ICT and computing lessons should be organic

Stephen King, in his book ‘On Writing’, makes a very interesting point. Going against just about all the advice proffered in books and magazine articles, he says:

Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.

You might be inclined to dismiss that as hogwash, but given King’s phenomenal success as a writer I’d suggest that would be unwise.

The quote is cited in an article in the current issue of Writer's Digest. In an article entitled ‘Go Organic’, Steven James advises against devices such as outlining a story before you start writing, because by drawing up an outline you inadvertently blind yourself to other possibilities. He suggests instead just allowing the story to develop as it wants to, and then do the editing later.

A different kind of lesson planning! Photo by David Swart http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmswart/I was ruminating on how far this kind of advice might be applied to teaching ICT or computing lessons. Obviously, you have to have some idea of what you’re going to teach, and unlike story writing it’s not too helpful for a particular class for you to be wise after the event of an unsuccessful lesson.

But on the other hand, the sort of lessons and lesson sequencing advocated by the old Key Stage 3 ICT Strategy, and by plenty of schools even now, are surely guaranteed to kill the subject stone dead? I’m thinking of this sort of thing:

Intro: 3 minutes. Tell the pupils x, y, z.

Q & A: 4 minutes. Find out what the pupils already know by…

Plenary: Last 6 minutes of lesson. Inform pupils…

It is interesting to read the recent CfBT report entitled To the next level: improving secondary school teaching to outstanding, by Peter Daw and Carol Robinson. The authors make two useful observations about lessons.

First, there is a shared understanding of what constitutes an effective lesson in the particular institution, generally related to Ofsted’s criteria for good and outstanding lessons.

Second, effective teaching is customised within subjects and understood within a longer time-frame. As they put it:

The ‘unit’ of self-evaluation moves beyond the individual lesson to a sequence of lessons or to a section of a scheme of work. Individual lessons then sometimes diverge more from the usual structure as they become
part of a longer-term evaluation framework. There is thus less pressure for each lesson to be an ‘all-singing,
all-dancing’ display of the teacher’s talents.

How does any of this relate specifically to the teaching of ICT or computing? These subjects are inherently exciting, and quite often there are interesting implications of new developments. Teachers should feel able to ditch the planned lesson, or allow it to develop ‘organically’ in response to what is currently going on in the world.

Here is a great example. When I opened my newspaper this morning, I read that someone has used 3D printing to make a gun which actually works. Now, I’m not a criminal, so I may be overlooking something here, but I think if I wanted to bump someone off I’d print my own gun rather than try to buy one – because I’d be the only person who knew.

If I were teaching now, I’d have dumped my planned lesson, and discussed this instead. It would be a really good vehicle for exploring the tension between creating hardware, software and algorithms which produce a given, intended result in themselves, and the wider implications in terms of ethics and unintended consequences. If you’re in the mind set, or your school forces you to adopt the mind set,  whereby you have to say “Ah, 3D printing is covered in the second week of next term”, you lose the moment, and the momentum.

I doubt that you could have a completely fluid approach to lessons, but I certainly believe that with subjects like ICT or computing, which are replete with possibilities, a less rigid approach would not come amiss.