Building Britain’s Brain Power Conference, Royal Institution, London, 11th February 2002

To be the seventh speaker out of thirteen would suggest that I would make this middle session the tasty innards of the sandwich! The bit I hope you will all remember!

Several stories to give substance to my quizzical title: IT. Is this it?

In 1927 Mercedes Benz built 1400 cars. The Directors were delighted and full of confidence in their magnificent machines. They called for a consultant’s report on what the growth potential of the company would be over the next 50 years. Eventually back came their report. By 1977, so great would have been the technological advances that the company should expect to build 40,000 cars a year. The directors were dismayed and sacked the consultants. They were obviously useless – they had left out a key consideration. It would be totally impossible to expect the schools to be able to train 40,000 chauffeurs a year!

You may well laugh. But do we really appreciate just how dynamic is – or should be – the changes triggered by technological change?

Let me give you another story. I started teaching geography at Manchester Grammar School in 1965. Those were the days when it was Howard Davies’ turn to call me “Sir”! Plate tectonics were the big idea of the time, and it fascinated me. I was the great enthusiastic, charismatic teacher. For six weeks I covered the blackboard with endless 3-dimensional diagrams of isosattic readjustment, of ??? and anti???, of faults and reversed faults, and all kind of magmatic intrusions. Three different sets of A level students struggled to keep up with me as they filled several notebooks with my words of wisdom. Another colleague had two more classes.

Just before Christmas that year the BBC produced a two-hour documentary programme called “The Restless Earth”. It was brilliant; in two hours it did everything I had done in six weeks, each week being of four lessons – only infinitely better.

With great enthusiasm the following morning I burst in to see my head of department. “Could we contact the BBC and buy a copy?” I asked. “No way,” came the reply. “It would be far too expensive!”

I was not to be put off. “But if we had a copy,” I reasoned, ” in future we could put all five classes together and one of us could take separate sections of the video each lesson, and in between times the pupils could watch again the parts they found especially interesting.”

My colleague’s face clouded. “My word,” he said. ” You really are an angry young man, aren’t you? Don’t you realise the system would never cope?”

That was 37 years ago. Geography teachers are still allocating the same amount of time – roughly 6 weeks at 4 periods a week – to teach plate tectonics, and it is the exceptional school that has a fully stocked library of videos, and an adequate number of video and DVD players, to have confidence that youngsters can search for what really interests them in their own time. You should not be surprised. You see, schools are still largely resourced as they were in 1900 or 1950 when chalk and talk was the technology. On average schools spend up to 85% of their income on teachers’ salaries, and less than 5% on learning resources including videos, computers etc.

I’m interested in the technology because of my abiding interest in just how it is children learn to manage their own learning. Unless you know the answer to that you can waste an enormous amount of time and money with the technology.

Let me explain. About 10 or 11 years ago our middle son, David, at the time about 10 years old, came out of the study one evening very excited. “Daddy,” he said, “I’ve just been exploring En Carta. There are 3 video clips here all about mountain building. All the stuff you tell us about every time we go on a walk!”

So, of course, I went, and yes, David was right. The three 90 second video clips contained almost all the material that had been on the BBC video 20 years earlier. I was intrigued, and obviously mesmerized. “Well, Dad, if you’re that interested shall I stop the programme every ten seconds and then I could give you 27 printouts….Is that what you need?”

Let me turn the question back to you, the audience. Just how do you think young people develop deep learning skills? Eventually I asked Marion Diamond, that eminent professor of neurobiology at the Lawrence Hall of Science, and a woman much interested in human learning. She thought carefully for a moment and then smiled. “Well,” she said, “Even with postdoctoral students I do encourage them to do a little freehand drawing – to have a tactile as well as intellectual appreciation of complicated issues really is essential for a scientist. But we don’t waste 6 weeks on this!”

IU must explain that I am not a techno freak. In fact I get bored with a computer screen about as quickly as I can with much English television! But I’m fascinated by a range of ideas, and have been frustrated all my life by the slowness with which I can write by hand, and dealing with my awful spelling. At school and university if I got 70% or more on an essay I never even bothered to read the teachers’ comments about how I could have done better because I had absolutely no intention of ever redrafting that essay. It would have been just too tedious. So I never really improved…..and I was still getting just on 70% by the end of the course.

Then, around 1977 or ’78, my secretary showed me what she could do with a word processor. Looking over her shoulder I said, “Wouldn’t it have been better if I’d reversed the order of the last three paragraphs, and added a couple of explanatory sentences?”