What new teachers need to know -- Personal ICT Skills

This article was originally published on 7th March 2006. Surprisingly perhaps, much of it is still relevant today, given its focus on the importance of having an understanding of computer programming concepts and other aspects of computing.

Making assumptions is a dangerous game! It's commonly assumed that new teachers will automatically know all about information technology because they are young (which is in itself an assumption: what about mature students, housewives returning to work, retired bankers looking for a new challenge, and so on?).

In fact, many of the advances in the use of technology in the classroom are being made by older people: those who have used the technology in other areas of work and moved into teaching later in life; those who have left teaching to work for hardware and software companies to try to improve teaching and leaning through the use of technology; those teachers who are and always have been the "early adopters" whatever their age: they were the first ones to have an overhead projector in their classroom, the first to use a portable tape recorder, the first to bring a graphical calculator into their mathematics lesson, the first to book the kids in to the new language laboratory.

You don't have to be young to be an early adopter, and you don't have to be old to be stuck in your ways: the terms "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" sound profound, and may be a convenient way of categorising people without having to get to know them too well, but like all labels they are a way of describing something, not the thing itself, and so like all models sacrifice an element of reality in order to make them manageable.

In the UK, it is also assumed that new teachers have ICT under their belt because it is a requirement to pass a national test in it. In fact, the test is so easy, and so grounded in common sense, that you would probably have to make a real effort to fail it. In other words, passing the test does not indicate that you are red hot on a keyboard or electronic whiteboard; it merely shows that you not a completely  blank sheet as far as technology is concerned.

Obviously, I cannot speak with great authority about the quality of teacher training in countries other than the UK, but I should imagine that many, if not all, of the issues identified below are commonplace. In no particular order:

Student teachers are not given adequate training in basic computing skills

This may be because of the assumption that they already have them, or it may be that the organisation responsible for the training does not understand the need for such training.

In many cases now the training organisation is a school. Therefore the ethos of the school, and its attitude towards educational computing, is going to have a profound influence on how much time and energy is devoted to teaching basic skills.

You may think: why would a teacher need basic computing skills anyway? And in a sense you would be right: the skills I am referring to are not exclusively computer-related skills but thinking and organisational skills as well.

For example, many student teachers I have met do not have any conceptual understanding of the way files are organised -- usually in folders, these days, although it probably won't be long before indexing and searching technologies are so clever that such organisational scaffolding are no longer necessary (see, for example, Google's Gmail system).

If a teacher doesn't understand how files are organised or, worse, doesn't have the conceptual building blocks to be able to work it out for themselves, how are they going to fare in the classroom when the file they need for a particular lesson appears to be missing? On a recent training session, in which I was teaching about 30 student teachers, I decided to demonstrate something on the electronic whiteboard. It was then that I discovered that the "My documents" folder on my computer was in a different location to that on each of the student's computer -- despite the fact that we were all logged in as the same person! Fortunately, because I have an understanding of file and folder structures, it took me only a couple of minutes to work out what the problem was and correct it.

There is another reason for the importance of basic computer skills: being able to handle the administrative aspects of the job, and being able to recognise bad programming. For example, there is a report-writing program that fails to prompt the user to save her work before quitting, so it's quite possible to lose a whole evening's reports. That is a badly-written program. But the user is also to blame for (a) not saving her work every so often and (b) refusing to waste time using such a dreadful program in the first place!

Students' experience of using computers has been confined to gaming or low-level repetitive tasks

Let's take that last one first, because it's easier to deal with. If you have never been shown how to make headings in Word, say, using paragraph styles, as opposed to simply highlighting the relevant text and clicking the bold and underline icons, then you are not going to know how to automatically generate a table of contents at the start of an extended piece of writing or how to automatically outline your text. And you are not going to suddenly acquire that knowledge unless someone either shows you or, at the very least, tells you that such features exist -- after all, nobody knows what they don't know!

As for gaming: yes, it's true that playing computer games can lead to all sorts of skill- and cognitive-development. But I strongly believe that what is important is both the nature of the game and the concept of metacognition: in other words, being informed about what it is that you're actually learning.

For example, playing Sim City is unlikely to lead to an understanding of modelling, or at least not very quickly, unless there is a teacher there to point out that what you are doing is, in fact, computer modelling.

A knowledge of basic computer skills is necessary, but not sufficient. A new teacher also needs to know and understand that computers can be used to provide:

  • automation: I wrote some code for a spreadsheet once that generated up to 1500 user names from a list of names in under ten seconds. It meant that it took just a morning to generate the user names for several thousand students, a task which would have taken days, if not weeks, by hand. Unless the teacher knows that such things are possible, how will she think to question why a student is, say, typing out the same formula on each row of a spreadsheet? She needs to have enough of a conceptual understanding to be able to say to herself: "Surely there must be an easier and quicker way than this?"
  • an interactive framework, in which the learner plays a full part, and is not merely the passive receptacle of received wisdom
  • an extension of ones field of influence and knowledge: through control technology the student can control devices without even touching them; and she can gather knowledge, eg of temperature changes during the night, or of subtle correlations between sets of data, that would have been, to all intents and purposes, inaccessible in a bygone age
  • a what-if framework, in which experimentation can and should be encouraged because, in a well-constructed program, there is no risk: don't like the new figures? Click Undo. Don't like the new layout? Ditto.

Using these four areas as a foundation, it should not be too difficult for a promising new teacher to work out that many curriculum areas could benefit from a teaching approach that applies these ideas in some way.

For example, internet literacy is bound up with the "what if" approach: what if we used the Chinese version of Google instead? What if conducted the search in Spanish instead of English? What if we place quotation marks around only part of the phrase? What if we search on a synonym instead?

None of this is rocket science. New teachers are usually extremely able and willing to learn. We do them -- and our students -- a disservice if we assume that they don't need to.