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Schools getting zero direction on how to teach kids through technology

Over the past 20 years, teachers have struggled to successfully incorporate computers and tablets into the classroom in Ireland, writes Fergal McCarthy.

STEVE JOBS, APPLE’S erstwhile CEO was a ‘low-tech parent’ who strictly curtailed his kids’ screen time to minuscule chunks at weekends.

It seems other Silicon Valley parents are following suit, but under ten-year-olds are even more susceptible to screen addiction than the rest of us.

As a primary school teacher, I find this fascinating. Even the world’s most technologically agile minds understand the limitations of the products they have spawned.

Over the past 20 years, teachers have struggled to successfully incorporate computers and tablets into the classroom in Ireland. With almost zero direction from the Department of Education teachers have trialled an ever expanding array of educational programmes and apps with mixed results.

Learning online 

My son’s school has recently incorporated a maths website called MangaHigh into their students’ homework. He begs us every night to log on and play games and take tests involving fractions, decimals, negative numbers and capacity.

He is six years old. I can’t imagine my six-year-old self having any understanding of the concept of -7 or the difference between 1/4 of a jug and a full jug.

The games are fun, but mostly he’s motivated by the opportunity to win virtual medals and rate his score by comparison with the rest of the class. In one 30 minute session, he could take tests in ten different areas of the maths curriculum.

Even though some of the concepts are a bit beyond him I’m somewhat astonished by how quickly he absorbs them, it’s made me realise that we greatly underestimate children’s ability to thrive at maths even when they are aged six.

shutterstock_114239398 Shutterstock / Khakimullin Aleksandr Shutterstock / Khakimullin Aleksandr / Khakimullin Aleksandr

Learning maths is a bit like going to the gym, you can’t just work on one muscle group, you need a more comprehensive workout. By jumping from addition to basic multiplication to weight and length in a fun, fast paced, competitive arena, children really get a chance to expand their maths skills exponentially.

The programme is no substitute for a teacher, it works incredibly well when supervised by an adult that can coach and prompt.

Department won’t take the lead

The Department of Education is responsible for the maths curriculum, but bizarrely they don’t sanction or recommend any text books, programmes or websites to improve the teaching of maths. I realise they can’t endorse commercial interests, but instead maybe they should develop their own high functioning, maths website that can be used in all schools.

Teachers and principals feel huge pressure to increasingly incorporate computers and tablets into their curriculum and many schools have invested deeply in a small mountain of iPads to appear current and blindly follow expectations.

Very little is said about how best to use these devices in a school context. Without departmental direction schools make easy prey for highly developed educational websites that can charge four figure yearly fees to access their content.

Cash strapped schools possibly should think twice about this expense, especially when the long term merits of individual websites are untested.

What should we spend money on 

Like Steve Jobs, I think that schools need to feel less pressure to kowtow to the march of ICT in the classroom and instead focus on the best use of this technology in a relatively limited capacity.

There are many other exemplary websites, but it’s such a shame that schools have to search for them independently without guidance or direction.

ICT is perhaps the greatest leap forward in education since the invention of the pencil, the department needs a research unit to develop a streamlined programme that maximises its potential.

Many children go home to Angry Birds, Minecraft, Instagram and a small arsenal of differing screens, it’s perhaps healthier that the majority of their school time is spent interacting with real people.

Fergal McCarthy is an artist and a primary school teacher and currently works in special education.

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