There has been a significant amount of press in the UK about the quality of computer related education at Key Stage 3 and 4 (Secondary School level with pupils ages 11-16 years old) and to a much lesser extent Key Stage 5 (college or 6th form students aged 17-18 years old).
As someone who used to teach ICT at these level I have first hand experience of the kind of topics, software and skills taught to children in classes across the UK, and agree 100% that, as a subject, ICT should be kicked to the kerb and approached from a completely different angle.
And we’re certainly heading in the right direction.
The Next Gen. report by Livingstone and Hope details how we can provide the skills our children require to take our industries to the next level and beyond and even the current Education Secretary Michael Gove is making moves in the right direction. Change is coming and it’s change for the better.
But we must be careful not to rush these changes and to make sure the structure and content is right, that suitable facilities are available and we have the right people in place before we start this process otherwise we’ll be back to square one within a couple of years.
You Can’t Teach What You Don’t Know
The largest problem facing the introduction of a new, highly scientific and difficult subject is getting the right people in place to teach. And the most important word in that sentence is ‘right’.
Sure we can use existing ICT teachers but it’s clear that the skills required to teach ICT are not the same skills required to teach a Computing GCSE. Also, don’t get me started on the number of ICT teachers who don’t actually know how to use a computer…
We can draft in science and maths teachers to teach elements of the course others are unable to but those teachers already have working place directives in place limiting how many hours they can teach and those hours will already be more than accounted for.
If we really want to create a next generation of developers is passionate and knowledgeable educators pushing that passion onto the open minds in front of them. Sure, anyone can learn enough to teach a subject, but it wont be exciting, it won’t be boundary defining and it won’t make those pupils crave more. Sure, some teachers will really take to this, will develop that passion along with their students, but the majority won’t and as a result the subject could easily be seen as stale, boring and dull.
So the ideal solution is to hire for the shortfall but with approximately 3,900 state run secondary schools in the UK and with many schools having the need for more than one or two teachers per subject that’s a big recruitment drive.
Custom Content Is Risky But Rewarding
One of the most interesting aspects of this push towards a more computing focused subject is the idea of having a more flexible curriculum. Now this could mean a myriad of things though I’m taking it to mean schools being given the ability to cherry pick the elements they want to teach and to ignore elements they don’t.
This is extremely useful especially with a lack of specialist teachers and it also tackles one of the main criticisms of the National Curriculum, that it creates boilerplate content and restricts creativity and freedom in the classroom.
So by allowing schools to be flexible with what they teach we allow our teachers to experiment and push the boundaries of our children’s imaginations, if they have the knowledge to do that.
But it also opens up the possibility of a (and I hate myself for using this awful and overused phrase) postcode lottery where some schools are teaching more valuable skills than others. It complicates the act of awarding consistent and meaningful grades across the country and it could lead to stagnation as some schools resist pressure to improve as technology moves on.
Though you could make that argument for the education system as a whole due to the varying levels of skills between teachers of all subjects in all schools.
We’re A Fickle Bunch
With the issues highlighted above there is every chance that if we rush headlong into these changes we risk the first years being less than stellar as people find their feet, new teachers are recruited and less talented teachers are let go.
And this one worries me the most.
With every change of Government, or in many cases with every change in Education Secretary, schools are given newer mandates, newer targets and newer goals. And it’s always in response to a perceived failure by the last Government/Secretary.
If the introduction of a Computer focused subject is seen as a failure in any way then the next Education Secretary will trip over themselves to ‘fix’ the situation. Not by removing the subject but by constantly tweaking and ‘refocusing’, leading to a course that drives schools (and good teachers) away from the subject and turns it into something resembling what we already have.
ICT Isn’t All Bad
ICT isn’t just Word and Excel. There’s some really interesting content in there that shouldn’t just be discarded out of hand.
I’ve taught lessons in web design and planning using both graphical editors (Dreamweaver at the time) and text editors. We used some rudimentary programming tools in the early years (getting frogs safely across the road by managing traffic light systems) and video editing tools in later years. All of these were exciting, interesting and (usually) generated some pretty interesting results!
I’m confident that these elements will not be lost no matter what comes next, but we must be careful not to discard what we have and what actually works for want of a ‘better’ system.
Word Processing Skills Are Important
Something we need to acknowledge is that (this might nark some people) word processing and spreadsheet skills, and the ability to use MS products, are important skills that pupils need to have. Whether we like it or not the majority of the world uses MS Office and while this might change in the future having the ability to use these tools improves a child’s employability, their work rate at school and their computer literacy in general.
But the removal of these ‘skills’ from a specific subject is nothing but good news. By teaching these skills as part of other subjects will lead them to be seen as more natural tools that can be used in a wide range of situations rather than just in their ICT lesson.
But we need to make sure that time is available in all subjects to do this and acknowledge that it’ll take a whole school approach to achieve, something that will vary greatly on a school by school basis.
I’m certainly excited about how these changes will alter how our children see and use computers on a daily basis and how that can only improve the industry in general. But there are significant challenges that must be faced before we can move forward, confidently, and create a true next generation of developers.