Education Viewpoint: Quick minds, but slow fingers

SCHOOL inspectors tell us that children are often more adept with computers than their teachers. Walk around any school and you will see groups of pupils busy at work stations, using a wide range of software. But look more closely and instead of fingers flying over keyboards you see slow one-finger pecking.

Most children cannot use keyboards properly because nobody is teaching them what to do. Word processing in schools is often a travesty of what it should be because the children could work faster in longhand.

Teachers themselves are often unable to touch-type, and so do not see the problem. 'Speed is not so important when children are learning to draft and redraft,' is how one teacher put it to me.

However, keyboard skills are not just about speed. Beyond the basic ability to write faster than is possible with pen or pencil is a world where the writer is liberated from the mechanical process. If you can touch-type well, you engage directly with the text, going from mind to written word without the need to pay attention to the keyboard. Every child is capable of reaching this level. Arguably, it is an entitlement.

Why do schools have this blind spot about keyboard skills? Part of the answer lies in the once prevalent belief that the computer would kill off the Qwerty keyboard, which, after all, was designed to prevent early typewriters from jamming by placing much-used letters well apart. It is thus, in a sense, deliberately designed for slowness. Computers, by contrast, will take instructions at unlimited speed, in various ways (eg, by voice or use of mouse and menu). What the visionaries underestimated, though, was the huge investment of knowledge, resources and skill that will keep the Qwerty system going for a long time yet.

Another problem is that typewriting has traditionally been a vocational skill, taught to less able girls in the hope of improving their job chances. For today's teachers, touch-typing comes with the wrong image.

Many American schools teach the skill routinely, using commercial instructional software. In Britain, however, only a few schools are meeting the challenge. Telford City Technology College, for example, teaches all its new pupils to touch-type, using an individualised computer course. The basic aim is to get each pupil, within the first term, up to a speed that is quicker than handwriting. The key is regular

practice.

Not every school is equipped like a CTC. Every school, though, has some computers, and there is so much enjoyable and stimulating typewriting software about that there is surely no excuse for inaction.

No doubt teachers will protest that the curriculum is already overloaded, but the truth is that learning to touch-type takes little time. Frequent short sessions (daily, even) are more effective than weekly full lessons.

Secondary schools could run a keyboard skills programme for all their new arrivals. They would see the time and resources repaid with interest later on.

A book about keyboard training in schools, 'Keyboard Proficiency: an essential skill in a technological age', by Eve Gillmon, is available from the editor of publications, City Technology Colleges Trust, 15 Young Street, London W8 5EH, pounds 7.50.

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