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Time for Turing Teaching: an end to ineffective and abusive method in literacy

May 31, 2012 3:57 PM
By Mike Doyle

It is thirty years since primary schools received their first computers and the current nostalgia about the BBC Micro is understandable. However, from the perspective of any benefit to children in this phase of education, little has changed. The notable area where there has been no change is in the core of literacy and numeracy. The traditionalist establishment has not only resisted the use of computers in this fundamental area but has imposed a series of teaching methods of its own liking. Not forewarned by the i.t.a. debacle, government ministers imposed the literacy hour and Big Books; later to be supplanted by jolly synthetic phonics. At no stage was the intellectual work necessary to reflect on the root cause of reading failure commissioned by ministers or offered by their academic advisors. The old furrow continued blindly to be ploughed ever deeper.

This piece is in the nature of a "j'accuse," with the claim that current method in literacy and numeracy is abusive of children's developing minds, and that, as with all abuse, the abusers return as adults to continue the cycle. These are hard words, but justifiable.

First it is necessary to lift the scales of tradition from our eyes and take a long hard look at the book, Big or otherwise. Consider the following: Тхе бук оферс но хелп то леарнерс, уъдз стер думли ат тхем фром тхе пайж. It's simple enough to read once you understand that the Cyrillic alphabet has been used instead of Roman but it gives the flavour of what a child is faced with: a medium that offers no help whatsoever in learning to master it. Books, in a very important sense, are dumb. Children only learn to read because a massive infrastructure has been constructed to work around this fundamental deficit. From dad reading at bedtime, to cloth books, to picture books, to graded readers, and of course synthetic phonics which vainly attempts to bridge the chasm between how we speak and how we right (the mistake is intentional), complex teaching methods and materiel is unconsciously provided. At every stage of the process children have few opportunities to learn on their own: a teacher or caregiver, or in the C19 a monitor, must be on hand to explain and correct. Even when children do begin to write the medium can give no assistance; feedback must await the teacher's red marks in the exercise book. For this who struggle, the opt-out of drawing an accompanying picture provides a modicum of relief.

Now consider the computer. No! Think about a Turing machine. Alan Turing's flash of genius was to model his own work methods mechanically. As a mathematician, but the same applies to any writer, he reads what is in front of him. Having read, he will do one of three things: move on to the next sentence, write something, or rub something out. Which action he chooses depends on his state of mind after reading. This is precisely what the classroom computer does intrinsically: it reads, writes, and, with a little instruction, does arithmetic. This means that it is capable of offering assistance to the beginning learner in literacy and numeracy. The contrast between what is best called a Turing medium and the Book is that before the latter can give up its contents an onerous "grammar school" apprenticeship is required in which the medium offers no assistance. A Turing medium, with the same objective in mind, can offer the learner assistance every step of the way.

It is self evident that the current method based on the Book is excessively time and resource demanding. It is signally unsuccessful, with a significant number of adults having a fear of writing and dyslexia reaching epidemic proportions; the billions in tax receipts invested notwithstanding. The same is true of simple arithmetic. It is time for the Book to exit the literacy classroom to return, as a delight, to the joyfully competent reader in later years. Not to offer beginning readers an assistive medium is tantamount to child abuse.

Having thrown the true problem of literacy and numeracy into stark relief, it is incumbent to offer a way forward. It is clear that the traditionalists who are currently in the ascendant can have no role to play: it would be like asking horse experts to develop railways. The only experts at hand are those expert primary school teachers who both understand the developing child mind and the possibilities and capabilities of the Turing medium. They are few in number. Moreover, the simple but necessary first step of ensuring that children are taught mastery of the new medium has gone by default: unlikeBulgaria, there is no curriculum with expectations of attainment.

The way forward, regrettably, is not a matter for teaching professionals, whose leaders, like ministers, are more interested in rearranging the administrative deckchairs than the healthy mental development of children. The matter is a political issue, with a capital P. So, here is the nub: Are the Liberal Democrats willing to take up the challenge? Will they have the courage to assert the self-evident and insist on a decent interment for Grammar Schooling and embrace the transition to Turing Teaching? There would be hell to pay from the Traditionalist Establishment were a frontal assault to be launched; but a pilot skirmish in some quiet location (perhaps with EU colleagues who are in the same situation) would be an easier option. However, thirty years on from the computer coming to school and in Turing's centenary year, the bold frontal assault would be the more courageous. This writer is up for it. Are the LDEA and the Party it adheres to ready to take the side of the learner against the forces of traditionalism? It certainly would set us apart from all other parties, particularly the Tories and Labour who are traditionalist to the core.

Here is the political question: forward or stay?