The proposed dismantling of the National Curriculum offers a golden opportunity to improve the way we teach with and about technology, says
Back in 1999 computers were very different beasts. Many of us were using Windows 98 or ME; software would have been installed from CD-ROM, but we’d have still been using 3.5-inch floppy disks to transport our documents – assuming they fitted inside the 1.44 MB capacity, that is. The school I was working at back then had made the leap onto the information superhighway, with 128K ISDN, but our home Internet was still relying on dial-up.
Moore’s Law, that computing power doubles every couple of years or so, has brought some amazing advances since then – so much so that the above description seems quaintly nostalgic. It’s perhaps something of a surprise that the current National Curriculum for primary ICT dates back to the same time; but what is more surprising is that the statutory part of the Curriculum has stood the test of time remarkably well. In terms of the ‘waterfall’ design methodology of a curriculum produced by central government, the authors did a good job of laying down functional requirements, without getting into the detail of technical specifications.
Alongside technological advances, ideas about curriculum design have moved on since then. Sir Jim Rose’s placed ICT at the heart of his proposed curriculum, recognising that the learning opportunities of those who couldn’t use a computer were severely diminished, as would be their job prospects and participation in society. Robin Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review saw digital literacy as part of a broad definition of literacy, which undoubtedly encompasses the ‘find and present’ approach to ICT that characterises much primary practice, although this perhaps doesn’t do enough to provide an insight into how digital technology works. Other curricula such as the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme and the International Primary Curriculum similarly focus on ICT as a tool to support pupils’ learning across the curriculum, and all but the most Luddite would have to acknowledge the transformative contribution which ICT can make here. Naace’s 3rd Millennium Learning awards (naace.co.uk/thirdmillenniumlearningaward) are ample testimony to this.
I think it’s because of the dual nature of ICT, as both a subject to study and a tool to support study across the curriculum, that the National Curriculum Expert Panel felt it (along with D&T) lacked sufficient ‘disciplinary coherence’ to be stated as a discrete and separate National Curriculum subject. But I, like 77 per cent of those responding to the consultation, feel differently.
I don’t think it’s too difficult to pin down what we mean by ICT. Here’s my attempt:
ICT is the study of information, communication and technology and their inter-relationship. Information here covers creation of, management of and access to data in its digital representation. Communication covers both networks (including the Internet) and communicating and collaborating with others via these networks. Technology includes an understanding of complex systems and the principles and processes of computer science.
Whilst many schools are covering these elements incredibly well, providing pupils with a broad, rigorous and creative technological education, this is by no means the case for all. Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, speaking in Edinburgh last summer, observed, “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools; your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”
Ian Livingston, life president of games company Eidos and co-author of the DCMS-commissioned NextGen report, put it even more strongly, claiming that “The narrowness of how we teach children about computers risks creating a generation of digital illiterates, and starving some of the UK’s most successful industries of the talent they need to thrive.”
They may well be right – imagine an English curriculum which included only listening and reading; if ICT is seen only in terms of using software written by others, never giving children the chance to write their own programs, then we’re unlikely to provide children with the deeper understanding of computing they deserve.
To be fair, both the ’99 National Curriculum and Rose’s proposed revision included programming, but Ofsted report that too often this is honoured more in the breach than the observance. I, like Steve Furber, who chaired the Royal Society’s investigation into computing in schools, am far from persuaded that Michael Gove’s proposal to ‘disapply’ the National Curriculum will bring about the more innovative ICT provision or the focus on computing that Schmidt, Livingstone and Furber are looking for.
Assuming Michael Gove’s proposals go through and the ICT programme of study and attainment
target are ‘disapplied’ from this September, what should schools do? We move from a ‘waterfall’ model to something much closer to the iterative development process that characterises real world software development, with a cycle of planning, design, implementation and evaluation.
Gove is quite clear that ICT remains part of the National Curriculum. Many schools, particularly those that have invested time or money in their scheme of work, will carry on as at present, perhaps tweaking what they do to include a little more programming and computer science, perhaps not.
For others, there’ll be a move to ‘embed’ ICT across the curriculum: this has much to recommend it, particularly with a move out of the computer room to laptops, netbooks, iPads or pupils’ own devices in the classroom. It’s not too difficult to find meaningful contexts from the Curriculum as a whole for pupils to develop and apply their ICT understanding, knowledge and skills, as QCDA did in Rose’s day, (http://bit.ly/roseict). Dangers with this approach are that it’s too easy to focus on ICT skills at the expense of knowledge and understanding, and that the use of ICT can become skewed towards researching and presenting information, instead of creative or analytical work.
The Royal Society’s report ‘Shut Down or Restart’ recommends redefining the subject as three interrelated domains, a small core of digital literacy (described, too narrowly, as the ability to use computer systems confidently and effectively) and twin domains of information technology and computer science.
Naace, the ICT association, look at things rather differently, placing ‘digital wisdom’ at the core of their framework for ICT (http://bit.ly/NaaceFramework), ensuring that learners can make decisions about using technology in interesting, creative and productive ways. Digital wisdom is built through five areas of study: ‘safe and responsible use’, ‘technologies and how they work’, ‘digital skills’, ‘technology in the world’ and ‘digital literacy’. Schools adopting this framework would do much to ensure that pupils had a broad, challenging technological education. The Naace framework also provides a great way to develop pupils’ critical digital literacy – going beyond using programs or websites to think through some of the assumptions that have underpinned their development.
Naace emphasises that its framework, like the present National Curriculum programme of study, offers schools the flexibility to develop the curriculum for their own context. Integrating Naace’s framework with the Computer Science Curriculum for Schools (tinyurl.com/tpnaace) produced by Computing at Schools (CAS) is straightforward, with CAS’s ‘range and content’ providing quite detailed coverage of the technology aspects of Naace’s framework, so pupils acquire some understanding of the principles of computer science and develop the skills of computational thinking. CAS map knowledge of computer science into five areas – algorithms, programs, data, computers and communication, and the Internet – emphasising that there’s much more to computing than coding.
“Disapplying the ICT programme of study is about freedom. It will mean that, for the first time, teachers will be allowed to cover truly innovative, specialist and challenging topics.” So says Michael Gove, and his proposals do provide us with a great opportunity to do things differently, to do things better.
We’re being offered the chance to move to a far more agile approach to learning than any starting with a pre-determined curriculum. Agile methods for software development are based on responding to change, collaborating with customers, focusing on developing working code and looking at individuals and interactions rather than processes and tools. In the context of the classroom, this echoes Plowden’s notion from 1967 of building on and strengthening children’s intrinsic interest in learning and leading them to learn for themselves, and of ideas of genuinely personalised learning, with the learner at the heart of the educational system.
It’s now possible for any literate, connected and motivated person to teach herself almost anything. Without a statutory programme of study, schools and teachers can provide the space for this within school: to go into an ICT lesson and ask pupils what they’d like to learn about, working with each to support and challenge them as they do so. Collaborative projects, communities of enquiry and challenge-based learning fit in well here. Assessment can focus on what learners have achieved and contributed, and what challenges they might tackle next, rather than ticking off level descriptors. There’s now the chance to make ICT in primary schools much more about exploring a landscape than completing a journey, with the ICT suite much closer to a design studio than a typing pool or call centre.
Freedom brings responsibility. Let’s make the most of the opportunities for a fresh, innovative approach to both curriculum and pedagogy that the secretary of state is offering us.
Much of the joy of computing comes through direct experience of writing programs, persevering to overcome problems encountered en route and finally producing code that works as intended. There are some great tools around for primary pupils to get this experience. Top of my list is MIT’s Scratch (free from http://scratch.mit.edu), which provides a drag-and-drop interface for building anything from animations and turtle graphics to sophisticated games and simulations. Scratch is easy enough for Y2 to get started with programming, but modifications can provide a basis for undergraduate computer science courses (BYOB), or be used for ‘control’ applications, using Wedo, Arduino (S4A) or Mindstorms (Enchanting). You can even use an Xbox Kinect as a controller. Kodu, from Microsoft Research, and also free, has a beautiful, game-like interface and provides a nice way in to creating 3D computer games, which is likely to be appealing to many primary pupils.
Scratch, Kodu and other tools like App Inventor aren’t just about pupils learning to program; they also have wide applications across the curriculum, and work on game or app development could lie at the heart of, or be integrated into, many creative, cross-curricular topics. This way, pupils see that computational thinking provides some unique insights far beyond ICT.