ICT versus Computer Programming: a false dichotomy in the computing in schools debate?

The Guardian (UK) have embarked on a campaign to upgrade computer science and IT in schools. They have labelled this campaign: ” digital literacy.”

In today’s Guardian (10/01/12) there is an interesting article on the apparent failings of ICT teaching in schools and how these could be remedied. They also publish a number of views on ICT teaching from pupils. (Consumers?)

Well, here are a few of my thoughts, for what they are worth. I am a special needs secondary school teacher specialising in French and RE but I also teach literacy and one, 35 minute lesson of ICT a week to a year 7 group. The “special needs” include visual and auditory impairment and reading ages range from 4 to 10 years. I have no formal  ICT qualifications and can’t programme at any great level- I rely on programmes like WordPress in order to communicate my ideas…

It is self evident that, year on year, the computer use of our students is becoming more widespread. One of the views from a 12 yr old (quoted in the Guardian today) was: ” …. I like using my laptop at home to go on Facebook and play games-I’m good at that.” The student stated this after having admitted ; ” I’m not really good at computers.”

The above student was bored by lessons on using Word and Excel but admits he is not very good at using them. I believe that it is very important to teach such a pupil on how to use these everyday programmes, but there must be a way of making him interested in using these products to create something for himself.

Another 12 yr old stated: ” We are taught how to save documents and search for simple information but we are on the internet at home….so we know how to do that.” Ah. As teachers we also have to bear in mind that not everyone has a computer at home and not everyone has the internet at home.

My concern is that we need to teach both of the above students, and the full spectrum in between, how to use these basic programmes- usually and realistically Microsoft- to their advantage. We need to teach above all how to weigh up the content provided on the internet- what are your sources as us history trained folk might say. Computers are used more and more across the curriculum and to assume that children are able to use them efficiently and creatively simply because they use the computer “a lot” could be setting them up to fail. OMore students are going to need to show their ability to use these consumer products in future jobs than to be able to programme computers…..

Ah. There is the rub. According to Professor Simon Peyton Jones, chair of Computing At School (quoted in the Guardian article mentioned above); ” Over the last decade or so, many employers have been keen to attract school-leavers fluent in simply using computers…so this may well have influenced the way the curriculum has developed.” And who is leading the demand for teaching Computer Science in schools? Oh. Google. We are not “producing” enough programmers for the future…. In both cases we, as teachers, are being asked to train our students in order to fulfil certain jobs.

Is that the purpose of education?  Not in my view. And that is where the term ” digital literacy” comes into its own. Using computers as tools and learning how to programme, master those tools, to become independent learner and thinkers.

I have asked students to create their own quizzes in MFL to practise their vocabulary using  ClassTools : this is far more productive than creating one for them and they have had to copy French words correctly (NC French writing, level 1). Not programming as such, but the student has created something of their own: they are in control. Not passive. In my brief ICT session, students are using Textease Turtle to create patterns and games. Not passive. In ICT club, students are using 2doityourself to make games. Not programming as such. But the first step to thinking about being in control. Not passive consumers.

So to me there is no dichotomy between teaching ICT and programming. Our students need to develop independent thinking skills and to be able to use the tools that will enable them to express those views creatively. But perhaps we need to see ict- as it is currently taught- as a cross curriculum skill. Digital literacy alon side emotional literacy and, eh, literacy. For instance, using word, publisher, wordle could be largely incorporated into English. Writing to an audience, comprehension. Geography, google earth, maps. History, use of sources. PSHE, using social media safely Art, image processing programmes. Maths, FT, DT,  etc……Using these everyday programmes not passively but as creators. As I’ve suggested above, some creation of games can also be used across the curriculum too. And if we did that, we can create some space to teach programming- even if at the early stages this just means showing stuents that we are telling the computer what to do.

Companies like Google are telling us that we are not creating enough programmers to create programmes that…… well, that the rest of us will passively consume…..

I’m all for digital literacy…. and creating independent thinkers so that they can lead productive lives.















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7 responses to “ICT versus Computer Programming: a false dichotomy in the computing in schools debate?”

  1. Lightweight says :

    Interesting review of the status quo in the UK. As an IT professional, programmer, and employer of programmers based in New Zealand, I think that schools are – based on my limited knowledge – largely missing the boat. Computers and surrounding communications technology are not a field unto themselves in most cases – they’re an adjunct or an amplifier for most other activities, the same way that a pen or pencil can be applied in most classrooms.

    The big issue we in the IT industry face is that kids are coming out of schools a) not knowing much (of use) about computers, b) they don’t know many approaches to solving problems, and c) they’re not really very interested, because that sort of stuff is “hard”.

    I’d be really keen to see students given more opportunity to incorporate computers into their learning off their own bats, allowing peer pressure to help lead the way. I also think that students will resonate with gaining an insight into computers… without using a computer. I strongly advocate the conceptual framework represented in a curriculum like “Computer Science Unplugged” – I’m not involved with the programme, but it’s being developed in NZ, and I know educators and students who have taken part in it… and find it a hugely enjoyable, empowering, and eye opening experience. When students learn about how computers work, through real life examples and even kinesthetic exercises, they start to realise that there’s a lot more to computing than a box with a mouse, keyboard, and monitor, the family tablet, their game console or their parent’s smartphone.

    Ultimately, if kids can see a role for themself, and imagine a useful contribution they can make to their own development (i.e. an answer to the ubiquitous question: “how is this going to be useful to me in the future?”) – especially if a bit of healthy rebellion can be included to spice up the deal (i.e. not rigid rote learning, but self-directed results based learning) then I think they’ll take to it like a duck to water… I know that’s what hooked me at that age.

  2. overhere1 says :

    Thanks for quoting my post in you article! I’ll look at your post when I have a bit more time.

  3. overhere1 says :

    Interesting article in the Observer, UK) today, 04/03/12 following the release of the Raspberry:

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