ICT in Education

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Further observations on the Gove curriculum proposals

Taken as a whole (all subjects) these proposals are some of the most regressive, outdated and utilitarian for over a century. They are a result of a right wing political agenda based on the limited understanding of education of a failed journalist pandering to his equally intellectually challenged peers for his own political ends. Further, it is influenced by the outdated ideas of the aging E. D. Hirsch, developed in the context of the red-neck backwoods of Virginia rather than the real world of a liberal and progressive Europe. However, if we think the ICT (sorry ‘Computing’) proposals are bad then please look at History and Geography, both reduced to pub quiz general knowledge subjects – the chanting of often irrelevant ‘facts’ without any understanding of context, cause or effect. Half a century of curriculum development based on sound academic thinking and research dumped to satisfy Tory tabloids and their readers.

However, this is not the place to consider the issues of history and geography, their own subject associations are already up in arms, so let us turn to what is now to be known as ‘Computing’.

What we have here is a curriculum designed largely in secret by a self-interested cabal with, in many cases, minimal knowledge or understanding of schools and learning, especially as regards primary education and who were responding to a political brief based, so it appears partly on demands arising from parasitic, tax avoiding, foreign entities. Nor do they seem to have taken note of the views of the majority of industry and commerce who need thinking users of ICT tools rather than computer scientists. We ourselves have been top some extent culpable by failing to challenge the previous government and the exam boards on the standards of certain qualifications, equally designed to meet the agendas of the time.

The current ‘Computing’ proposals narrow and stultify the ICT curriculum, reducing the core to little more than programming and fail to prepare learners for the immense economic and societal changes that technology is causing. The majority need no more knowledge and understanding of computer code, systems and networks than they do of the mechanics of the car that they drive. Knowing about the 4-stroke cycle, compression ratios etc does not in itself make one a better driver. In fact fiddling with a modern car as with jailbreaking an iPad from the basis of limited knowledge can be positively dangerous.

There is also a danger in teaching ‘knowledge’ rather than understanding of principles and their application when that knowledge is evolving much faster than schools are able to keep up with. It therefore becomes dated and overtaken by events. Thus less than 20 years ago a good knowledge of HTML was necessary to create a website. Now we have WYSYWIG editors (which often require some coding knowledge at times) and any child can create a social networking page with all the dangers and longer term implications that creates.

What we need to, indeed must teach are a range of skills and understanding that can be applied in new situations. Certainly this includes a basic core understanding of algorithms, principles of coding and how networks are structured. This was included in the Naace curriculum for this very reason. But learners need more than this. For example, a web page might be improved by recoding some of the HTML to get the effects required. However, long before that the purpose, audience, structure and design of the website have to be considered. Where are these creative skills in the ‘Computing’ proposals? Similarly with App and games development – the actual coding is only a small part of the whole project and in any case will often use pre-existing code assembled to meet the design criteria as with Scratch, Infinite Monkeys and similar popular tools.

Nor do the proposals properly address the need to actually teach children how to use networks, use common software tools and solve the errors that arise. E-safety, security, copyright and ethical use of ICT is glossed over at a time when concerns in this area are mounting. Creative use of imagery, video, communications tools and presentation are little more than an afterthought. The proposals as they stand are neither broad nor balanced. Further, they are largely unteachable without significant staff training, especially in the primary sector, together with the provision of age appropriate resources. Though perhaps resources are not an issue as some on the TES ICT forum take the view that KS3 could be taught largely as a paper-based theory course! Punched cards and Fortran anyone?

So, let us consider this aberration overall and by key stage.

The Aims
These heavily focus on computer science and include “repeated practical experience of writing computer programs . . .”, with a further emphasis on analytical problem solving, something outside the practical experience and expertise of most primary teachers and not a few secondary teachers of ICT. Even the more relevant (to most learners) requirement to apply familiar and unfamiliar ICT tools focuses on the problem solving aspects. Yet if you cannot understand what the tools can do in the real world as opposed to the underlying code and have no training in their use then solving the problem becomes a problem in itself.  For example, to create a website requires skills in design, knowledge of page layout, of fonts and how to prepare graphics and video. It will not, in many cases, require HTML, XML or other coding skills, and if it does then it would normally be passed to a technical team to resolve.

Worryingly, the crucial aspect of enabling young people to become responsible, competent, confident and creative users of ICT appears almost to be an afterthought, a sop to those outside of the CAS/BCS hegemony. Yet this last aim is the most important with regard to the future economic, social and personal well-being of the overwhelming majority of learners. As I have said before, we all use music but few need to or wish to play an instrument well. Similarly we all use ICTs but we don’t all need an in-depth knowledge of their workings.

Key Stage 1
This follows the main aims and thus exhibits the same weaknesses and narrow thinking. Currently most schools that teach ICT well provide pupils with a good knowledge and understanding of simple programming and control through use of BeeBots, Roamers and simple LOGO applications. This is nothing new, it’s been part of the curriculum for years. However, add in a requirement that KS1 pupils understand the concept of algorithms and how they are implemented may be a step too far – especially when even the experts seem unable to agree on what an algorithm in this context actually is as has been seen recently in a NaaceTalk discussion.

However, by doing what is currently expected, with a modicum of tweaking there should be sufficient time left to focus on core knowledge such as how to log onto the school network and locate a personal folder, opening and saving files etc as well as to teach e-safety.

However, there is a serious omission form the KS1 draft. There is absolutely no mention of actually teaching children to create images, place text on a page, make animations and videos etc. There is nothing creative, though perhaps and assumption that this will happen across other areas of the curriculum. In some schools this happens anyway but if there is no specific requirement schools will naturally adhere to the ICT programme of study and all the exciting and necessary aspects of digital literacy will be lost.

These children are NOT digital natives, that myth was busted many years ago. Rather they are naïve users of very powerful tools that they currently explore with little guidance or direct teaching. They will learn much more and be far more creative as well as safer users of the technologies if they are taught how to use them effectively. As educators we are concerned with the whole child who learns through a rounded and balanced curriculum. We are not about delivering discrete chunks of knowledge but about enabling the child to develop knowledge with understanding though a guide exploration of the world and the learning tools available. The current proposals do not enable this to happen.

Key Stage 2
Of the six aspects that pupils should be taught the first three are almost wholly related to programming and at a level that the majority of teachers may be unable to deliver without extensive training. The language itself used in the draft is heavily technical and potentially off-putting to many, though no doubt publishers will provide ready made lesson plans and resources, assuming schools have the budget to pay for them!

Again, some aspects of these proposals are not novel, the old logo activities in Year 4 and control projects in Year 6 could still be relevant. However, OFSTED have clearly stated that these were rarely taught well. The draft PoS take these ideas much further so if relatively simple activities did not take place is something far more complex going to be taught with alacrity?

In some respects the requirement for pupils to understand computer networks including the internet appears to pose little difficulty. If taught at a basic level with diagrams and a glossary this might be the case, though this would represent little more than ‘knowing about’ rather than understanding. The latter needs some practical demonstration including the setting up of simple cabled and wireless networks in the classroom – practical experience rather than theory being a much more appropriate approach with this age group.

The use of internet search engines and use and evaluation of data including e-safety and copyright is good and perhaps one of the few strengths of these proposals. They were not in the old curriculum to any extent and not all schools gave these aspects appropriate emphasis. But, this must not become just one unit of work in a given year group, it needs to be covered, at an appropriate level, in each year and with issues re-iterated whenever online research takes place.

And finally there is the everything else that probably ought to take place clause – actually using applications, though even here the emphasis is on data and information rather than creativity. Lip service is paid to the notion that all learners need to become confident and competent users of a range of applications and tools in real world contexts.

Taken as a whole the proposed PoS is at variance with developments in many other countries, including the other home countries. Look for example at what is happening in Northern Ireland and in Australia . These curricula are much closer to the Naace proposals and have been properly developed through consultation with a full range of stakeholders, not just those with a fixed agenda and access to a minister.

That said a scheme of work based on the KS2 proposals is possible but only by increasing the emphasis on actually using the technology and away from aspects better taught in specialist courses at KS4. While a strong case can be made for improving the technical knowledge and understanding of KS 2 pupils, one which I in fact welcome, the proposals unfortunately attempt to do this at too high a level and at the expense of other, more directly relevant aspects of ICT.

Key Stage 3
This is effectively a slightly watered down Computing GCSE from the early 1980’s. Indeed it is almost entirely computing and coding with virtually no consideration of actually using ICT purposefully, though there is an implicit notion that that will happen across the curriculum. No, it wont. Cross-curricular ICT in any meaningful form has been a dream since the late 1980’s and 25 years later still does not exist. Yes, some subjects will use ICT beyond the create a poster or PowerPoint level, though I’ve rarely seen any during inspections although from my iPad research work the availability of tablets may change this or at least broaden use. However, other subjects merely use ICT, they do not teach it and have some expectation that the necessary skills have been taught elsewhere.

Under the proposed PoS this simply will not happen and while we have to move swiftly away from the ‘lets teach them Office’ debacle we cannot expect these learners to simply pick up skills without support. Yes, anyone can video something on their phone but how many have been taught to make a video – storyboarding, scripting, shooting sequences, editing, appropriate video formats for given purposes for example. Or how about designing a quality social networking site, creating and using templates in a business context and similar. Where will these happen?

And where is the essential teaching of e-safety and responsible use? Presumably it will be reduced to a single module hidden in PSHE never to be referred to again. How will that fit with a schools e-safety and child protection policies yet alone its duty of care.

Whereas it is feasible to interpret the primary proposals creatively to enable a full range of ICT capabilities to be taught this is impossible in KS3. What we have is a largely theoretical course totally divorced from the reality of ICT use in the world that the learners inhabit. Some aspects could be fun e.g. stripping and rebuilding computers, setting up small networks etc, though that is presuming that this could be made compliant with H&S restrictions. As for teaching data representation or tables and arrays to lower ability pupils on a grey winters afternoon then good luck to you!

These proposals quite simply deny KS 3 learners of their entitlement to essential digital literacy and IT knowledge skills and capabilities that are essential for employment.

So what can be done?
Firstly as many people as possible need to respond to the so-called consultation – its online here . Secondly, express you concerns to your subject association (that’s Naace) and even write to your MP. The more we protest through well defined and cogent argument the more chance there is of getting a PoS that might provide what learners and employers actually need and which can be taught effectively.

So, what we, as an ICT community must do is to stand up and fight for what we believe is right for learners, our economy and society. We have the strength of argument and experience on our side but it will be difficult, since no government ever takes any note of so-called consultations to any great extent unless they throw up political dangers. We must rally our arguments and make our case forcefully. We may be defeated at Thermopylae, but we will triumph at Salamis and Plataea. (Boris at least would understand even if Gove doesn’t!)


Written by Paul Heinrich

February 25, 2013 at 5:52 pm