What computers can't do in classrooms

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By Mary Lee

When I was training teenagers to debate in 2004–8, computers made the task of researching the motion a lot easier and faster (“Google it!” I said). But while the debaters could come up with stacks of research, there was still a problem: Most didn’t understand the material they printed out, let alone incorporate the points into arguments for or against the motion.

The problem: the teenagers (and debaters were clearly not the “average” secondary student but were fluent in English and could string sentences together) didn’t know how to think through points. I had to keep insisting that the question “Why” be asked for every point they were making, in order that they be able to defend it.

It got easier by the time they were in junior college. After a few months of grappling with General Paper topics, the thought process had started to function. And teams from the better JCs often emerged champions of these tournaments and went on to represent the nation at the annual World Schools Debating Championships. But that’s the elite.

The thinking process that these debaters from Singapore’s top schools and junior colleges go through will enable them to make the most of whatever facilities their educational institutions are endowed with. They will go on to university and secure well-paid careers.

What about the rest? When Goh Chok Tong was Prime Minister, he coined the nifty phrase “Thinking schools, learning nation”. I think MOE never quite implemented policies towards this. All secondary and some primary schools now have computers but these learning aids do not teach our children to think, which is the first step towards becoming creative.

Said Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs: “We put the technology into a system that damages creative thinking — the kids give up, and at a very early age.” What is it about the “system” that damages creative thinking? Wozniak said in a mis-asia.com blog entitled: “To innovate, get personal”.   The education system forgets that “if you love something, you go really far into it on your own,” and Wozniak believes that’s how schools need to think about education. “We need one good teacher per student” to allow each student to follow their own course, at their own pace, through the learning needed — under a teacher’s guidance.

Of course, there are nowhere near enough teachers, nor budget to pay for them. But maybe one day — 20 years or more from now — computers can be those one-on-one teachers, or at least teacher’s assistants, Wozniak says. That’s that notion of “companion computing” applied to education. “Computers can’t do it yet,” but some of the pieces are in place today, he said.

The Independent Singapore ran a piece, “A peek inside tuition centres” on Feb 5, which had each pupil using a tablet which the teacher was able to correct in class and return to the child. If schools had teaching assistants in class correcting the exercise on tablets, two or three teachers could be going around the class to explain points to the students in terms they could understand. That way, youth will be encouraged to use the computer as a lesson tool and not just as a games platform or social media.

Computers have made second language learning — or even English lessons —less tedious because they allow an interactive person-to-computer approach. As Wozniak says, the creative possibilities with computers is endless.

But first, we have to start the thinking process, not just among top students but among teachers who have to use computers to design their lessons — and make them engaging on a one-to-one basis. Thinking schools, learning nation may no longer be MOE’s model for schools, but that doesn’t make this objective irrelevant.