Time for a clean slate

9th February 2001 at 00:00
A new pilot is being targeted at a known ICT weak spot in the curriculum. Clare Johnson and Niel McLean report.

This article was written by two people, working in two government agencies, and separated by several hours' worth of travelling. As you would expect, it was composed at a word processor and based on initial ideas exchanged by email. The final text bounced back and forth until we were both happy with the result.

Some of you reading this may have been taught to write using chalk and a slate, which survived in some areas of the country until the early Sixties. Others might have used a sand tray. Both have the advantage that mistakes can be erased and corrected simply. Those who remember ink monitors, and the days before cheap fountain pens, might see the move towards indelible writing materials as a step backwards rather than forwards.

Things have come a long way to get us back to the point of writing tools that support creativity and composition, rather than recording. ICT is now very much on the educational agenda, with huge strides made in levels of equipment, quality content and teachers' confidence. However, one area has not been addressed. We are not clear how we should teach the essential knowledge, skills and understanding that underpin pupils' ICT capability. We lack an accepted pedagogy for teaching ICT. Why is this important?

Capability with ICT is an increasingly essential requirement for employability, lifelong learning and citizenship. The recent US elections show what happens when ICT systems are implemented which people do not understand. How will people use the Internet effectively if they lack the skills to engage with the technology as well as the understanding of how to use the information?

We will soon reach a point where ICT is seen as an essential life skill - part of what it is to be considered educated - and those without the necessary skills will increasingly find themselves at a distance from learning, work and life opportunities. While schools and teachers have made much progress in terms of individual practice, few could claim they have developed an ICT curriculum providing all pupils with this essential life skill.

At key stage 3 there are particular problems. The Secretary of State has singled out literacy and numeracy, and boys' under-achievement as particular issues. The situation in ICT at key stage 3 also needs addressing. Teacher assessment levels in ICT are consistently lower than in other subjects and few schools have sufficient trained staff to teach an effectie ICT curriculum. Our experience at meetings and conferences is of beleaguered ICT co-ordinators saying, "Please give us advice and guidance - we need real models, based on what happens in real schools, of what to do."

There are real implications arising from schools having difficulties with ICT at key stage 3. The most obvious is that pupils tend not to go on to qualifications in ICT at later key stages. And subject teachers are loath to use more demanding applications of ICT in their teaching if their pupils lack the necessary ICT skills - for example a science teacher who wants her pupils to use spreadsheets to model physical variables. She does not want to take the time out to teach the underlying ICT. This is particularly true of the higher order ICT skills required for information handling, modelling and critical thinking - all skills essential for high achievement in other subjects.

For all these reasons we are developing a specific ICT strand within the Government's overall key stage 3 strategy aimed at raising standards in ICT. This ICT work sits alongside the other strands in English, mathematics and science. It draws on expertise within the British Education and Communications Technology Agency (Becta) and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and sits within the framework set out by the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE).

Some 42 pilot schools have already been recruited in five LEAs and curriculum support materials are being developed, with related training packages. Teachers in those pilot schools will trial the materials, attend training courses and discuss their experiences through a dedicated website. We will draw on the evidence of good practice in those schools. The ICT pilot will be evaluated as part of the whole key stage 3 strategy and the lessons we learn will be widely disseminated.

We recognise we are building something new. English and mathematics teachers have a long heritage to draw on when talking about teaching and learning in their subject areas. We in ICT lack a shared language for discussing ICT pedagogy, and where it does exist, it is often distant from real practice. This project presents a significant challenge for all those involved. It also presents the opportunity to develop something new - an approach to teaching ICT properly under-pinned by a model of support and professional development.

Clare Johnson is principal manager of ICT at QCA.Niel McLean is director of evidence and practice at Becta. For more information email: ict@qca.org.uk

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