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Lifting the Myst
Tim Rylands used to be a primary school teacher in North Somerset but he is more famous for his use of computer games, particularly Myst, to engage learners in the classroom. However, his use of games is really just the tip of the iceberg - his innovative approach to teaching is much celebrated, and now he spends some of his time inspiring others to take a similar approach. VISION went to meet him when he delivered a day-long ICT seminar to primary schools in Kent...
It has been an intense day but there is no sign that Rylands is powering down - his eagerness to share insights and celebrate the achievement of the young people with whom he and his co-presenter Sarah Neild have the privilege of working is profound: “We get to travel the country seeing magic happen.” By way of example, he plays a recording of a teenager at a Monmouthshire pupil referral unit (PRU) reading a piece of writing inspired by a seascape in Myst IV. The boy’s account is a fabulous piece of writing by anyone’s standards - expressive, descriptive and reflective - but what really sets it alight are his final astonished words: “I didn’t know I could write like that - I’m totally proud of that!”
Currently Rylands spends about a third of his time teaching in schools around the country, with the rest spent with teachers supporting them in their work. His current enthusiasm is for the Wii simulation game African Wildlife Safari: “It casts children in the role of photojournalists touring the Serengeti National Park in search of interesting animals and animal behaviour. In addition to the challenge to observe and capture interesting action, children have access to scientific experts providing explanations of what is going on such as elephants’ tendency to form a defensive circle around their young.”
He illustrates his description with images of sessions at Chew Magna Primary, the school where he last taught full-time. The pictures demonstrate another crucial tenet of his philosophy that teachers need to be able to dovetail high- and low-tech approaches in their teaching. “I am keen that both digital and analogue should co-exist. Here,” he says, pointing at the pictures, “you see children that have spent time on virtual safari and who then create a fictional creature we’ve dubbed the ‘Camelephantclopelicanary’ using Switcheroo Zoo – but they then go out and about in the school grounds searching for evidence of this creature.” Rylands’ former musical writing days means that he describes this creature in a rather unique way: “A strange and wonderful thing; its body is really quite shoddy – it’s all held together with string,” setting a challenge that is both engaging and fun. He points to an image of children in pith helmets proudly holding up some curious finds: “This group has found part of the animal's hump. And here you see them putting to use what African Wildlife Safari taught them; filming each other using handheld devices plus sending the results simultaneously from their mobile phones to their classmates back inside the building using Qik software.” All proof positive of his belief in the co-existence of on- and off-line tools to support learning.
Another digital resource he often uses is Fighting Malaria website with its 360 degree tours of a Malawian clinic. (It is an important issue in his life, having contracted the disease twice during his time in Africa.) But Rylands is careful not to let the technology, particularly games, take over proceedings: “Although I am using games, I always encourage teachers not to introduce them as such and do the simple thing of having them opened up in advance so that nothing interrupts children’s absorption into whatever world it is they’re faced with. The idea in part is to get children away from issues of plot and into a frame of mind to consider much more engaging matters.”
If he is certain of one thing, it is that it is incumbent on schools and teachers to meet children and young people’s enthusiasm for interactive technologies half way. “It is still too often the case that youngsters have to power-down when they come into school. That said, I do not want the schools I work in to be misrepresented here. I am very resistant to the idea that we are parachuted into schools to help them. What is so encouraging is working alongside teachers and pupils that are entirely ‘up’ for what we have to offer and are able to see the benefits they can get from raising levels of creativity.”
The conversation does inevitably end on the subject of Myst, acknowledging the fact that it can take a small investment of time for a teacher to become familiar with it. But, as Rylands points out: “I can think of less pleasant kinds of class preparation. And, when teachers are glued to the game and supposed to be elsewhere, they can always respond with ‘but I am doing my planning, dear!’.”