To update an 18th-century George Berkeley thought experiment: If a spelling mistake is typed out but – thanks to autocorrect or spellcheck – nobody except the author ever sees it, has anything worth worrying about actually happened?
No, not in the slightest, says Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University. Speaking to the Times Educational Supplement, a deeply-relaxed Prof Mitra floated the idea that teaching children correct spelling and grammar was “unnecessary” in 2013, since “my phone corrects my spelling” and “I often skip grammar”.
Whether Prof Mitra was aware that his comments would see crockery smashed in the living rooms of a thousand TES subscribers, it’s hard to say. That he has a pretty good idea of how technological advances will change teaching is less of an open question. This year, Prof Mitra was awarded the $1m TED prize for his vision of how “cloud computing” could help children in different corners of the world learn from each other. He epitomises, to no small degree, education 2.0.
So to grouse with Professor might seem both technophobic and prissy. But there are two reasons why I think he’s wrong.
First, how much responsibility for language use are we comfortable delegating to computers? Personally, I am happy to outsource reading maps to an iPhone. But the prospect of letting an algorithm act as a substitute English teacher seems far more dispiriting. For one, the solecisms of autocorrect have earned whole websites of ridicule – “divorce” swapped for “Disney”, “gunman” for “gunna”. Then, wouldn’t it be faintly shameful to know that in everything you write, your computer is constantly, silently babying you?
My second objection is this: learning Standard Written English (SWE) pays dividends. Prof Mitra understands computer code. Perhaps it’s worth thinking about SWE as a dialect in the same vein. Mess up your Java or CSS and the programme you’re building won’t work. Send a cover letter for a job with poor English in it and you most likely won’t be hearing back. (Spellcheck can stop you making howlers, but it can’t improve your style.)
Aside from the rise of autocorrect, opposition to teaching SWE often states that it is a stuffy form of Standard White English, and that it entrenches privilege. It is and it does. That’s why the way it is presented to multicultural, tech-savvy classrooms is so very important.
Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms have planted a Conservative flagpole in raising SWE standards. Sadly, the party line seems to be that SWE is a superior or ideal form of the language, harking back to the good old days of Albion. I would like to see it sold to young people more democratically – as one language among many, but a useful one, and a damn sight better than autocorrect.