About as useful as a dead disk drive

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
Computer literacy is to do with curiosity and creativity, not copying and duplication, say Tom Conlon and Lewis Smith

THE latest proposals for extending the 5-14 curriculum are nothing if not thorough. According to the consultation report from the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, a new attainment outcome, "Developing ICT Capability", justifies the creation of seven additional strands of study and 118 new targets of attainment. Teachers are advised to record each child's competence in information and communications technology against the targets through the stages A-F.

Scrutiny of the attainment targets makes two things clear. First, "ICT capability" is just a new term for IT skills. The effect of these targets would be to draft into 5-14 a hefty chunk of the computing studies material that until now has been the province of Standard grade and Higher Still.

Second, the implications for teacher workload are vast. For an average sized primary the curriculum council's assessment scheme will require the permanent maintenance of around 200 new checklists. Secondary teachers are expected to inherit and maintain checklists from S1.

Other practical problems not addressed include those of curriculum overcrowding and resources. Only wealthy schools can hope to provide the stock of technology that is implied by the new targets.

However, the biggest argument against is not impracticability but that they would turn the educational priorities for IT upside down. Whereas previous 5 14 guidelines recommended the use of IT where that was helpful to children's learning, the new proposals make study of IT an end in itself. This would bring Scotland into line with south of the border. But the curriculum council presents no evidence that the existing 5-14 approach has failed. Neither does it explain how these proposals can be reconciled with Higher Still, which is supposed to make (a much more modest version of) IT skills a target of the 16-plus stages.

The underpinning educational values and beliefs which should form the core of any debate about teaching and learning can be gleaned only by reading between the lines. Having conducted such an exercise we find ourselves at odds with the proposals in two fundamental ways. First, the curriculum council elevates the value of IT skills far beyond their due importance. Second, we cannot share the beliefs about teaching and learning that are implied by the mechanistic framework for skills progression.

It is reasonable to expect that 5-14 learners will acquire skills in the operation of computer systems. However, such operational skills are trivial compared to the other abilities that are typically required in order to apply the technology to a real task. Writing a story with a word-processor requires the ability to operate a mouse and a keyboard but these are insignificant skills compared to those involved in planning a story's development, cmposing text and evaluating quality.

This uncritical promotion of IT skills is manifest throughout the report. For example, targets at level E require children to copy and duplicate disks, create multimedia presentations, use spreadsheets and databases, access websites, take part in electronic conferencing and use a computer to program a device, among many other things. But only a fixated technophile would regard such activities as being of value mainly on account of the opportunities to practise IT. Their proper value depends upon the possibilities that they may afford for developing curriculum knowledge and higher order skills. The technology is just a means to an end.

The products that come to market are gradually becoming more "deskilled". The skill once required to operate them becomes embedded in the design of the system. This is another reason why we should not assign too high a value to IT skills: they are transient. For example, today's computers are increasingly disk-free.

The irony is that children seem to learn IT skills quite easily. Research on classroom technology innovation seldom identifies IT skill deficiency as a significant impediment. Computer games have a huge following although their interfaces are quite complex. But learning the games does not depend upon a complex framework of stages, strands, targets and checklists. A culture of enthusiasm and sharing promotes spontaneous learning in which the technology is mastered because children feel the need to play well.

The contrast with the recommendations could hardly be more marked. Their "progression of skills, knowledge and attitudes" advises teachers to teach towards "using a mouse to point and click" at level A, "using menus" at level B and "using a Windows environment" at level C. This mechanistic approach is claimed to represent "best practice".

We are dismayed to think that any teachers might teach in this way. Children's use of IT should be influenced first and foremost by curiosity, creativity and enthusiasm. The aims of the broader curriculum context should also be considered. Checklists and targets that prescribe in advance how IT skills are supposed to develop should have no place.

No doubt this report is in tune with the managerialist, top-down style that has afflicted policy development in education and which falsely equates high standards with standardisation. It is consistent too with the prevailing naive and uncritical approach to IT which makes simplistic connections between IT skills, learning and future job markets.

Our hope is that most teachers have deeper educational values and will continue to place children rather than systems at the centre of their teaching. Our worry is that those who are intimidated by HMI will put IT checklists high on their agenda.

Tom Conlon is in the faculty of education, Edinburgh University. Lewis Smith is IT manager at George Watson's College.

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