Backlash against computing curriculum misses the point

Not just for games. flickingerbrad

Computing is an important subject, but it is only one of many that schools have to teach, and few would argue that it is more important than English, maths, or science. But as a high-profile debate continues about the new computing curriculum, due to come into force in September 2014, the ways in which digital technology impacts on other subjects and how they are taught has been ignored.

I am worried that a backlash against the new curriculum is distracting us from a much more important set of issues about what children in schools are expected to learn and how we expect them to be taught.

Digital technology has had a radical impact on society. Whether you are a professional sports person, a journalist, an historian or geographer, a musician, a doctor, a chemist, a physicist or a mathematician, what you do and the way you do it has been changed by digital technology.

The sorts of questions that we can ask, the strategies we can use to try to answer them, and the ways in which we can represent our understandings have all been transformed. It seems reasonable therefore that the subjects we teach in school should reflect these changes.

In January, at the BETT 2014 technology and education show, Matthew Hancock, the skills minister, argued that technology can transform education and that now is a good time to try to ensure it does. He went on to announce the formation of a new Education Technology Action Group, chaired by Professor Stephen Heppell, to look at the use of digital technology throughout the education system. I am a member of the group.

Bring in the computer scientists

To find out why we’ve got to this point, it’s worth looking back at the policy changes over the last few years. In his ministerial speech at the BETT education and technology conference in January 2012, secretary of state for education, Michael Gove stated that “ICT [information and communications technology] in schools is a mess”. He was also widely perceived as having implied that “what we need is a rigorous computer science curriculum”.

Prior to this, Gove had introduced a number of changes in the education landscape, which had led people to conclude that he did not perceive the use of digital technology in schools to be a priority. For example, he instigated the closure of Becta, the agency that provided guidance and support to schools about ICT, and he cut the Harnessing Technology Grant, which specifically funded digital technology in schools.

At around the same time, the Royal Society report on computing in schools also criticised the teaching of ICT in schools, and identified the need to clarify what was meant by ICT.

This reflected the fact that the term ICT had come to be used to refer not only to the subject (learning about digital technology), but also to the cross-curricula use of digital technology (learning with digital technology), and the technology itself (the hardware, software and related network infrastructure). The Royal Society report suggested that the subject ICT should be renamed computing, which should consist of three strands: computer science, information technology and digital literacy.

In June 2012 the Department for Education (DfE) announced that from the following September, schools would no longer need to teach ICT as specified in the English National Curriculum. This reinforced the perception in many schools that ICT wasn’t an important aspect of their provision.

The DfE then asked the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) to coordinate the development of a new draft programme of study for ICT, for inclusion in the revised nation curriculum from September 2014.

Many concerns have been raised about the process that ensued, perhaps the most worrying of which related to the lack of involvement of teachers and a heavy bias towards computer science within the drafting groups.

In the initial meeting of the original drafting group the chairperson questioned whether or not the curriculum for ICT needed to include digital literacy at all.

Following a national consultation process, the final version of the computing programme of study was published in September 2013. It contains elements of computer science, information technology, and digital literacy.

However, particularly at Key Stage 3 (Years 7, 8 and 9), the curriculum is weighted towards computer science, with an emphasis on computer programming. There has been widespread concern about whether or not schools have the capacity to deliver this new computing curriculum.

Internet left off

However, an analysis of the programmes of study for other subjects that come into force from September 2014 shows little evidence that digital technology will have any impact on what children are expected to learn. For example, the curriculum for English explicitly mentions “books” 60 times, but makes no reference to the “Internet” or words such as “digital” or “media”.

Indeed, suggestions that the word “texts” might be substituted for the word “books” in some places in the programme of study were rejected by the DfE.

Instead, the non-statutory notes and guidance on reading-comprehension for English state that “in using reference books, pupils need to know what information they need to look for before they begin and need to understand the task. They should be shown how to use contents pages and indexes to locate information”. The notes go on to suggest that when teaching the skills of information retrieval, teachers should consider “making use of any library services and expertise to support this”.

The lack of reference to the Internet or search engines seems extraordinary in this context. Particularly given what Gove actually said in his BETT speech in 2012 about how digital technology had transformed society.

Gove spoke about how technology would transform pedagogy in schools: “A Victorian schoolteacher could enter a 21st century classroom and feel completely at home,” he said. “Whiteboards may have eliminated chalk dust, chairs may have migrated from rows to groups, but a teacher still stands in front of the class, talking, testing and questioning. But that model won’t be the same in 20 years’ time. It may well be extinct in ten.”

Whether or not you agree that ICT in schools is a mess, it does seem clear that what we need is radical action to transform education, so that it is fit for purpose in the 21st century.