Friday, 11 April 2008

Michele Ledda thinks Nintendo in the classroom is a no brainer

A new scheme involving 900 children across 16 schools in Scotland aims to test the effectiveness of Dr Kawashima’s More Brain Training computer games in improving pupils’ behaviour, concentration and achievement in maths tests. The games involve a number of mathematical, linguistic and other problem-solving activities ‘designed to exercise the brain by increasing blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex.’

The scheme follows a small trial carried out by Derek Robertson, of Learning and Teaching Scotland, the authority responsible for curriculum development. Thirty pupils were made to play More Brain Training games on the hand-held Nintendo console for 15-20 minutes every day for ten weeks before the start of the lessons. They were given maths tests before and after the trial, which showed a 10% improvement.

Robertson is very enthusiastic about the scheme. "Game-based learning can provide dynamic and culturally relevant contexts that engage, motivate and challenge today’s young learner," he told the Times.

Anything that helps children learn should be welcomed, but there is a problem. Whatever the scientific merits of the trials - and Robertson has been honest about the limitations of his first experiment - we cannot motivate pupils to study mathematics through a scientific or technological fix.

In 2006, former education secretary Alan Johnson had great hopes for an experiment carried out in County Durham* which would test the effectiveness of fish oil supplements in boosting 'youngsters' brainpower and improve behaviour in the classroom.' Johnson told the Sunday Times: "The government is committed to ensuring that children are provided with healthy food and the nutrients they require during the school day, not just to aid their physical health but to ensure they can study hard and behave well." Now we have an attempt to use the therapeutic and motivational effect of computer games to achieve the same goals.

The problem of pupils' motivation and behaviour does not lie in the brains of modern children, which are not physiologically different from those of their ancestors. Nor does it lie in the impact that modern technology has on children's lifestyle and 'culture' (Robertson calls the current generation of school pupils 'digital natives').

The so-called 'problem of motivation' is an expression of an entirely adult problem that keeps being displaced onto children.

It is a problem of authority, of not knowing what to do. Teachers do not think they have the authority anymore to tell children that it is important to learn maths, English, history, or any other subject. They no find it increasingly difficult to define what is good for their charges and to decide, among other things, what an educated citizen should know by the age of eighteen.

The crisis of authority is not peculiar to teachers. It affects all adults in positions of authority, such as parents, teachers, doctors and, perhaps most of all, politicians, including those who devise education policies.

In this context, trying to borrow the authority of science or technology as a substitute for adult judgment can only exacerbate the problem, by showing pupils that we don’t really believe in knowledge and we are trying to piggyback maths onto computer games. A moral problem cannot be solved by a technological fix. We should instead devise a human-centred solution. We need teachers to regain control of teaching and believe both in the importance of their discipline and in the ability of their pupils.

Children can only be motivated if they see that adults have the confidence and authority to tell them what it is they need to know.

For details of the Durham experiment, and more, listen to BBC Radio 4's Today programme.