the pupils know that crashing was inevitable and the games had been designed to cause argument. There was only one manual on the games, which came up randomly, and the group of four or six pupils had only one minute to read it before the game 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 for having crashed the ship. Arguments in the groups rapidly developed 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 did Steve design this program? 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 different societal structures being established. Steve could stop the games, and move back from observer and become teacher again - and the discussions were excellent.

Computer as teacher.
As a less extreme example, a class teacher at St Peter's Bratton Primary School used a youtube video to teach the pupils how to draw face portraits. The teacher was not trained in art. The presenter of the youtube video was a practicing artist.

The class and teacher watched it through together first, and had a brief discussion about the most important points to note. The pupils then had a go at drawing a human face.

As the pupils all had their own netbooks, they were able to watch the video through again, pausing it as they did each stage of the portrait. They could re-wind or move on to find the bit of advice they needed.

Homework was to complete their portrait. They could of course watch the video again at home. Some of the pupils produced not just the one portrait but several attempts at portraits, improving as they practised.

This is not only the computer acting as teacher, it carries powerful messages about the teacher being a teacher not an expert in all things, about how pupils can learn independently, and about the features of video that make it a superb learning tool.

There are many teachers in schools that have normalised digital 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.