Don’t get me wrong.  I love my job, I teach Maths and used to teach English too!  But I am tempted sometimes to compare that dumb machine, the computer, with us teachers and wonder if we could learn a thing or two!  In fact, testing this theory on parents, Dr Benjamin Spock notwithstanding, one finds a lot of truth in the opinion that children learn more readily from computers than elders in general.  Why should this be?  After all, the computer was reluctantly placed in the hands of kids by us grey-heads, right?  Wrong!  It was the kids who took it over.  Like tennis.  Every year Wimbledon winners get younger and younger, and every minute toddlers are making things happen on computers.  I hope I am not the first to suggest that we adults, teachers and parents alike, join hands and probe the depths of the things that motivate our kids.  Perhaps we could find a gem or two that could be used instead of or along with our time tested formulae for making our children learn.

In training colleges, unfortunately limited to wannabe teachers and not parents, they teach you that there are five Great Motivators.  That is, things which people do in the classroom which is designed to improve the learning ability of the student.  Or at least to increase the quantum of things learnt.  Let’s look at them one by one.  They can be summed up in five phrases: FEELING TONE, LEVEL OF ANXIETY, INTEREST, SUCCESS, KNOWLEDGE OF RESULTS.

Feel Good, Learn More

A warm smile, regardless of the catastrophic breakfast you had, is a sure-fire way to make a child want to learn.  If a child feels comfortable with the teacher it can cause learning to take place. Thus spake the erudite scholars on education.  It is indeed a fact that a pleasant teacher can greatly aid learning in the most difficult classroom.  Most computer programs literally beckon the kid to use them.  With little green men, lots of music and moving pictures the machine has proven its ability to make a child feel comfortable.  A good feeling tone in the classroom goes a long way towards promoting learning.  A strict teacher, easily changeable, inconsistent in dispensing discipline or just one who looks grumpy can block learning.  Not many programs I have come across have even the slightest hint of foreboding or repulsion, in fact they fall over each other trying to please.  With such good feeling tone learning takes place naturally.

Too High, Too Low

Anxiety is a syndrome we could all do well without.  However, every good educator knows that a certain level of anxiety is essential to improve the learning process.  If the level is too high it blocks learning and causes stress, if the level is too low it holds no challenge for the child.  Either way the child tends to learn little if the Anxiety is handled wrong.  A teacher who uses techniques like graded questions and announcements of class tests is more likely to get better response from the students.  Somehow writers of educational software seem to have seized this idea by the forelock.  There are always levels (of anxiety?) that the teacher or student can program for herself, from Beginner (which everyone thinks he is) through Intermediate to Expert (which most of us aspire to).  Even the nasty games have “Can I Play Daddy?” as a starter.  The troublemakers in your classroom are composed roughly of those who find the subject too tough and those who find it too easy.  A little sweat or nail biting is essential for good learning to occur.  Computer programs do this wonderfully well.

Interest Earned, Knowledge Gained

Full many a teacher has fallen by the wayside in trying to teach her pupils the subtle beauty of the rose while rambling through the park.  Her class of noisy eight-year-olds, all boys, have found, crudely dissected and interred a couple of wormlike creatures on paths never meant to be trodden.  Teachers have been, from time immemorial, exhorted to create `Interest’ among the students.  Which is why  younger teachers tend to be more popular in places where the older teachers have stopped learning. At the rate computer programmes are produced today it is highly unlikely that they would lose their power of sustaining interest.  On the negative side one would argue that these programs, along with the TV and other such “distractions” are actually shaping the interests of the kids.  Well, why not? If the program developers can stick to basic ethics, there is no reason why they should not use interesting methods to teach.  From personal experience I have found mathophobic kids enjoy the subject after some sessions with a lively program.  Take a hint, teachers and parents too could learn a trick or two.

Success breeds success

The phrase sounds a little trite but was never more true.  And, failure breeds failure.  So many children in our classrooms (and homes) are compared and contrasted with what the world sees as “doing well” and found to be wanting.  Teachers are trained to make classwork easy enough so that kids get it done right in the beginning.  They then want to get it right again.  Though, in reality, there are more cases of  mistakes being focussed upon, it really boosts a child when you catch him doing something right!  Computer programs, with their scoreboards and fanfare-type sound effects, are always rewarding the kids in public.  And, again, unlike adults, they never pass judgement.  One may see an occasional comment telling the user to “Try harder next time” but it is rare to have a program label the user as an “idiot” or make comments like “You will never succeed”.  And these comments would never be accompanied by the kind of body language that adults use.  Because machines are so impersonal kids would rather score their first tentative successes, or bumbling attempts, with the computer.  In fact, as long as they are showing off their skills they are learning too!

Instant Results, Instant Learning

By the time I hand in my result sheets of the test held two weeks ago and the students get their papers to brood over it is far too late for much learning to take place.  If the kids are going to learn from the work given then results must be given quickly and clearly.  Most kids will look at their corrected papers merely to check totals or see if there is some way they can increase their scores by sweet-talking the teacher.  Those dumb machines have a smart trick for us to learn.  They give instant results.  Often a program can “stick” in one place till the correct answer is typed in.  Most teachers have neither time nor the inclination to make sure each and every student gets the answers right.  Even those long, boring sessions of drill-and-practice, most common in Math, can be far more productive if the students get knowledge of their results immediately after doing the work.  In the present  mould such practice sessions can be counter-productive if the kids get the whole exercise wrong only to discover it when the books come back some sunny day next week.

In Conclusion

So let us recognize the fact that there are five great motivators that really help to increase the learning level of the kids, and that they are used to various degrees in our homes and classrooms.  Let us also admit that computers and other devices use these motivators to advantage.  We can use them directly by influencing the computer coordinators to go, get the software.  And we can use them indirectly by putting into practice some of the tips and tricks we see on such programs, right there in our homes and classrooms.

August 1999