The new computing curriculum

Back when I was at school, people suggested to me that I could work with computers. Believing that working with computers consisted of entering data and typing, I rejected that option outright, unable to think of anything more boring.

Then I got my hands on a ZX81, and I discovered that while using a computer might be boring, someone actually had to write the programs for others to use. That was where my interest lay, and where I found real pleasure.

I completed a degree in computing and IT, and by the end of it had a growing understanding of how much society is dependent on computing systems, and of how problems are solved by careful thinking and planning.

At this point I was also trying to earn some money, and extended the childminding training I was doing by getting a job teaching in adult education. I was teaching beginner IT classes, so while I had done all this marvellous learning, I was now teaching how to use a mouse and use basic spreadsheet formulas. It wasn’t the most inspiring of subjects, but it was enjoyable, and at least in the early days I was learning more about my subject all the time as I came across problems that others were having.

I went further by qualifying to teach in a secondary school; the business ICT was not the most interesting of topics, but there was the creative and computing sides to tempt me. The first school I trained in used Flash and Fireworks, and the second had a strong control element, and both of these encouraged me to believe that the subject was well worth teaching.

It seems to me that the trouble with ICT is that it’s easy to teach but hard to teach well. Most people these days have some level of ICT skills, but generally the subject seems to have a bad reputation as far too often it’s taught by people who have no real training in it and don’t have any real knowledge to pass on (I rush to add that this is the general impression I get, not from my very limited first hand experience).

I have sought to keep a balanced curriculum, including creative, business and more technical elements, within the current guidelines, and I feel this is really the best way to go. The skills of word processing, basic spreadsheets and (to a lesser extent) databases are still important, even if you’re only running a home. Being able to balance a budget using a spreadsheet, write a well laid out letter, use the web efficiently and understand the consequences of using ICT for a business will be applicable to everyone, surely. Being able to express yourself creatively using ICT is also important; I’ve long had admiration for those who take ideas from the world around them and modify and develop them through use of technology, and I feel creativity is essential to living well. That’s not to say the new curriculum is wrong: you can’t possibly make the most of computers without having at least a basic understanding of how they work and the implications of them.

Now the curriculum is being completely overhauled. I should be rejoicing: it’s changing to embrace the side of the subject that first attracted me. I only became interested in computers when I found that I could write my own programs; surely I should welcome the chance to encourage that interest in others?

Sadly, things are not that straightforward. The draft curriculum does seem to be written in a rather biased way; maybe this is simply a reflection of the extra detail needed for the new elements, but it would be a shame if in the pressure to include computing elements the creative side was lost, not to mention the less interesting but still important business ICT.

Partly prompted by these changes, there are discussions taking place on the future of the subject: there are fears that the focus on computing will drive students away, or that the lack of teachers available to actually teach computing will mean that the subject will become still more watered down and weakened. I was shocked when I did my training to discover that while to teach maths you had to have a degree containing at least 50% maths (and that means maths, not accounting or economics), to teach ICT all you needed was an A level or equivalent experience.

There are already schools where ICT is taught in a cross-curricular way rather than in discrete lessons, and this worries me; while there are teachers who will encourage the use of ICT to complete work, are they actually prepared to teach the ICT skills needed, or are they dependent on the skills the students already have? Will they merely take advantage of the fact that students have a basic ability to type and correct documents, or are they willing to spend time teaching how to use audacity, for example, to create a podcast, thereby increasing oral skills? As long as there are discrete ICT lessons where the students can learn these specific skills, I can imagine some teachers taking advantage of those skills, always assuming they have the knowledge themselves to support them, but I don’t see much space in an already crowded syllabus for the extra teaching of ICT skills alongside the specific subject knowledge, which is a shame as using two separate skill sets will surely develop students’ thinking skills and ability to relate learning to different areas.

The new curriculum is still under consultation, and I have to trust that by the end of the consultation period it will feel more balanced. In the meantime, I intend to do the best I can to encourage good ICT and computing teaching, by developing and offering materials to help support teachers in the new curriculum, including cross-curricular learning. It worries me, for example, that primary teachers are expected to teach computing, which for many must be completely new and alien. I also see many opportunities to combine ICT with other subjects, but feel that often teachers just don’t have the time to investigate and create materials suitable.

I’ve no idea how this will pan out, just as I had no idea when I started this blog how it would develop, but it’s a good excuse for me to put my own skills and creativity to use, and to extend my own ability and knowledge. And so www.coinlea.co.uk is born. Not much there yet, but I’ll be adding resources as I develop them (or find them in my filing system!), safe in the justification that as I’m offering them to others I don’t need to feel that time spent on them is mostly wasted.

Feel free to take a look, make use of anything you fancy and suggest anything you’d like to see in there.