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Discrete charmers and good mixers

Is ICT best taught as a subject or with other subjects? Gareth Mills and Helen Walker update the primary ICT debate

Sometimes it's good to take sides. Few things can be more boring than watching the big game and not caring which side wins. The pain or pleasure of victory or defeat is intensified if you're partisan. Maybe it's for this reason that, in education, debate tends to polarise. Phonics or real books? Dates or enquiry? Calculators or not? And in ICT, tool or subject?

Those in the "just a tool" camp argue that ICT is best taught right across the curriculum. The "subject" camp argues that it should be taught in its own right. Let's examine the arguments.

In terms of the "discrete versus embedded" debate, the latest findings from the Office for Standards in Education suggest that it's a question not of eitheror, but of both.

The recipe for good ICT in a school is made up of two things: a healthy measure of explicit ICT teaching and regular opportunities to apply it in a variety of contexts. It's not surprising that pupils who are explicitly taught how to refine their search techniques do better research when it comes to, for instance, their geography projects.

Another piece of research from the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency (Becta) came to a similar conclusion. The researchers took the grades given by inspectors for ICT in schools and set these against pupil attainment at the end of key stage 2. They wanted to see if there was any statistical relationship between how ICT teaching is organised and children's attainment.

It turns out that schools in which children achieve above national expectations tend to employ a mixed approach. Well-taught, timetabled ICT lessons are combined with regular and purposeful application of ICT across subjects. It seems children are better equipped to benefit from its application to other subjects when they have a well developed knowledge of of ICT itself.

This mixed approach has been the hallmark of the QCA's primary scheme of work for ICT. Those familiar with the layout of the scheme will recognise the model. Skills, ideas and techniques are taught explicitly through short, focused tasks. Pupils are then given the opportunity to apply what they have learned in a purposeful way through the all-important integrated task. The good news is that the emerging evidence supports this approach.

Consequently, this is the rationale behind the recently published extension to the primary scheme of work for ICT. The update, recently sent to all schools, offers a wider range of integrated tasks. Building on the existing short-focused tasks, we have been able to signpost additional opportunities in schemes of work for other subjects, and within the literacy and numeracy frameworks, in which skills learnt through the ICT scheme can be applied across the curriculum.

Since the scheme was first published in 1998 virtually all schools have acquired good internet access, so there are new opportunities for email and web searches. This, and increasing home use by children, makes it important that we strengthen our approach to internet safety. The new Internet Proficiency Scheme developed by Becta and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority emphasises the importance of teaching children safe and discriminating online behaviour.

In the new teachers' guide there are now a number of suggestions on how a whiteboard or projector could support whole-class teaching through demonstration, modelling, collaborative review and evaluation of work in progress. Much of this new material has been developed and piloted in collaboration with teachers and we are grateful for their suggestions and ideas. Let us know what you think by emailing us at Finally, you might ask what the application of ICT in subjects looks like in practice. We've updated the "National Curriculum in Action" website to include a section illustrating the effective use of ICT, together with about 70 case studies showing how ICT can be used across the curriculum.

More examples will be added in the next few months and further practical advice is also available at Anyway, back to the great debate: discrete or embedded? The evidence tells us it's a question of balance. While polemic might make for good copy, as with many things in life, the best path is often over the middle ground.

Alternatively, if you feel the need to join a camp...

National Curriculum in Action: cafeteachers

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