HC Deb 12 February 1963 vol 671 cc1263-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Rees.]

10.25 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

Tonight, I wish to draw the attention of the House to a development which I am sure will be of considerable value to schools, to the whole teaching profession, to the Armed Services, to technical colleges, industry, the Commonwealth and to all those developing nations which have to teach their young people basic skills very quickly.

I believe that until recently the process of learning had not been scientifically examined in the sense of measuring deficiency or by way of experimental psychology. Perhaps one of the few human activities which would look the same to an ancient Greek if he arrived today in this century, as he did 2,000 years ago, would be the work in the school classroom, which has not altered very much since Plato's day.

A few years ago, some scientific investigations into the theory of instruction were started in America. They were sponsored by the Bell Telephone Company, which was interested in the spread of information and the theory of sending messages. The process of learning was also investigated at Harvard by the Department of Psychology under Professor Skinner. He studied the behaviour of pigeons and found that, provided they were fed at key points, they could soon be taught how to walk the figure of eight. From this and other studies he concluded that all living creatures, including man, provided they were encouraged promptly, could quickly learn new skills.

However, Professor Skinner's theory of learning is not universally accepted. Indeed, one of his pupils, Dr. Crowder, took a rather different view. Instead of giving every pupil, irrespective of his intelligence, the same intellectual diet, he advocated the construction of programmes of learning which would adapt themselves to the intelligence level and previous knowledge of various students. He therefore constructed "branching" types of programme which allowed more gifted pupils to go ahead quickly while making provision for the slower ones, given the necessary time, to achieve the same skiffs.

Step-by-Step learning, or, as it is called, linear learning and indeed "branching" learning, as the other side of it is called, fall under the head of what I am dealing with tonight, programme instruction, because they both depend on a programme to bring the learner through a series of graduated steps with the production of such effects as encourage the pupil to the next stage with certainty and simplicity.

This sounds similar to what every teacher is instinctively trying to do, but I think that the process has been explained, clarified and expanded by these American research workers. Anyhow, since the publication of this work in America, programme instruction, whether by the linear method of Professor Skinner or the branching method, has made great strides, and intensive studies have been carried out by schools, universities, research institutes and industrial establishments throughout America. I think that all have come to one conclusion, namely, that these things bring about drastic gains in learning speed and effectiveness.

Programmed instruction can, of course, be given either by a simplified step-by-step textbook or by a teaching machine. I do not claim to be an education expert, and all this might have passed me by had it not been for one of my constituents, Mr. Stanley Grundy, who has recently been developing a British teaching machine. I was so interested in what I was told and by what he showed me that I took a teaching machine home for the week-end to study industrial management, and I learned more in four hours from this machine than I had learned in twenty years of practice. I only wish I had had programme instruction in the subject twenty-five years ago!

A teaching machine often looks like a television set. It operates by means of a film, throwing some hundreds of frames, as they are called, or pictures, one by one on to a screen, and these frames are moved forward by pressing a button. After one has studied one frame, one is given a question and a choice of alternative answers, and if one chooses the wrong answer one is thrown back to the frame before or an explanation is given as to where one went wrong. If one gives the right answer one can go forward to the next frame.

Obviously, the intelligent pupil can move forward very quickly through hundreds of these frames or pictures. The slow pupil may conceivably have to go back. The errors in one's thinking are recorded on a counting machine which is made available to the teacher.

I am convinced that these machines have all sort of applications. For instance, already they have been used and tested in the Navy with three groups of ratings who were learning trigonometry, none of these ratings previously having any knowledge of the subject. One group of the naval ratings was taught by a qualified mathematical teacher, another by a programmed textbook and a third by a teaching machine. The results showed that the pupils learned 40 per cent. more quickly by machine than they did by the human teacher, and indeed more knowledge was retained by the ratings by this method than by the other methods.

That leads one to ask how we can make use of programmed instruction and teaching machines in this country. I think it is common ground in all quarters of the House that if we limit junior classes to 40 and senior classes to 30, the shortage of teachers in this country is in the neighbourhood of 50,000. Again, if the school-leaving age is raised to 16, the shortage of teachers will be higher still. These teaching machines can never replace teachers. In my view, they will be a tool of teachers, a friend of teachers, and will increase their power of imparting instruction.

I suppose that in a class of 40 children there are five very quick pupils, five very slow ones, and 30 about average. The machines could be used both by the slow and by the quick, leaving the teacher freer to concentrate on the majority of the class. Therefore, what one calls the teacher's productivity could be greatly increased by the use of teaching machines. In many technical colleges these machines could teach subjects such as electrical wiring and electronics, in the Armed Forces radar, and a host of technical subjects could be learned by means of them. In industry they could be used in apprenticeship, or by the Ministry of Labour for retraining people changing jobs. Of course, in the Commonwealth and developing nations they could be used to teach quickly basic information of a practical nature—and how greatly is all this needed.

The population of the world has increased by 500 million in the last decade, an enormous proportion of them being illiterate. If we are to increase production all over the world and teach people how to feed themselves, there has obviously got to be a great spread of learning throughout the world, and programmed instruction and these machines can help all that.

Of course, criticisms will be made of teaching machines. It will be said that they will make robots of us, but in my view they are only a more effective and more logical method of teaching. The content of the programme will still be under the authority of the teachers, and I believe that the programmes invite the student to discover things for himself, and therefore teach him to think.

They will never put teachers out of work, because the world, and our country in particular, is so short of teachers, and these machines must mainly be used under their supervision.

Machines cannot educate in the full sense of inculcating moral values. That will always be a task for the teachers, and the programmes will have to be constructed by the most skilled, careful and authoritative teachers, as they are the basis of all the methods.

But I believe that this programmed instruction and these teaching machines represent a great and useful development which can help to solve Britain's educational problems in the future, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say he recognises that, and will say some encouraging words about their value and their future.

If he can do that, I should like to suggest that a grant might be made for further research into programmed learning and these teaching machines, and, further, that a circular might be sent to local authorities, designed to induce them to experiment with these two important developments.

I believe that we are on the edge of great changes in teaching methods and that guided aright programmed instruction and its concomitant, the teaching machine, can be one of the foremost weapons in our task to which we are committed, namely, the modernising of Britain.

10.36 p.m.

Mr. G. M. Thomson (Dundee, East)

I resist the temptation to say to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) that if the teaching machine taught him more about industrial management in four hours than he had learnt in twenty years it is perhaps more of a reflection on our process of industrial management than on the possibilities of the teaching machine.

The hon. Gentleman has performed a service in raising this subject on the Adjournment tonight. I say this because I was perhaps the first hon. Member to raise the possibilities of teaching machines in this House some time ago, and I hope that the Minister will respond to the plea of the hon. Gentleman that there should be a greater exploration of the possibilities of these methods of teaching, and that more money should be spent on research into what they can do.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is, of course, no substitute for a good teacher, but these machines are not meant to be a substitute for a good teacher. They are meant to be an aid to him. I take the view that the need for educational expansion in this country and throughout the developing countries of the world as far ahead as we can see is so great that, no matter how successful we are in recruiting teachers and in giving them proper conditions of work, it is tremendously important to give them every possible aid of modern science to make use of new developments. I hope that the Minister will do what he can to encourage British firms to develop the kind of apparatus which goes with programmed instruction.

I think it is a pity in some ways that this idea has become associated with the convenient journalistic label which I have used, a teaching machine. This rather suggests a mechanical process replacing the educational process, but the machine is purely ancillary, though what lies behind it is as exciting as the development of the process of teaching. Skilled teachers are needed to develop the pro- grammes which are either put into textbooks or in machines of varying degrees of complexity.

I think that this development of programmed instruction has a particular relevance to the developing countries of the world, and perhaps to the developing countries of the Commonwealth for which we have a special responsibility. There is a desperate shortage of teachers in these countries. Their technical education, in which the teaching machines would be of special importance, is at a very low level of development, and I hope that something can be done to encourage the development of these new techniques in the newer countries of the Commonwealth.

But I hope that the Government will give sympathetic response to this subject. The Parliamentary Secretary's colleague in the Scottish Office was very sympathetic when this was raised with him in the House some time ago. The appalling thing is that we are prepared to spend more public money on research into things like whiter whitewash and stickier glue than we are on research into education. More money must be spent on education research in general, and these teaching programmes of instruction form one of the most useful ways of spending the money.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I learnt more from people than from books during my long and expensive education, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will not be entirely sold on the idea that machines can be a substitute for people. It is a dangerous idea. But, having been a teacher, I can say that useful equipment can be of very great help, and I hope that my hon. Friend will manage to strike a correct balance between the personal approach, for which there is no substitute, and the provision of useful equipment for teachers, which could certainly be improved.

10.41 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Christopher Chataway)

It is intended as more than a conventional opening to an Adjournment debate when I say that I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) for raising this subject tonight. I am sure that the development we are discussing is going to be of great importance in education. I do not pretend to know how long it will be before programmed learning and teaching machines are able to make any substantial contribution, but I have no doubt that the development is here to stay. That conviction is reinforced by a few moments I spent playing wit) a teaching machine the other day. I came to understand the claim of the manufacturers that one of the attractions is that it appeals to the Las Vegas instinct in all of us. That was my experience.

If I sound a few notes of caution, I do not want to imply that there is any lack of interest by the Minister or the Department. On the contrary, we are very carefully studying this development and, wherever possible, stimulating progress in it. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham has explained very capably the difference between the linear type of programmed learning and the multiple choice variety, the one associated with Professor Skinner and the other with Dr. Crowder.

In the linear programme the items of instruction are small. The pupil writes his own response to the stimulus sometimes, but is more often required to supply a missing word or figure than answer a direct question. The aim is to lead him on gently so that in the end he is able to answer by himself with practically no mistakes. This sense of getting the answer right is held to be a valuable part of the reinforcement of his learning.

In the other programme, large units of instruction are presented followed by a question and a set of answers from which to choose. Under this method the pupil may choose the wrong answer. If he does he is provided with a further item of instruction explaining his mistake and referring him back to make a second choice, or, through a remedial sequence, on to the next stage of the main programme. One can have very sophisticated patterns of instruction here.

Research is still going on into the efficiency of the two methods and I think one should say that the results so far are rather inconclusive. The ideas behind programmed learning are clearly not revolutionary. Any teacher who has carefully planned the sequence of a lesson has employed the technique, but the history of programmed learning in the schools in the sense in which the phrase is here used has been only about ten years.

The advantage of the scheme over all other types of programmed learning is that it does enable the pupil to progress at his own pace, so that the slow pupil does not feel that the class is rushing on at a speed he cannot manage, and the fast pupil does not feel frustrated by being held back. These are the claims.

Nearly all the examples of programmed learning come from the United States, and nearly all the research has so far been clone there. A number of British firms are now in the field, but there is a shortage of programmes and, in particular, of thoroughly validated programmes. That, at the moment, is the big obstacle to progress. We particularly welcome, therefore, the work being undertaken by the Association for Programmed Learning—a professional body formed largely of practising teachers.

The importance of research was stressed by my hon. Friend. If I were to pick a quarrel with the remarks he has made this evening, it would be, perhaps, that he has overestimated the amount of research that has been done and perhaps exaggerated the results achieved. Most of the teaching machines and programmes at present are American, and most of the fundamental research into programmed learning has been done in the United States. The first significant research in this country was carried out in the Psychology Departments of Aberdeen and Sheffield Universities, with grants from the D.S.I.R. This research was directed mainly to the industrial application of programmed learning. The Aberdeen project, in fact, involved the training of papermakers, as no doubt the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson) is aware. Within the last few months research into educational aspects of the subject has begun in the Department of Education in Sheffield.

My hon. Friend asked about grants from the Ministry of Education. I am glad to be able to tell him that the Ministry has promised a grant of about £12,000, over three years, to finance research into methods of using programmed learning in secondary school mathematics up to G.C.E. O level and, ultimately, A level. This work in Sheffield began only in October, 1962, and it is still too early to look for definite results, but it has aroused very widespread interest at home and abroad.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Does the hon. Member consider that £4,000 a year is adequate to cover this important field?

Mr. Chataway

It is adequate for the work being undertaken at Sheffield, but we are also financing research of a rather less ambitious kind by the headmaster of a junior school in Leicestershire, working under the auspices of the Department of Education at Leicester University. The sum of £1,000 a year for three years has been offered to support research with simple linear machines and programmes suitable for use by primary school children, especially in arithmetic and reading. We are considering a project submitted by the Department of Education at Birmingham University, where the object is to assess the value of linear and multiple choice programmes and to investigate their application to different secondary school subjects.

In October, 1962, the Ministry asked all local education authorities, colleges of advanced technology and institutes of education what use they were making or planning to make of machines and programmes. The replies showed that progress has so far been fairly slow. Only about 20 authorities out of 146 had anything positive to report. Half a dozen of those are mounting experiments in this school year, mostly in primary schools, with machines usually of the linear variety, and programmes: experimental classes will be matched against control classes using conventional methods.

A number of other authorities reported experiments in training and technical colleges and, in one case, in schools for handicapped children. Three colleges of advanced technology and the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield are experimenting with machines, and in several institutes of education programmed learning is beginning to play a part in teaches training.

Many education authorities who had nothing definite to report in their own areas expressed a great deal of interest in the subject. They may have been held back by the shortage of suitable programmes to which I have referred, or by the cost of all but the simplest machines. The machine to which my hon. Friend referred costs well over £200 at the moment, though I think that it is welcome as the first British branching machine. They may also have been held back by uncertainty—which the research that I have described will, I hope, help in time to remove—about the best ways of using machines and programmes and the most appropriate subjects and age groups.

There is an urgent need, too, for some agreement to be reached on the form of presentation of the programmed material. At present, there are so many ways of presenting information—film, paper roll, card, folded paper, and so on—that possible purchasers of machines are deterred from buying because good programmes may not be usable on the machines they obtain. Of perhaps a hundred different types of machines on the market, there are hardly two that are capable of showing programmes devised for any other machine, and there is thus clearly a great need for standardisation.

Copies of the replies to the circular letter have been made available to the Educational Foundation for Visual Aids, whose experimental development unit, which is financed in part by the Ministry, is beginning to take an interest in the subject. The Foundation is in the process of setting up an informal committee whose function will be to consider in what way developments can best be stimulated. My right hon. Friend intends shortly to circulate to the local education authorities and others a summary of the information submitted in answer to this circular letter, together with a paper giving the Ministry's own current assessment of the situation.

I am sure that it is extremely important that it should be widely understood that nobody is claiming that the teaching machine is a device for doing away with the teacher. Quite clearly, it is no substitute for the teacher, and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) can be assured on that score. No manufacturer of a machine pretends that it can be anything of the kind. It can exercise only a very few of a teacher's functions.

Professor Skinner said in an article last October that no area of human activity has so stubbornly resisted technological progress as the classroom, and complained, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham that educators had made no change in their basic techniques of teaching for the last hundred years. Undoubtedly, there is some instinctive opposition to change of this kind, but / think that the House will agree that educationists would be right to proceed with some caution because, as I have tried to show, we are only at the beginning of a development, the ultimate possibilities of which we cannot foresee.

There is great need for more research. Experience so far has been mostly in industry and with older pupils in education. The value of teaching machines there, properly used, is probably fairly widely accepted, but what we need is, so to speak, a wholesale experiment in programmes, subjects, age, ability ranges, and in the actual machines. The immediate need, I suggest, is not so much machines as properly validated programmes produced by people who know the schools and colleges and the pupils.

I think, therefore, that at this stage I should be right to express an interest in this subject, to welcome the development that is going on, but to emphasise that it is possible at this stage of the development, both of programmed learning and of teaching machines, for people to buy textbooks and machines that are not properly validated, and so a certain amount of caution is required.

Mrs. Eirene White (Flint, East)

Whilst absolutely accepting what the Parliamentary Secretary says about the need for a cautious approach—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.