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Culture and technology
12 July 2013

Heresy of the week: Education reform should be about new teaching methods not traditional ones

Many people, allies and enemies alike, think that the main purpose of Michael Gove’s education reforms is to bring back traditional teaching methods. Mr Gove himself gives that impression, giving schools greater freedoms, but at the same time using his authority to insist upon the kind of rigorous standards that traditionalists would surely applaud. 

All good stuff. However, the real promise of the first half of his agenda is to give academies and free schools the opportunity to experiment with new teaching methods. 

Educational innovation has a checkered history to say the  least. Take, for instance, the theory of child-centred learning – which, in the 1960s and 70s was used to subvert the very idea of authority in the classroom. Yet, there is a sense in which all learning is centred on the student – in that the basic unit for the spread of knowledge is the individual.

In this respect, traditional methods of ‘chalk-and-talk’ are unsatisfactory, as the capacity for adapting the teaching process to individual needs is limited. Even when classes as selected by ability, the one-speed-fits-all approach lets down the outliers, making it hard for the less able to catch-up and for gifted pupils to power ahead. 

Help is at hand. According to the Economist, educational software is finally achieving its potential:

  • “...this sort of teaching, blending software with human intervention, helps… pupils learn faster. It also allows teachers… to spend more time teaching and less time marking written work and leading pupils through dull drills of words and numbers. On top of that the school gains an accurate, continuous record of each child’s performance through the data its various programs collect and analyse.”

Traditionalists will no doubt be appalled. They shouldn’t be. This isn’t about replacing teachers or just letting children muck about on computers, rather it's about using the interactive power of software to impart knowledge systematically – and to verify the progress of students systematically too.

One could even argue that such methods represent a return to an earlier method of teaching: 

  • “Teaching programs that monitor children’s progress can change that, performing a role more like that of the private tutors and governesses employed long ago in wealthier households. Data derived from each child’s responses can be used to tailor what he sees or hears next on the computer screen. The same data also allow continual assessment of his abilities and shortcomings, letting schools, teachers and parents understand both the pupil himself and the way human beings learn.”

Private tutors are expensive. Computerised tutorials have the potential to greatly expand access to one-to-one learning. They can also draw upon the best educational resources that the internet has to offer, where we've seen a breakthrough in affordability: 

  • “...putting an hour of video online cost $400 in the late 1990s. Today it costs around two cents.”

None of this dispenses with the need for talented, dedicated, inspirational teachers. Which is why the capacity of the new technology to make better use of their time is so important:

  • “The promise in all this for teachers is less drudgery, since some of their duller tasks can be automated, and interesting new challenges as they work out how to reorganise their classes. If the technology can be used as an extra pair of hands in the classroom, teachers will find it possible to do more.” 

So what’s stopping us from getting on with it? Nothing except the willingness of schools to work out how best to use the new technology (in a field where the best solutions are far from tried and tested). 

Fortunately for Britain, we are moving towards an educational system where schools have the freedom to innovate and invest. Vision and rigour should be encouraged in equal measure. 


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