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Is IT really necessary? September 18, 2010

Posted by IaninSheffield in Management, Resources.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A couple of years ago, a friend and Head of IT in another school asked my opinion of ICT as a discrete subject in KS3. He was under pressure to have it removed from the timetable and distributed within the rest of the curriculum. At the time I couldn’t provide a compelling argument either way, much to his chagrin. This topic has raised its head once more and I was wondering whether two years further on, the arguments have changed at all?

By IaninSheffield

Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at ICT in the primary phase. At our school (ages 4-18), ICT is taught across and is embedded the curriculum in KS1 & 2; there are no discrete ICT lessons. The philosophy is that ICT should be used when and where appropriate to support learning, thereby ensuring that it is used in authentic situations, rather than being studied in its own little box. At KS3 however, ICT gets its own ‘slot’ on the timetable and becomes a discrete entity. Here it is felt that it can be explored in greater depth, is as worthy of study as other KS3 subjects, that pupils need a solid grounding for study at GCSE and beyond (should they so choose) and that subject specialists are better placed to provide for those needs. I think I’d be right in saying that our ICT in the Juniors section is similar to that in the majority of primary schools (but am happy to be corrected) and similarly our KS3 provision to that in the majority of secondary schools.

In addition to the above points, there are other factors which come into play:

  • The expertise of the teachers in embedding ICT within the broader curriculum. Primary teachers are perhaps more adept and certainly more experienced at using thematic cross-curricular approaches. Colleagues in secondary are often keen to play to the strengths of their subject disciplines, leaving other elements to those who are more capable.
  • Literacy may be integral to English lessons, but it clearly cuts across all other subject areas too, demanding that all teachers address it when necessary. Similarly numeracy may arise predominantly from the study of Maths, but it too is a touchstone to which all subjects will refer at some time. How far then should skills associated with a particular subject need to surface elsewhere? How about ‘carteracy?’ Understanding the information that maps provide us with is crucial in Geography, but many other subjects refer to maps too; another cross-curricular skill, if not less explicit. So where does ICT sit? With the other ‘…eracies?’ Or at the same level as History, French etc?
  • Resourcing. ICT taught as a discrete subject demands greater resources, invariably in the form of ICT suites/labs. ICT covered across the curriculum may allow resources to be deployed in a more distributed way, perhaps meeting the needs of subject areas more effectively in their own environments. The former is more manageable, the latter more flexible.
  • Ownership. It is increasingly apparent that mobile devices of various flavours are becoming more commonplace in the pockets and bags of our students. Supported by more cloud-based applications, schools have the opportunity to consider a completely new model for surfacing ICT in lessons, one in which ownership of the devices (and the learning they support?) transfers to the hands of our students. How might/should this affect ICT within the curriculum? (The issue of equity of access is for another post perhaps?)
  • Apprenticeship. Some would argue that learning with and about ICT occurs daily and nightly as our students interact with one another to explore ways to ‘get things done.’ Purists (some ICT teachers?) might say that this only serves to get them into bad habits; formatting text rather than using styles, spaces instead of tabs, images ‘poached’ from the Internet rather than correctly referenced etc.
  • There is much concern at the moment about the decline in the numbers of students studying computing and the ramifications for the nation’s future economy. Do ICT and Computing actually require more emphasis on the curriculum?

So I’ve singularly failed to answer the question whether ICT should be entirely embedded or taught discretely. I’d be really interested therefore to hear your views, both ICT subject teachers and non-specialists, primary and secondary. What works for you? Which directions ought we perhaps to be moving? What issues have I missed? All musings much appreciated.



1. AngryTechnician - September 19, 2010

My opinion is that ICT should be much more greatly embedded across the curriculum, but I think that still leaves room for a discrete subject – just not the one we have now. Right now, the National Curriculum for ICT is desperately unimaginative and unambitious. We barely teach pupils anything beyond functional skills (it the generic sense, not the actual qualifications with that name).

Earlier this year I wrote my own post on this subject, How ICT Co-ordinators could save the IT industry from collapse. In it I argues that skills relevant to individual subjects should be taught in those subjects, with dedicated ICT co-ordinators leading the training of non-ICT teachers in order to deliver it effectively. That would then leave room for a discrete ICT subject for those pupils who wanted to actually learn about computers, which right now is confined to the seldom-taught Computing GCSE and A-Level.

Unfortunately I might be tempted to agree with your Head, on the proviso that he implement my proposal and put serious resources into supporting the teaching of ICT in other subjects (as well as directing subject teachers to make room for it in their schemes of work). I’m honestly not sure that the current curriculum deserves its own timetable slot, and the Royal Society has recently launched a study based on similar concerns. If ICT is to survive as a discrete subject, it seriously needs to up its game.

ianinsheffield - September 19, 2010

Firstly can I say that it’s an honour to have The Angry Technician comment on my most humble blog. (Doffs cap respectfully)

I agree entirely about the ICT curriculum – unimaginative, uninspiring AND untimely, by which I mean it struggles to keep pace with current developments. And there’s no question it needs to ‘up its game.’

As for Computing, I have to bow to your greater exprience, but what little knowledge I have leads me to think it is more conceptually demanding . . . a good thing I feel.

The only thing I might push a little further is on that of subject teachers needing to make room for it. I’m not sure they do. If used effectively, ICT should be able to *save* time, thereby making room for itself. It really shouldn’t be seen as an ‘add-on’ or something to be shoe-horned into current schemes of work. It should fit naturally. I am concerned however that teachers of other subjects may not feel able to draw out the significant and important aspects from which students might benefit . . . but then your original post did suggest that they could and should be supported by a true ICT Co-ordinator. Wonder how many schools work in this way?

Excellent original post by the way which stimulated quite a debate. I couldn’t bring myself to comment though; scared you might ‘shout’ at me 😉

AngryTechnician - September 19, 2010

My school does in fact have a role named “ICT co-ordinator”… but as there is no head of ICT, she also has to fill in for that role, as well as teach the entirety of the ICT syllabus to Years 5-8 single-handed. That leaves her only a limited amount of time for ‘true’ co-ordinating, but it does happen, and the benefits do show.

As for Computing, I was lucky enough to attend a sixth form college that offered Computing A-Level, as well as previously working that a school that used to offer it, but had recently abandoned it. Little had changed in the intervening years, especially not that even dedicated ICT teachers struggle to teach it effectively if they don’t have a background in the subject themselves – which only a minority do, in my experience. It is a very different beast both in concept and difficulty, for students and teachers alike, but wholly worthwhile for the able and interested.

2. ICT Tower - September 19, 2010

I have been asked this same question a few times myself, over the last ten years! Like you, I see the pros and cons of both approaches.

Personally, I would prefer ICT to be taught discretely as I can’t expect non-subject specific staff to have the expertise to teach some aspects of ICT, as I lack the expertise to teach French grammar or the economics of WWII. For example: using validation techniques for setting up database fields; identifying possible phishing emails/websites and taking precautions; choosing the best output format for a video depending on destination.

Just my 2p. Would like to hear other views too.

ianinsheffield - September 20, 2010

It’s becoming clearer that preferring the ‘discrete’ option puts you in the majority. The contributors on Vital (see later post from Nick) and on Ed Tech Round Up last night lean this way too (though we do need to keep in mind Ingotian’s important point too – see later).

Wondering though, as I’ve said later, what the views of non-ICT specialists are. Would they favour the ‘discrete’ option too – offload the responsibility for ICT to the specialists?

3. ICT Tower - September 19, 2010

Angry Technician managed to get in there before my comment and he’s right about the boring curriculum. We’ve been trying to get the students enthusiastic about ICT for the past few years as we see falling numbers taking it up in GCSE but I’m sure some would like the option to study computing, which we don’t offer at the moment.

If we don’t up our game (like the phrase), we do run the risk of switching the students off for good.

4. Carl - September 19, 2010

In the US, very few schools have discrete IT classes, I know of only two High Schools in NM, that have programming classes, (although there may be more). Most, of what education here calls IT “skills”, are taught as part of business education. No web page construction generally, just computer applications. There is no focus on certification of these skills currently.

Perhaps a focus on programming mobile applications and game construction would be better as a focus for IT skills, I am not sure about that even.

ianinsheffield - September 19, 2010

Thanks Carl; I hadn’t realised that.

So would it be fair to say you cover other elements of ICT within other subjects? I’m thinking about online safety, networking (social & learning), Web 2.0, creative media (video, podcasting), logging, video-conferencing etc. Do these areas actually merit inclusion in the wider curriculum and if so, how do you guys achieve that? Or are they just tools which may or may not get used depending on the subject/teacher/school/district?

5. Ingotian - September 19, 2010

A lot depends on the school. What matters is what children learn, not organisational structure. If there is proper assessment and checking what children have learnt that is what matters. If that can be done across the curriculum, fine. If it needs discrete lessons, fine, if it needs a combination, fine. Always come back to the learning outcomes and how you know they have been achieved.

ianinsheffield - September 20, 2010

The simplest messages are often the most potent. Thanks for reminding me where we where we need to look.

6. Nick - September 19, 2010

This debate and the similar debate going on on the Vital forum is also at the forefront of my mind and I am too impressed to see The Angry Technician commenting here.

I have chucked a lot of my twopenneth via the Vital forum which I wont repeat and bore you to tears but at the risk of you all saying what a cheeky bugger, I will bring to your attention this comment I made on that forum:

“I am holding seminars to try to radically change the poor KS3 teaching I see in a lot of schools: https://www.ssatrust.org.uk/ssat/Pages/EventDetails.aspx?eventid=SVN1011983 and https://www.ssatrust.org.uk/ssat/Pages/EventDetails.aspx?eventid=SVN1011968 Yet despite some people coming to the seminars I am not inundated with bookings. Does this not show that the subject itself has reticence and apathy to change? ICT performs poorly in school relatively in my view and that adds to it’s profile in the whole school picture. It is time the teachers of the subjects themselves really got together to lead the way as some clearly are? Events like mine, TeachMeet etc are chances to do this”

So, I say to you guys. The discussion is great but are you willing to stick your necks out and contribute to a movement to force changes that you say are necessary? In other words, if the Nat Currcs needs updating, are you guys gonna give your time to contribute to changes by coming to this seminar? And if not, then why not? I am offering ICT practitioners the chance to make the changes; collaborate and connect with others to produce new tangible materials. And if it is not directly you, are you gonna at least throw your weight behind my work to move this on from mere discussion and get people involved who should be involved?

ianinsheffield - September 20, 2010

Thanks for chipping in here in addition to the Vital Forum Nick. It was only last night when Drew (@digitalmaverick) made me aware of the discussion which was already underway there. You and the other contributors cover far more of the bases than I have done here. I’d encourage anyone to check out the forums on Vital (http://www.vital.ac.uk) if you’re looking for in-depth discussions of the major issues surrounding ICT at the moment.

I think I’m right in saying though that contributors both there and here all have a vested interest,either by dint of their position as Director, Head or Co-ordinator of ICT … or as an ICT consultant. But given the nature of the forum and of this post, what else should I expect? I’d be really interested though in the views of colleagues from other subject areas, how they feel about ICT and the impact (positive or otherwise) on their curricula.

(Oh and I’m trying my best to arrange for someone to join your seminar(s) – I’m sure there’s a lot for us to learn and perhaps ways in which we can contribute to the debate.

7. Keith - September 20, 2010

Seems to be a number of factors at play here.
1. like maths, english language, perhaps map reading, ICT needs to be discretely addressed.
2. Like the above, ICT skills are also used in other subjects.
3. Just as we don’t expect a history teacher to know the detail of language teaching, we can’t expect non ICT staff to ‘teach’ ICT. But just as I hope this eponymous History teacher will pick up on spelling, sentence construction, etc so we should expect teachers to raise some issues such as plagiarism.

Herein lies another problem. whereas teachers of history grew up learning how to use the language, they didn’t experience ICT in the same way. The same may apply to the history teacher and their maths skills – they have a functional ability but no in depth appreciation of Euclidan geometry! For a science teacher, the reverse may be true – their maths skills are good whereas their language skills are ‘functional’

Oh – and another thing. Some teachers – science, D&T are used to ‘letting go’ of the learning through managing practical classes. Others, such as history (no – I haven’t got a downer on history teacher’s – it’s a fascinating subject) don’t have this experience.

Ownership/resourcing. mobile devices seem to me good for data collection and information seeking but are limited in their ability to, for example, create media. So the days of the institution owned resource are not yet numbered.

Apprenticeship – people develop language as they interact. This does not prevent us from believing that language teaching is a good thing. Likewise, we should expect to make explicit some skills and understanding about ICT.

So we need both. Although I’m not convinced by the examples (formatting/styles tabs/spaces seem a bit archaic) the principle that we need to have explicit ICT remains. Now if we could get it ‘joined up’ so that what goes on in ICT relates directly to the ICT in use elsewhere – WOW!!

Oh dear – the nation’s economy is going to the dogs because the schools can’t fit in to a day everything that the economy demands. But since when have architects bemoaned the lack of architecture teaching in schools or legal careers been reserved to those who have got an A* in Law at A level. Or plumbing or bricklayers …..
I used to hear from Uni people that computing was taught so badly in schools they had to undo all the misunderstandings before they could start the real work. What has changed? Surely a good grounding in ‘pure subjects’ in this case Maths and science is preferable to knowing how to create an access database.

8. ianinsheffield - September 20, 2010

Thanks for such a fulsome response Keith and as I think you’re saying, there are advantages to both approaches which we perhaps ought to capitalise on . . . a blended approach perhaps? One in which the finer points are developed by those best placed to do so in a ‘discrete’ way, whilst other subject areas provide contextual opportunities to deploy newly learned skills and knowledge?

I guess that’s what the majority of us are striving for . . . unless anyone can offer a third (fourth?) way?

9. Ideas_factory - September 25, 2010

Very stimulating Ian.

Just thought I’d give you the Primary perspective.

Many educators forget that ICT,alongside English,Maths & RE, is a ‘core’ subject at Primary level.

That means that it has to be taught and is a compulsory subject.

Ironically, given the nature of the fast evolving subject, the curriculum hasn’t changed since 1999!There’s one mention of the Internet in KS2 and CDs are still required use for research!

The QCA brought out prescriptive ‘units’ that were supposed to support the POS in 2003 but these didn’t add to the outdated curriculum.

ICT teaching depends on the school-either being taught through a discreet unit or as part of a theme.

Although,even when taught thematically, it still ends up as discreet teaching because of the arcane nature of the POS & the necessary use of specialist equipment.

IaninSheffield - September 25, 2010

Thanks for providing the Primary perspective J. and for reminding us of your … obligations. Is there any other area of the curriculum which covers such a rapidly changing field? And which therefore is desperately in need of a rethink, not only in terms of content, but of necessity in terms of it’s very nature?

Unfotunately don’t hold out a lot of hope for direction being provided by the powers that be. Hopefully @largerama’s crusade will gather traction.

10. Ingotian - September 25, 2010

I agree about the powers that be which is why I decided to try and change things myself. Not at all easy though 🙂

Why not get learners to write blogs and develop simple web sites? – we host the content management facilities to do this (www.theingots.org) for free and we have started on a specific site for primary which we’ll develop further if there is demand. http://theingots.org/tux/

Teaching internet safety and confidence should be a high priority with primary children. We can also reward them with Entry level certificates that are nationally accredited with a progression route to Level 1 NVQ which many year 6s could achieve with the right preparation. Teach them to draw in art, produce sound and music and writing in blogs. So whether this is taught as a discrete subject or through other subjects is more an issue of CPD and teacher motivation. We can make free and very low cost resources available to do it but the real question is how ready teachers are to take them up? How do we get to those that are?

ianinsheffield - September 25, 2010

And how do we get to those that aren’t?!

Ingotian - September 25, 2010

If we get to enough of those that are first the others will follow. The research shows that you have to get the early adopters and early majority engaged first before others will come on board. It’s simple practicalities really.

11. Russell Dyas - September 25, 2010

Well I agree with lot of comments above. Interesting we have his debate should we teach maths across the school and remove maths lessons??

There is need for both but one major key here is how discrete ICT is taught I work in a school that in my view teaches it right at KS3. The pure skills are second to the teaching of the ICT capability.

The partnering method of teaching is suited very well to ICT teaching. ICT should be same as art you do not see very often see a art teacher start a lesson saying we are going to learn how to draw using shading in black and white. Instead they say we are going to learn about Augustus John. The skills are separate.

ICT lessons should focus on capability and skills. If you get that right then ICTAC becomes easy as students can adapt their ICT knowledge to the situation.

Russell Dyas

ianinsheffield - September 25, 2010

Your opening comments get to the nub Russell. I know of few people (none?) who would argue for no discrete Maths lessons . . . or English for that matter. Yet there are some subjects which we choose not to inculde in the curriculum (at KS3 anyway) at all, let alone in a cross-curricular way. ICT seems to sit in the middle ground with some making the case for discrete lessons, some for integrated and some for a combination. I wonder why there is a debate about ICT, but not about Maths? Maybe it’s because at the moment we don’t separate out the capability elements like we do for Maths/Numeracy and English/Literacy? It’s just ICT.

You begin to address this point in your reference to an Art lesson (a great illustration BTW) – don’t start from the skills, start from experience and bring in the skills.

As a non-ICT specialist though, I’m quite interested in how we distinguish ICT capability from the skills when we’re exploring the ICT curriculum. Can you give me further pointers?

12. Ingotian - September 25, 2010

I think English is a closer comparison than maths. You can do a lot in a lot of subjects without ever doing any maths.

If we used ICT in school like it gets used outside it would be the end of exercise books so every subject that produces text, drawings and diagrams would use ICT in every lesson. To do that effectively you really do need some underlying skills and knowledge just as you need to be able to spell and punctuate in English to write coherently.

Knowing to originate diagrams in vector formats and why is really practically important if you are publishing work. It is like knowing the difference between a noun and a verb in English. The difference is that virtually every teacher knows the English rules and virtually none would know anything about graphics formats. (actually a lot of supposed ICT specialists wouldn’t) Saying skills don’t matter is a recipe for mediocrity but that is not saying teach them in isolation. It’s not an either or it’s an “and” teach skills in order to achieve high quality capability. Otherwise we get bad practice like producing web sites in MS Publisher because on the surface it looks like it works.

The NC is a problem because it is devoid from any mention of skills and techniques. Imagine an English curriculum that just said use English to communicate effectively without saying how with teachers ranging from graduate linguists to those who could hardly put a sentence together. The English curriculum is spelt out in more detail than the ICT curriculum despite far higher levels of competence in teachers.

It’s really not at all surprising we are in the mess we are in with ICT.

13. One Sunday Morning on Twitter | Everyone has to start somewhere - September 26, 2010

[…] along the way Edna chimed in and included a link to a blog post by Iain Guest (@IaninSheffield) about discrete vs embedded ICT […]

14. Linda - September 27, 2010

I am an ICT specialist working in an independent Australian K-12 school at year levels 4 to 6 (ie ages 9-12). While we firmly believe ICT should be integrated into the curriculum, we still have dedicated lessons each week to teach skills. I team teach with the class teachers to make sure that ICT complements and enhances the learning taking place in each classroom. I plan units of inquiry with the teachers, and make sure ICT is embedded from the start. While we have computer labs at the moment, next year we will be moving into a new building without labs. Here the model will be a wireless school, with teachers able to borrow from a bank of laptops as needed. I will be on a flexible timetable, so that ICT learning can be targeted as needed. We are looking forward to this challenge, which I see as an evolution of the way ICT is taught in our school.

ianinsheffield - September 27, 2010

Thanks for stopping by Linda – good to get a perspective from someone working with younger learners. The team teaching approach can be a powerful one with your role being pivotal in helping colleagues to develop their capabilities and also to share interesting practice amongst the staff.

Wondering if you’ll still be including discrete ICT lessons in your new environment when there are no computer labs? When you’ve removed the barrier of having to take the class to the lab. and the ICT can take place within more authentic learning situations, would you want to try to fit the skills within the general curriculum?

Linda - September 27, 2010

I am sure discrete lessons will still take place, though not necessarily at a set time each week. We will have enough laptops that a whole class can work together when needed. We already fit the skills within the general curriculum – I plan with classroom teachers. Our aim is to make this happen more authentically and seamlessly by ensuring the learning takes place as needed, not ‘Monday period 6’ as discussed in the post http://bit.ly/92oahw

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