IT in the classroom

For the first time in around 20 years we do not have a minister responsible for IT in Education. The new administration has closed BECTA the agency for IT in schools and FE. Unlike the previous administration that saw IT as a tool for transforming the experience of education. The new education department is at best luke warm, wanting more traditional lessons taught in traditional ways.

Whatever you may think about this change of direction and emphasis, as a professional body we have to take note of one very important fact about young people. The children in our schools absorb the new technologies in their home life with great gusto, yet ICT lessons in school are amongst the dullest and boring they experience. The Royal Society is conducting a year long study into this area. See http://royalsociety.org/Current-ICT-and-Computer-Science-in-schools/.

If young people are put off careers in IT because they see IT as dull, this will have a significant impact on our economy and international competitiveness.

Given the rapid developments in IT over the last 20 years though and with the likely changes in the next 20 years, what would you consider to be the core knowledge and skills that young  people should know if they want to become part of the IT discipline as adults.

Also, for those who will be users rather than creators of the next generation IT what should they know to be IT literate for the workplace?

Indeed, what jobs will exist in the UK in IT in 10 years from now?

In the 1930s a computer was a person who computed, today it is a machine. Many of the interesting developments in algorithms are coming from quantitative biology. When will a computer be thought of as an organism?  Will Physics and maths be the route to quantum computing, but biology and maths to bio-computing? If so, when should this should be reflected in school curriculums?

It's much easier, in my experience, to teach computer skills to someone with good graphic skills than it is to teach drawing to an adult programmer.

Not just in IT, but across the whole Science agenda, standards of mathematics in the UK are far from world class. There is evidence to show this poor performance going back over 100 years. That I think is the single biggest challenge we face as an underpinning to developments in IT.

My own thinking on this leads me to a belief that systems thinking and programming should be at the core of A level. The ability to take a problem and solve it logically and an understanding of how systems work are useful life skills, not just the foundations of computing.

I remember a lecture of Seymour Papert probably 30 years ago. The words may not be exact but the spirit of his lecture was:

"Do not teach children about computers, use computers to teach them about the world".

Despite the rapid evolution of the technologies in the intervening years, I'd still sign up to that philosophy.

My own experience is that the schools which have used IT wisely see IT as an environment as much as a subject. I have seen really interesting and innovative practice in our schools using IT in music, art, maths and history. I think I share the youngsters’ view that I've seen less of it in IT teaching itself.

I worry that a focus on short term measurable skills is what makes the curriculum boring for both teachers and pupils.

I hope we will all support the Royal society's important efforts in this area. The viability of our future profession in the UK needs this issue to be solved.

Comments (18)

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  • 1
    Jooli Atkins wrote on 11th Aug 2010

    Totally agree Chris. And this leaves an even bigger problem for those of us engaged in learning and development in the world of work, because most young adults don't believe that they need to 'learn' IT, perhaps because of the way they were taught it in school.

    We must change the way we teach IT in every sense, to overcome stereotypes, to make it engaging and enjoyable and, most importantly for me, to make it of real value in the world of work.

    Anything I can do to help?

    Jooli Atkins
    Chair - BCS Information and Technology Training Specialist Group

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  • 2
    Jonathan C Smith wrote on 12th Aug 2010

    This is interesting - and more than a little worrying. I'm a Governor at a primary school in Hertfordshire, and will return as Governor to a nearby secondary school in the Autumn term. I happened to discuss the use of IT with a primary teacher recently, one whose responsibility is for literacy. She said that her pupils (years 5 and 6 especially) thoroughly love using laptops, and she - the teacher - has been developing ways to use laptops as teaching aids.


    This supports a survey carried out in the last year in the whole school which made it very apparent that computers are very definately seen as helpful by teachers, pupils and parents. The Governing body has approved the purchase of another trolley with 16 laptops as a consequence. I'll try to find out what the opinions in the secondary school are. From a previous 'tour' as a Governor there I have a strong feeling that IT and computers are considered essential.

    I know a minute 'sample' of attitudes & opinions in 1 primary and 1 secondary school means little, but it just might point to inconsistencies in teaching in schools nationally. Remember, the primary teacher is looking for ways to increase the use of IT as a teaching aid, and the pupils clearly enjoy using IT themselves. I think most would agree that a pupil's progress in a subject is influenced by the teacher's enthusiasm for it (that was certainly true for me!)


    Jonathan C. Smith
    IT Practitioner (semi retired!) and Internal Auditor

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  • 3
    Joachim Arthur wrote on 13th Aug 2010

    This is an interesting article to say the least. I can comment on this, as both an IT professional and parent.

    My son loves using his computer at home and has been doing that since he was 3. Surprisingly the older he gets, the worse his results become in ICT. However, his time spend on his home computer has not changed. This obviously shows two things: he is not learning anything constructive at home and he is not finding the lessons at school interesting enough.

    Teachers do have a hard time with teaching class sizes as they are and to actively involve and make a lesson interesting take extra enthusiasm. ICT class size reduction or the teachers enthusiasm would help draw more kids into IT.

    What we tend to forget is that everything around us now is propelled by IT. Our entire education system and economy is IT based. It would be a pity though to have our children grow into a nation of users rather than creators.

    Joachim Arthur

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  • 4
    Julian Cox wrote on 13th Aug 2010

    I also have a multi-faceted view of the use of IT in schools, as a parent, as an ex-Governor and as an IT professional specialising in skills and training. I love the Seymour Papert quote, it sums up my feelings - i.e the means to an end rather than vice-versa.

    Primary schools now are as much about children learning how to learn as they are about being 'taught' material to a level. IT has a place in this as a tool for learning, but in order to be used effectively usually requires some training to do so.

    I would therefore separate the training provided to children on how to use the technology from the applied use of that technology as a learning tool.

    As a learning tool it can be used effectively in many ways:
    - research resource
    - simulation platform
    - eLeaning platform
    - assessment tool
    - scribing tool (text and graphics)*
    - etc.

    In all the above cases it is the subject matter viewed though the IT that is the focus of the learning. My son has fine-motor skills issues (i.e. poor handwriting) so often uses a laptop to present his work at school; rather that that have papers with "Fail - unreadable" thrown back at him.

    However once children are in secondary school it is only fair that they are taught vocational skills in readiness for the real world - and as IT is all pervasive should be a subject of learning.

    It's not the IT in schools that's the problem, it's the USE of IT; perhaps "Computers don't kill children's brain cells, it's the use of them that do" ;-)

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  • 5
    Ex ICT Teacher wrote on 13th Aug 2010

    I recently left my job as an ICT teacher. I was as bored of the subject as the students! My response is going to be varied and jump around a bit without developing too much, but forgive me, I have so much to complain about and so little time.

    Remember it's currently ICT in the classroom, not IT.

    The national curriculum is REALLY unprescriptive and flexible for a schoolteacher and deserves a lot of praise. You can teach whatever you want and make a link to the NC - if you are inventive.

    Unfortunatly as soon as you reach GCSE the qualifications become very prescriptive. Also the original KS3 guidance that was developed (back in the 90s), and is still followed by many schools, is fairly poor.

    The main qualification I taught revolved around office applications. It had a warped concept of what counted as a Distinction - being able to repeat the same skill 3 times instead of just once, in many cases. It has been highlighted that it's worth is not what it should be many times. We always got a much higher pass mark than the schools English/Maths/Sci result. It was sold as kid's enthusiam for the subject, good teaching, and harnessing students 'prior knowledge'. hmmmmmm!

    Where we did units such as websites there was no look at code or publishing to an actual webhost. This was a departmental decision due to the push for grades and lack of faith in the children to be able to accomplish it.

    I recently moderated the level 3 IT diploma, and it features a whole unit based on teamwork and psychology. It felt much more like it should have been in a business qualification. There was no unit focused on programming. It wasn't all bad there was a networking unit where students had to deploy a physical network and troubleshoot it, as well as plan a conceptual network.

    Many schools have a vast amount of networked computers that students can use. Few have computers or hardware that students can toy around with. A lot of the security restrictions are much stronger and even the bright students can't bypass them like the good old days.

    Programming is rarely taught. Scratch by MIT is an excellent environment. Something of the sort should be taught in all schools. Instead the majority of units delivered will feature 'multimedia'.

    A-levels are all IT, mostly Applied, and Computing has never been offered widely.

    As a kid who grew up with a BBC micro and a program your own games book I find it very hard to link my experience and childrens nowadays - and I'm only 26. They don't have to format their floppies anymore, they don't get to install new harddrives in their PCs because everyone has laptops. The internet is just there, they don't have to dial up the modem and have a perspective of access speeds.

    IT is better when used in other subjects for a specific purpose. Art programs in Art, music software in music etc.

    Students often come to the subject with the wrong attitude. 'I already know how to use a computer', 'Why do I need to know IT I'm going to be a hairdress/builder/whatever?'.

    How can lessons be as engaging as self motivated learning via the WWW, or self motivated computer gaming no matter how tight your admin thinks the computers are controlled.

    The big gap between previous generations, is older people who learnt computers, became computers. They learnt how to think to match the machines they are using. The IT Industry needs these troubleshooters, problem solvers, logical and critical thinkers.

    Nowadays everyone learns ICT, and generally they have quite good skills overall if you just want to word process, send an email or do a bit of non-critical research via wikipedia. Computers have been come easier to use so there is less need to tinker, but in some cases they've also become too complex at the same time.

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  • 6
    Ex ICT Teacher wrote on 13th Aug 2010

    I also think it speaks volumes when all the industry heads, on the RS link, are worried about how 'Computing' isn't being studied in schools.

    Computing has never been a subject in schools except for A-Level which has largely only been taught in grammar or private school, and even then rarely.

    It's always been IT and then ICT.

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  • 7
    Ariadne Tampion wrote on 13th Aug 2010

    I have a daughter who has just finished her GCSE studies, including ICT. She found school ICT classes boring and tedious too.

    My perception of the problem is that today's school students are suffering from being the 'in between generation'.

    When I was at school, there was an option to study O Level Computer Science, in which students learnt how computers work and how to program them. The now compulsory GCSE ICT seems to consist mostly of learning how to use Microsoft communication applications.

    Communication of all types is inherently tedious: it becomes worthwhile when you have something you want to communicate! This is true whether that communication takes place via speech, handwriting, email, word processing or 'Powerpoint'. But the people setting and teaching the curriculum are still in the "Wow! Gee Wizz! We had to use Tippex" frame of mind.

    I hope that by the time my grandchildren are at school there will be no special ICT lessons but that computers will be pervasively used a tool across the curriculum, And that there once again will be a computer science option for those youngsters who are interested in how computers actually work and looking towards a career in taking computing forward.

    As for my daughter, she has now taken an interest in software engineering as a career as a result of logging onto Google's jobs site, after I gave her some 'Google female' post-it notes which I picked up at an event. This summer holiday she has been teaching herself how to program in Python - needless to say, she finds this massively more engaging than school ICT lessons!

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  • 8
    Ariadne Tampion wrote on 14th Aug 2010

    I think maybe I'd better clarify that in my comment above I wasn't responding to the comments of 'Ex ICT Teacher'. Those comments were posted while I was working on mine, and I read them for the first time when the page refreshed after mine was posted.

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  • 9
    Nigel Williamson wrote on 14th Aug 2010

    Should we be teaching IT or teaching how technology increases life value through speed of production, flexibility in capability such as the ability to process high end mathematical problems through to the use of those math formulas to create individual and imaginative design, products etc. IT is a tool be it for business or pleasure; we should ensure it appeals to the user as an extension of themselves. I believe this would appeal as far less of a challenge to all age groups if programs used were built to adapt to the individual not have the individual adapt constantly to it. Then there may be the realisation of value, perhaps enough to generate interest.

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  • 10
    Mike Darke wrote on 16th Aug 2010

    I am not directly involved in teaching, but surely a large part of the problem here is that IT/ICT isn't seen as a tool which can be adapted to individual problems. Ariadne Tampion refers to her daughter (privately) learning Python. Surely this is the way to produce a generation of pupils whose reaction to IT is "how can I get it to do what I want?".
    I suspect that would require (a) smaller class sizes and (b) a platform which allowed the pupil to record their work, but also allowed complete reloading of the platform at least overnight - which in turn implies a substantial investment in systems and systems operators.

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  • 11
    Ray Pearson wrote on 16th Aug 2010

    Having managed networks in 2 fairly large schools, I used to find it rather depressing that 'GSCE/A level ICT' usually consisted of apparently teaching students how to use Microsoft Office products, and by implication, to be Microsoft consumers. As mentioned above, it was only in photography/art and design/music where any really interesting use of ICT by pupils was going on.

    I can only hope that the pilot OCR GSCE Computing curriculum (http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/challenge.php) helps to address the decline in student numbers taking ICT, and contributes to a more interesting curriculum for students. It's interesting that this decline has coincided with most schools adding more and more computing devices to their ICT provision, such that some now have a 2:1 pupil to computer ratio.

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  • 12
    Ray Pearson wrote on 17th Aug 2010

    PS: As Cuban found (2001), most students (who had access) were spending more time using a computer at home than at school, where they were lucky to get 2 x 1 hour lessons a week. They also had the time and opportunity to experiment and try out things which were never possible in their school.

    Yes, things like Scratch are excellent; web design and Flash are taught, and there's still plenty of value in the many flavours of Logo, but the national curriculum as we know it moves so slowly that, as with so much in I(C)T, by the time these developments hit the classroom, the students are interested in something more exciting, (like phone apps).

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  • 13
    Simon Elliott wrote on 18th Aug 2010

    As someone who has taught GCSE ICT for ten years with good results, I can say that the only way to make the subject more interesting is to remove the mountain of paperwork that the children must produce as "documentation".

    The children spent more time writing about what they did than on doing.

    Contrast this with the KS3 children that I taught who did photography, animation, video editing, music production and, yes, document production and spreadsheets, with the emphasis on the quality of the final artefact and one can see how the GCSE must change.

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  • 14
    Brian Steene wrote on 18th Aug 2010

    Ray speaks a lot of sense. Education reform and innovation does have an inherent lethargy.

    Speaking as somebody with 5 years in teaching, 14 in the IT industry and the last 8 years back in teaching, and two very sucessful children of my own, I can speak with some authority and experience on this topic.

    Firstly, it is natural and correct that BCS Members (and most IT savvy people) should be dismayed and astonished at THE GCSE AND A LEVEL ICT content that is REQUIRED to be taught. It is without doubt profoundly boring in places. This does need to change.

    Secondly, and for me, most importantly, there has been a pround decline in levels of literacy and numeracy in education in general - despite the hype that surrounds improved exam results. I am genuinely appalled at the standard of most of the work I mark. Simply put, pupils are "getting away" with shoddy grammar, spelling and essay skills. Some may even relate this to the bigger picture where our consumer and technology led society has, in turn bred, a level of indolence and consumerism that encourages laziness and stifles creativity.

    As a father, I encouraged my children to engage in a wide range of activities. To engage in debate, sports, music and most importantly for me - reading. My sons devoured books for breakfast. They are inquiring and have a hunger for learning. They take the backs of things to "see how it works". This is the core of education - it begins at home and it doesn't involve PS3's, X Boxes, PC's, iPhones and, for that matter, programming. It is about creating minds that hunger for learning, are compassionate, informed, and competitive. This in turn manifests itself in the classroom.

    So, before the denigration of ICT education truly gets out of hand let's get back to some basics first and sort that out. As an IT Teacher, I find the most engaging pupils (and the most successful ones) are those that DON'T spend hours and hours behind a computer screen.

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  • 15
    Ali Jarman wrote on 18th Aug 2010

    In the main comments above deal with the issue of the ICT taught in schools, but even more under threat is the use of ICT/IT to teach. Becta has done a good job encouraging schools and teachers to recognise the value of ICT to pedagogy, to engage their students in their learning of all subjects. Lose this and our children will have a far poorer experience in their education.

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  • 16
    David Longman wrote on 27th Aug 2010

    I think the problem is inverse. The issue to sort out is not that ICT and Computing alone are either boring or declining but that all the other knowledge domains that are covered in the curriculum (i.e. subjects) need to change and to change rapidly.

    We should be critiquing science, maths, english and the rest of them and ask why they are not using computation as a key driver for knowledge and understanding.

    To me, that's the meaning behind Papert's statement: "Do not teach children about computers, use computers to teach them about the world". This is simply not happening in schools (and I am sure it is not happening that much in Universities either).

    There is an unspoken but very intense rejection of Papert's notion at the heart of almost every discipline in the school curriculum.

    So, do not ask why is ICT so boring, but instead ask why is English, Science or Maths still taught without ICT or computing? Why do so many undergraduates arrive at University unable to use a wordprocessor effectively for writing (not just typing - and even that they can't do well), or unable to use a spreadsheet effectively for (simple) numerical modelling, or unaware of and unable to use simulation tools for analysing such things as biological systems?

    I think that the responsibility for this lies with other curriculum subjects, not with ICT or computing alone.

    So, one important reason why ICT is so dull is that it has no point or purpose within the school curriculum as a whole and, worse, it is tacitly rejected by almost all other disciplines in the curriculum.

    No wonder students are put off.

    PS: this is not a problem to be solved by a simple skills development approach (a la NOF) but a major overhaul of how we construct and reconstruct curriculum knowledge.

    Obviously I am not offering a quick fix! However, teacher training (where I work) can help here - although the same problems exist there too because on the whole teacher training merely provides normative repetitions of existing practice - it rarely strives to be different, or to change the landscape. We are hidebound by the mindless chant of "standards" and "quality" but have forgotten how or have lost the will to challenge these notions which were born in the 1970s when ICT/com,puting were barely visible. We now live and learn in a radically different context yet we still teach our children "fish-grabbing-with-the-bare-hands". (See: http://nerds.unl.edu/pages/preser/sec/articles/sabertooth.html)

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  • 17
    gayatri wrote on 27th Aug 2010

    I am from India and belong to the education sector, after I read all the comments on the usage of IT/ICT, I feel you are way ahead of schools in India. In India also we have the same kind of issues that you face (boring subject, less marks, disinterest in the school work) I feel probably the way the teachers teach, the way the student reinforces the knowledge picked up in the school matters the most. It is found that when they apply the knowledge learnt in a real life situation the lesson becomes interesting. The lesson has to not only appeal to the senses but also to the brain, then we can say that learning has happened.

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  • 18
    Sally Caplan wrote on 28th Aug 2010

    I have been teaching IT and ICT since 1989 - I am self taught and have longed believed that the computer -a screen with a keyboard like many other forms of technology are tools to enhance learning and communication skills. My experience tells me that 30 chldren and me in a room with 30 computers is not the best environment. I want an area where we can discuss with out the distraction of the 'toys' -the internet, keyboard, mouse etc an da separate area where we can attempt tasks. i am also a firm believer that using the tools in other subjects with input about the techy bits from the IT teacher is more productive and useful than discrete lessons. I think some children need/want to learn about how the tools are constructed, what makes them work, how programming works rather than using contrived tasks using Microsoft software to communicate, do spreadsheets etc. We learn best when we have a need - those who write programs and did a few years ago may never have had lessons at school in how to do this - how did they learn? some one must have motivated them to want to know more and they found a solution to knowing how to solve the problems. I wish I had had a teacher to help me in my attempts to learn more over the last 20 years.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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