Serious fun in the classroom

The computer can be a stimulating and entertaining teaching tool for primary pupils of all ages. Dorothy Walker goes back to school
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Groucho Marx asked his daughter what she did on her first day at school, she said: "We paint and go to the toilet."

Today that would be slightly expanded: "We paint, develop spatial awareness, and go to the toilet."

Thanks to the computers now glowing in almost every schoolroom, there is a lot going on in the primary classes. To find out just how much, I spent a day at St Theresa's RC Primary School in Finchley, north London.

9:30am: I join the reception class. "Who is going to show Goldilocks to Miss Walker?" Mrs Cabroles asks the assembled four-year-olds. A flurry of hands goes up ("I have to keep a list to make sure they all get their turn") and Andre is chosen to show me the software that introduces the children to the world of computers.

He demonstrates how to use the mouse to dress Goldilocks and the three bears. The idea is that he can then arrange the furniture in the bears' cottage, learning about spatial concepts (in, on, under) as he goes along. I am beginning to think Andre is having trouble mastering the mouse, when he suddenly says: "I want to get mummy bear eating the porridge, and I have to get her plate and spoon out of the cupboard on to the table in the kitchen." There is a barrage of mouse clicks, and it is done.

10:30am: I meet the five-year-olds in Year 1. Frances and Matthew show me how a computer game helps them to read. The screen displays cards, each bearing two of the basic shapes that make up the letters of the alphabet. The children have to arrange the cards on a grid. They help each other to do this, which is just as well because I cannot get to grips with this bit. I am more comfortable when they move on to cards that show whole letters, before trying to build a grid of words.

Although there is no multi-media facility on the computer, this is not conducted in silence. In the background, Mrs Stephens ("Computers are good in their place"), the teacher, is reading a story to the rest of the class, who are enthralled.

Frances and Matthew move quickly through their game - so quickly that I suspect they have memorised where the cards belong. But this software lasts only for a few weeks. Next term the children will use the computer to control a "floor turtle" - a robot they can direct around the classroom - to help them to develop logic and spatial awareness. Mrs Stephens will weave in other subjects: the floor turtle might be the boat in The Owl and the Pussycat on a journey around the world.

11:15am: I am with Year 2. Sophie, aged six, is typing her poem about a coconut into the computer. She has written the epic in her workbook, in joined-up writing, and is carefully transferring it, letter by letter, into an old BBC Micro. She surveys the "qwerty" keyboard. "Where is 'B'?" she asks, before managing to pick out the letter unaided.

"Well done," I say.

"Yes, I'm double-jointed," she answers triumphantly.

On the wall behind Sophie, the class has constructed a giant collage of rainforest life entitled "Data Handling". Each child had to choose a forest creature, paint its picture, and discover what distinguishes it from other creatures ("Does it use its tail like an arm?"). The class used the information to build a database in which everyone could find their own animal.

12:30pm: lunch. The IT co-ordinator, Eileen Marner, runs through the computer inventory: the 230 pupils have five BBC Micros and six Acorn Archimedes machines, plus eight Acorn laptops and 32 pocketbooks, which were won in a competitive bid to the National Council for Educational Technology. Old or non-standard machines do not pose a great problem, she says: "The children are learning transferable skills, confidence and independence with the computer."

A room with a PC is reserved for pupils with special needs. The computer offers new stimuli: animating an essay, or having the machine read out sums, can sometimes strike a chord with a child who has difficulty in the classroom. And being seen as a "computer expert" can suddenly motivate a stubborn child to learn.

1:45pm: I call in on Year 4, who are studying the Romans. Four children are touring ancient Colchester, courtesy of a PC game that is designed to bring history to life. They can score points by identifying artefacts and eliciting information from citizens. A toga-clad figure with the improbable name of Brian appears on the screen, offering the young tourists a chance to design a mosaic. "We shouldn't waste our time," says nine-year-old Matthew. "Let's look for more objects."

2:15pm: If it is Year 5, it must be the Tudors. Katie, Andrew and Elena take me on a computerised Journey Back Through Time to find out about the Spanish Armada. When we arrive at 1588, an extract on Elizabethan naval power appears on the screen and the three read the text aloud. The passage is long and complex, but then comes the chance to zap the Armada in a competitive game - provided the children can answer a question: "Who rebuilt the English Navy?"

"Hawkins" is the chorus. After the action, in which the quiet Katie zaps Andrew into oblivion, I ask: "What did Hawkins do?"

"Er ... rebuilt the English Navy," replies Andrew, after a considered pause.

Mrs Shennon, their teacher, explains that the Tudors software is on trial at the moment. "It's quite expensive," she says. "I think it's around pounds 20."

She nods towards the two girls sitting at the BBC Micro in the corner. Venetia and Elisa are busy answering questions that test vocabulary and spelling, and consulting a hardback dictionary for help. The bell sounds for afternoon break. The girls stay put.

2:45pm: In a corridor area set aside for computing, I meet Rachel and Hayley from Year 6, who are both working on portable machines. Rachel is writing about herself ("I am 11 years old. I want to be a poet or a novelist, but I will also need a job ...") while Hayley is transferring research about William Morris into a database as part of a project to produce a handbook on Great Victorians.

Rachel leaves her machine, and Lawrence arrives carrying a floppy disk, ready to write about himself. "Don't you have to save Rachel's work before you start?" asks Hayley. Lawrence cannot remember how to do this, but proceeds to find out through a gung-ho series of experiments.

In contrast, Hayley tries to work out what to do before she hits any keys, pausing to ask me: "Does the computer want a capital letter here?"

"Just try what you think," I suggest. "If the computer doesn't approve, it will let you know."

Their teacher, Mrs Boldrin, explains that the children take it in turns to take the portables home at weekends. She primes them on Friday, then gives out her phone number so they can call for technical support.

As I prepare to leave, Lawrence turns and fixes me with a charming smile. "There is something that you could help me with in my essay," he says. "Do I have light brown eyes, or are they dark brown?"

National Council For Educational Technology can be contacted on 01203 416994.

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