Young people today are growing up surrounded by tech, and it’s vital that business and education work together to give teachers the support they need to get their pupils truly tech-literate.
Too few young people know how tech actually works, or the role it plays in their lives. That matters in a digital era when tech will underpin their personal and professional prospects. And it’s why we need to build a culture of tech literacy.
Primary school teachers are crucial to that effort, shaping children’s attitudes, aspirations and abilities from an early age. BT, where I work, yesterday published a new study with Ipsos MORI looking at what teachers need to make tech literacy a new cornerstone of modern education in primary schools.
The findings give cause for optimism. Teachers believe tech literacy is vitally important to their pupils’ futures, and feel increasingly confident with what’s required of them by the computing curriculum. However, the study also shows that the education system and the private sector have more work to do – because many teachers don’t feel prepared to equip their pupils for a digital world, and can struggle with the computational thinking concepts that underpin so much of young people’s personal and working lives.
Teachers firmly believe that tech literacy is critical to pupils’ future prospects. Some 78 per cent think it’s as important as reading and writing, and 96 per cent believe all careers will involve tech. There have also been positive developments with teachers' understanding of the computing curriculum, which was introduced in England in 2014. According to a TES and Nesta study from 2014, only 33 per cent of English primary school teachers felt confident with the curriculum. Our study shows that now 81 per cent are.
'The building blocks that children need'
But there’s a challenge – although 97 per cent see it as their job to equip children for a digital world, only 25 per cent "strongly agree" that they’re equipped to do that. That might be explained by the fact that 43 per cent of teachers have a limited understanding of the key computational thinking concepts that underpin tech literacy – like abstraction, sequencing, logic, and algorithms. Similarly, 35 per cent find them difficult to teach.
Those concepts are part of the computing curriculum, but just over a quarter of primary school teachers don’t frequently use computational thinking in computing lessons. And 31 per cent don’t use the concepts very much or at all in subjects beyond computing. That matters because these abilities are increasingly relevant to all areas of life and work. The UK government says that “digital skills will now be needed even in traditionally non-digital industries”.
It’s also a missed opportunity. Of those who are using computational thinking concepts in other subjects, 82 per cent say it helps children work more collaboratively, 99 per cent think it improves pupils’ problem-solving abilities, and 96 per cent say it helps numeracy. These cross-curricular abilities are the building blocks children will need to thrive – and given the positive impact they can have on pupil learning, it’s clear that helping teachers to get up to speed with computational thinking should be our collective focus going forward.
It’s crucial that teachers continue to stress the importance of tech literacy to their pupils, and take advantage of the existing support that can help them bring it into the classroom – like the Barefoot Computing project, which provides free resources and training. For their part, policymakers and educators can take steps to embed tech literacy across the curriculum. The Scottish government’s Digital Learning and Teaching Strategy is a great example of how we might make computational thinking a red thread across subjects. And the private sector can step up with the support teachers say they need. More than eight out of 10 teachers indicate that they want businesses to bring them real-world examples of the role tech plays in everyday life.
Ensuring pupils can unlock their potential is a shared challenge which will require effort from a range of organisations. It’s an agenda we all have a stake in, because helping teachers to prepare their pupils for a digital world is mission-critical for the UK’s future social and economic prosperity.
Liz Williams is director of the tech literacy and education programmes at BT
Getting involved with the Barefoot Computing project couldn’t be simpler. Through the website (www.barefootcas.org.uk) teachers can register, request a workshop, become a volunteer or find out more. Also teachers can email firstname.lastname@example.org