Kids are doing it for themselves. Really?
I have to say that I am becoming increasingly frustrated at the number of people who think that because young people seem to know about technology and how to use it or code it, then by default nobody needs to be taught anything about it.
For example, a few years ago at some awful coding promotion event, a 13 year-old girl who had taught herself programming stood up and said teachers should be learning about coding from pupils. The worst thing about this was not the naivety of the statement, but the fact that most of the adults in the room applauded. Presumably they were all autodidacts in everything who also went to school to teach their teachers.
Another example occurred recently. I attended an event about artificial intelligence given by a teenager who had taught himself all the coding required. On that basis the person in charge of the project lectured me on how teachers ought to be taking a step back and letting the kids get on with it, and also asking the kids what they think of their teaching and what they would like to be taught.
I find this sort of thing annoying for four reasons:
First, the people who hold such views tend to be either very well educated or very successful, or both. But I'm not aware of any of them having attended a school where they taught the teachers or decided what they ought to be taught.
Secondly, why are teachers singled out for this kind of "you're not needed" treatment? Do they say to electricians who wire their house, "You should be asking me how to do it, because I can change a fuse -- I taught myself."? Would the people who say that something as complex as coding doesn't need to be taught by a teacher, but can teach themselves in the presence of a 'facilitator', be happy to have their house wired by a self-taught electrician who was 'facilitated'?
Thirdly, some pupils need the structure and discipline of a proper lesson. And not just kids. I've taught adult classes, and without exception when I've asked them if they have any preferences about what they would like to learn, their response has been, in effect, "You're the expert, just teach us what we need to know."
Indeed, I've been on the receiving end in terms of paying for a course only to have the tutor allocate vast amounts of time for us to work on our own. If I'd wanted to do that, I wouldn't have signed up for the course -- I'd have registered for an online one instead, or bought a book.
Fourthly, and most importantly for the purposes of this article, just about all of the research into the factors affecting student attainment list the role of the teacher as the most influential or nearly the most influential factor. And when you look at what a good teacher will do, in the context of information technology or computing, it's not surprising:
What An ICT or Computing Teacher Does
A good ICT or Computing teacher, by which I mean one that understands what real teaching is, will do everything a so-called ‘facilitator’ would do, and more.
- They introduce topics with what Ausubel called 'Advance Organisers'. That is, information and activities about things they already know about, in order to lead on to things they do not know about.
- They set up activities which are challenging, not quite within the pupils’ comfort zone, technically known as the zone of proximal development. For example, they will ask the pupils not just to program a turtle to move from point A to point B, but to build in code to deal with an unexpected event during its journey.
- They set up activities which have an interesting context, and preferably with some potential real-world application.
- They know enough to be able to answer pupils’ questions, at least when it comes to matters of fact. If a pupil says “How can I set up a series of ‘IF’ statements in a spreadsheet in a more efficient way?”, the teacher should be able to give a proper, ie practically useful, answer.
- “Facilitating” is done as a technique to work in a particular context, not as an unthinking default position.
- Ditto so-called 'discovery learning'.
- They will pair up pupils in such a way that an expert in one thing will help the non-expert – and changing the groupings for concepts/areas in which the expert and non-expert roles are different, perhaps even reversed.
- Will ask difficult questions of the pupils, to move them on to the next level. For example, if a pupil has written a brilliant program, a good teacher will ask her how the interface could be made more user-friendly for use by non-programmers, or she will ask if the program can handle particular types of user error.
- They will be highly critical, in a positive way of course, and not accept any old output. I have seen pupil videos in which the ‘background’ music is so loud that you can’t hear the commentary. That is poor editing and should have been dealt with before the video was released. That's what a real ICT or Computing teacher would do. Similarly, a spreadsheet full of nested ‘IF’ statements which is so complicated that it’s all but impossible to look at it and work out what each element actually does should prompt a request to find a more user-friendly way of achieving the same result.
- They have a bank of resources the pupils can refer to if they need to.
- They actually teach the class for at least some parts of at least some lessons.
- They set appropriate out-of-school work.
- They assess what the pupils have done, not just rely on self-assessment or peer-assessment.
- They understand how people learn. Quite frankly, anyone can be a facilitator: the school caretaker allowing you to run a computer club after school is a facilitator. A teacher needs to be more than that.
- They enthuse and motivate pupils to learn more and achieve higher. That’s an active process, it’s not something that can be achieved by merely ‘facilitating’.
- A good teacher, of any subject, will know how to pace the lesson, when to intervene if someone needs help, how to stop some pupils disrupting the lesson -- in other words, a good teacher will be able to manage a class of 30 kids doing several different activities.
It’s obvious from that list that some of the activities are a form of facilitation. In other words, the term ‘teacher’ subsumes terms like ‘facilitator’. It should also be obvious that kids are unlikely to be able to provide this sort of rich experience -- or 'repetoire' (see below) for themselves.
The idea of scripted lessons has raised its head again. When the National Strategies were introduced in England some years ago, the Government produced detailed lesson plans and resources for ICT. When I say 'detailed', I mean with instructions like, 'After 7 minutes, go on to the next slide'. This was a short-term solution to the problem of inexperienced teachers having to teach the subject. A more expensive but more cost-effective solution would have been to have given teachers proper training rather training in how to click on the next PowerPoint slide.
In his paper entitled Beyond lesson recipes: first steps towards a repertoire for teaching primary computing, Chris Shelton highlights the distinction between 'lesson recipes', which will get you through a lesson and enable the kids to achieve something by the end of it, and a repetoire of skills that a good teacher can draw on in order to design and adapt lessons for their particular students. To the extent that ICT did become more about wordprocessing than computing and digital literacy, and was seen as boring, it's hardly surprising given that teachers of the subject were, essentially, asked to do the equivalent of painting by numbers. (I think that the case for ICT being useless and boring was overstated myself: see 4 Reasons that the ICT Programme of Study 'had' to go.)
Yet it could have been worse. I attended a talk some years ago in which one of the speakers said she had resigned from the Literacy Hour initiative because of talk about creating scripted lessons in which, as the name suggests, teachers read out their lesson from a script.
Now the idea seems to have resurfaced, presumably promoted by people who didn't have to suffer from scripted lessons themselves. See Scripted lessons are creating zombie teachers.
It's a ridiculous idea. Quite apart from the aridity that would result, what would be the point of training new teachers at all? A far more effective approach would be to equip each classroom with a recorded lesson and CCTV. Then all you would need is a headteacher to monitor all the banks of monitors in his or her room, and bellow at kids occasionally when they looked like they weren't working. It would certainly solve the teacher retention crisis, mainly by ensuring that there were no longer any teachers to retain in the first place. I mean, who would stay in such a job? Who would wish to go into such a job?
People who say that as kids can teach themselves particular skills to some extent they should be allowed to decide what they learn and even that teachers are not required at all need to be challenged. There is a wealth of research that says teachers are crucial, and that kids are not so-called 'digital natives'.
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