Lessons from Reviewing the new Computing Curriculum

This is not so much a review or even a summary of the recent Westminster Forum Conference called ‘Reviewing the new Computing Curriculum’ as a series of observations arising from it and related articles. The reason for that approach is that I’d like to make this article useful and interesting to as wide a range of people as possible, not only those concerned with the ICT or Computing Programme of Study in the National Curriculum in England and Wales.

Just to summarise the situation:

  1. The ICT Programme of Study – the set of principles and knowledge which state-controlled schools were obliged to teach – was disapplied pending a review, on the grounds that it was ‘boring’, lacking computer programming (which it wasn’t, but that’s a mere detail)  and unfit for purpose (quite what that purpose is would be better as the subject of another blog post).
  2. A limited process of consultation took place, resulting in a proposed draft of a new Programme of Study for ICT in which computer programming, ICT and digital literacy were all included.
  3. After the period of consultation ended, the Government changed the name from ICT to Computing, and ditched pretty much everything apart from the computer programming. Fortunately, there is still a consultation process going on, so we can all still have our say.

OK, let’s get down to business.

We need to talk about the curriculum... Photo by Frank Hebbert http://www.flickr.com/photos/f-r-a-n-k/

Observation 1: The name of the conference

I know it’s a small detail, but in my opinion small details are important. There is not a new computing curriculum, only a proposed new Programme of Study. The PoS is not a curriculum, and it is still jut a draft. I do think that things are influenced by the way people talk about them or refer to them, as I elaborate on below. So I’m not splitting hairs just for the sake of being ‘clever’.

Observation 2: Be careful what you wish for

The impression I gained from listening to people at the conference is that some of the ardent protagonists of the proposed new Programme of Study have been somewhat taken aback by how much has been lost, especially creativity.

Well, what did they expect? If you either keep on and on saying that ICT is boring, misrepresenting its content, or simply saying little or nothing in its defence – or even simply insisting on some rigour, then sooner or later someone is going to come along and say “Hey, let’s get rid of all the boring stuff”. We create an ethos by the way we talk about things. I once worked in a school where the Headteacher told us to address any gripes to him, not talk about them in the local supermarket queue, because it creates a bad impression of the school in the local community. He was right. People start to believe, if only on an unconscious level, that there’s no smoke without fire.

Thus, if all these highly educated people are saying the ICT curriculum is boring, wrong or incomplete, there must be something in what they say. Hardly surprising then, that the Government should come along and say, in effect: Good news! We’ve done what you asked for!”

They should have listened to those words of wisdom from Soul singer Solomon Burke:

Let me tell you something: sometimes you get what you want,

and you lose what you have."

When I say rigour, I mean this: I have been at conferences where people have stood up and said:

  • “Kids don’t need to be taught how to use PowerPoint, Word or Excel.”
  • “The ICT curriculum is boring because my 12 year old daughter says so.”
  • “There is no control or programming in the ICT Programme of Study.”

As far as I recall, I was the only person at one of these conferences to make a comment about the comments about the curriculum being boring, and the only response I received was a ticking off from the Chair because I made a comment rather than asked a question. (Apparently, I was supposed to preface the comment with a question like, “Would the panel not agree that…”. Who knew?)

I’m beginning to think that perhaps in this country we’re too polite, too willing to let people get away with statements like these.

Anyway, looking forward, rather than backwards, we now have an even harder job on our hands. We have to convince the powers-that-be that the bits like creativity are, actually, crucial.

Observation 3: Teacher knows best

As almost always at conferences, it was the two teacher panellists who made the most impact. Ian Addison and Carrie Anne Philbin spoke with both passion and knowledge. Even without visiting their schools, nobody could seriously believe that their ICT lessons would be boring. Ian pointed out that most of the proposed new PoS is about programming, at the expense of creativity and all the rest.

But spare a thought for those teachers who do not get the chance to speak on panels, or who do not have the self-confidence or clout to answer back. If you tell someone who is working as hard as they can that what they’re teaching is boring, you might as well call them stupid, ineffectual or incompetent – because what intelligent or competent person would continue to teach something boring day in and day out? Imagine how those people must feel.

Observation 4: Ex-teachers know best too

I thought the two next best presentations were from Rachel Jones and Christina Preston. Rachel suggested that the reason for the emphasis on teaching office skills by many teachers in ICT lessons could have been down to the Key Stage 3 Strategy to some extent. I’m sure she is right. Christina said that when training for teachers in teaching computer programming is considered, to remember the lessons of the past about what works and what doesn’t. As she said in her talk,

We have a huge amount of knowledge about how to do it and how
not to do it.

Unfortunately, Hegel’s observation that “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history” is likely to be proved once again, and not only in the sphere of training. If you want us to have a better, more balanced, Programme of Study than what is being proposed, you have to say so in the consultation referred to earlier.

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