Power of thought

14th February 2003 at 00:00
The real secret of ICT lies in its ability to improve thinking skills, suggests Gareth Mills

There's a regular cartoon in Private Eye called "Headlines you seldom see". It's an idea that can easily be adapted to make a staffroom pastime - "Three million well-behaved pupils hand in homework on time"; "Computers run all week with no crashes". You get the idea. We shouldn't be surprised at the type of news that hits the headlines and, quite rightly, good journalism should provoke debate. Recent reporting of ICT in schools is a case in point. "Has the use of computers in schools been a classic case of innovation failure?" asked a programme on Radio 4. An unprecedented level of government investment has had little impact on standards, argued an article in the Telegraph. A crisis then, you ask?

In fact, headlines like these were prompted by an academic report, ImpaCT2, published by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which showed that, broadly speaking, the opposite was true. Researchers found evidence of a small, yet positive, relationship between the use of ICT and attainment as measured by test scores and GCSE results. The correlations for English at key stage 2, science at KS3, science and design and technology at KS4 were particularly significant.

Given the headlines, you might think that the case for promoting ICT in schools was solely based on expecting a direct correlation with attainment, as measured by test scores in other subjects. What about the improving standards in pupils' ICT capability? Perhaps we need to step back and look at the bigger picture.

It has always been the case that to participate fully in society it has been necessary to be literate and numerate. It has also been an aim of the UK curriculum to present the best of the past and to prepare pupils for the future. For any curriculum to be relevant, it must equip pupils for the world in which they will live; to participate fully in the social and economical life of the 21st century it is necessary to be ICT-literate.

It has been estimated that if technological change continues at the pace of the past 10 years, 60 per cent of the jobs that today's primary pupils will do have yet to be invented. Can this be true? I looked at a recent situations vacant page. The National Farmers' Union requires a new media assistant, Age Concern needs a web designer, World Wildlife Fund is looking for a database analyst, the National Maritime Museum wants an electronic archivist and Directory Enquiries is advertising for an operator confident in using databases and communications software. And so it goes on. Security guard - ah-ha, I thought, here's a traditional non-ICT related job - "must assist in the maintenance of our firewall and proxy server to ensure that our local area network remains secure". QED.

In another recent study, Mathematical Skills in the Workplace published by the National Training Organisation for Science, Technology and Mathematics, researchers have gone a step further. They report that "mathematical literacy" is displacing basic numeracy as the minimum mathematical competency required in the workplace. A key finding is that mathematical literacy and ICT are interdependent. The analysis looked at the skills currently required in electronic engineering, financial services, food processing, health care, packaging, the pharmaceutical industry and tourism - a fairly extensive survey of requirements and a clear case for promoting ICT capability in schools.

Schools are about a lot more than just preparing pupils for the world of work, important as this is. They're about learning and education in its broadest sense. And it's here that ICT can make the biggest difference.

When used effectively, ICT is a powerful tool for thinking. The Becta research suggests that the value of ICT in raising standards is linked to the type of use to which it is put. In design and technology, for example, teachers felt that the benefit came from the use of technology to explore and develop ideas iteratively. Gains were made when pupils used computer models to aid visualisation - exactly the same reasons that designers in the real world use ICT.

In order to derive the full benefits of technology, we need to present ICT capability as more than a set of technical skills. As the International ICTLiteracy Panel pointed out in its report, Digital Transformation, a framework for ICT literacy (www.ets.orgresearchictliteracy): "ICT literacy cannot be defined primarily as a mastery of technical skills, the concept of ICT literacy must be broadened to include both cognitive skills as well as technical know-how."

Even though we've had an ICT curriculum since 1995, some commentators still seem to have the impression that ICT is solely about equipping pupils with basic techniques. There is some evidence that a disproportionate amount of computer use in schools focuses on tools such as word processors to present finished work. It might be useful to ask if we are placing sufficient emphasis on ICT's cognitive aspects.

I'd like to think that one of the strengths of the national curriculum is that it focuses clearly on this cognitive application of ICT. When it is taught well, pupils learn, alongside the basic skills, to find, select and critically evaluate information. With so much information available on the web, the ability to question its value and veracity is crucial. Who is the author? What is the purpose? How can we verify the information?

In effective ICT lessons, pupils create information rather than just consume it. They use the web for genuine research, they repurpose information and present their ideas in styles and formats that are aware of audience and purpose. They are taught to use tools effectively to organise, analyse and interpret information to discover patterns and relationships.

Good teachers use ICT to promote hypothetical thinking. Pupils create models to explore options and alternatives when problem solving. Many teachers use ICT to promote creativity. Pupils are given opportunities to explore and develop ideas in successive steps. Features such as the "undo" button and the ability to create different versions of work using "save as" encourage risk-taking and the investigation of ideas. This can, in turn, improve the quality of outcomes.

Importantly, ICT can empower and this, in turn, can help develop self-esteem and positive attitudes to learning. An increasing number of pupils have opportunities to do a wide variety of activities - such as edit a movie, create a multi-track recording or produce a computer-manufactured product. These are all possibilities that were inaccessible to most of us a few years ago.

In the real world, ICT is an important tool for thinking and doing - this is why it is important in schools. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is about to develop further the National Curriculum in Action website (www. ncaction.org.uk reveiwed in Teacher on January 24) to illustrate the effective application of ICT across all subjects. It will include guidance and case studies,collected from around the country, to exemplify the use of technology to promote these higher-order cognitive skills.

I'll end with another cartoon. This is from the internet safety site www.kidsmart.org.uk. It reads: "Son, you're about to use one of the world's most powerful resources."

"What's that Dad? The World Wide Web?"

"No son, your common sense" ICT is there to help us think!

Gareth Mills is principal manager for ICT at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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