How ICT Co-ordinators could save the IT industry from collapse
Over the weekend I read with great interest an article by Ben Nunney, an education IT specialist who I met briefly last year in one of his roles with Microsoft. I started writing a reply as a comment on his post, but it quickly ballooned into what I think is now the longest post ever to feature on this blog.
Ben’s blog post, A Lesson Worth Learning, touched on several important themes in secondary-level ICT teaching in schools, with some feedback from a current student named Kevin that was eerily familiar: “We don’t really learn anything,” he said. “One time I ended up having to teach the class because the teacher didn’t know how to.”
I’d like to take a moment now to quote from my own secondary school report from more than a decade ago:
“Young AngryTechnician approached any task in IT with immense enthusiasm right from the beginning of Year 7. By the end of Key Stage 3 he had greater skills than the staff, though he was always very diplomatic about the application.”
Regular readers will now be in stitches over my supposed diplomacy skills; I attribute this aberration directly to the innocence of youth. My point here is not to inflate my own ego, however much I might enjoy the extremely rare occasions on which I can quote that report, but to point out that Kevin’s experience, 15 years later, is almost identical to my own. I don’t believe either of us are IT savants, so how is it that after all that time, the situation is the same?
Well, there is a fundamental problem with IT in schools. I’ve seen it for years, and Ben’s post echoes my own feelings. As someone with a strong academic background in IT, I’ve long argued that the national curriculum for ICT is desperately unambitious, and is ultimately failing both its students and the industry that relies on them.
I was asked in my last school to teach a few 2nd year A-level ICT classes, because none of the teachers in the school had the first clue how to teach one part of the syllabus. I went in expecting that the students would know far more than they actually did. It was soul-crushing seeing how little they were getting out of the subject – and not just for me. After 7 years of mind-numbing monotony in ICT lessons, I found only a single A-level student in 4 years at the school who was considering ICT or CS post-18. This was not a low-achieving school; this was a highly-ranked state grammar, delivering a generation of straight-A students who had been put off the subject forever. This does not bode well for an IT industry that is arguably one of the world economy’s growth sectors.
Ben’s article argues not only that there needs to be better integration of ICT in the rest of the curriculum, which I agree with entirely, but goes further in suggesting that perhaps ICT should not even exist as a discrete subject. That’s certainly not something I’d considered, and even thinking objectively about it, I think that would be a step too far, at least for the foreseeable future, and so long as students taking up IT and CS at degree level remain at their current low levels. What we do need is a subject of the sort that the student in Ben’s article describes: “We should learn real computer stuff,” Kevin argues. “You know, logic and coding, how computers work and stuff. It should be for people who want to go on and work with computers after school”.
In fact, this subject exists already – it’s called Computing. I studied it at A-Level, but it exists as a GCSE subject too, and covers exactly what Kevin says he wants from his lessons. I was lucky to be able to study it; few schools offer the subject at A-Level. The number offering it at GCSE is minuscule. Could this trend be reversed, with all schools integrating the basics of ICT into the rest of the school, and offering a more advanced ICT subject to those who wanted it?
Possibly, but the problems in doing that are twofold. Firstly, to integrate those basic ICT skills into other subjects, you need the subject teachers to be able to teach them. When a distressing number of ICT subject teachers can’t even reach that benchmark themselves, it shows we have a long way to go before teachers in other subjects can take on that task. Secondly, finding ICT teachers capable of teaching Computing would be harder still. Ben describes how he’s encountered many ex-Geographers who find their way into ICT teaching. In my experience, it’s usually Business Studies teachers (who are even less suited to the task, in my opinion). While the TDA is hell-bent on recruiting more specialist science and mathematics teachers (and rightly so), barely a word is ever said about specialist ICT teachers, though it’s hardly surprising when the syllabus is so basic that many schools are able to churn out grade-A students taught by teachers with no background in the subject.
In this way, the dual problems Ben identifies of both poorly-trained teachers and the curriculum itself are closely linked in a catch-22 situation; we can’t improve the curriculum without having better-trained teachers to deliver it, but there is little incentive to deliver that training until the curriculum truly demands it.
So, where do we start? In my opinion, it has to be with the wider school staff. Until ICT is integrated with the entire curriculum, ICT as a discrete subject will be stuck teaching only the basics. In some ways, this is also the easiest place to start, since the process has begun already. If you looked at the ICT skills of the average non-ICT teacher today, and compared them with that of a decade ago, you would see an enormous difference. That has occurred partly out of necessity as computers increasingly permeate not only the classroom, but our everyday lives. What’s notable is that the improvement in skills has happened with actually quite little formal training, and not an awful lot of direction. Despite the popular belief to the contrary, good teachers pick up ICT skills quickly, though many suffer from a lack of confidence which belies their actual ability. What’s needed is a way to strategically focus and develop those skills across the entire curriculum. What’s needed is a secret weapon, and I know exactly where to find one. Behold:
The all-powerful ICT Co-ordinator
In many schools, especially at primary level, there is no specialist ICT teacher, no Head of ICT, or department to run. Instead, they have a post called the ICT Co-ordinator. If the school is lucky, this role may be a dedicated member of staff; in the less-lucky, it’s often a role foisted upon some unwary new hire, a “yes-man” or “yes-woman” keen to impress senior management. In either case, the core idea is that this person works directly with the rest of the teaching staff to develop and support ICT teaching throughout the school.
Which is exactly what we need.
In the AngryTechnician’s New World Order, every school has an ICT Co-ordinator, even where there is a fully-fledged ICT subject department. This person acts a bit less like a teacher, and a bit more like a member of support staff – and by that, I don’t mean writing irate blogs about how rubbish the rest of the staff are. Quite the opposite: their job is to train and develop both the personal IT skills of the rest of the teaching staff, and their teaching skills in ICT – instead of taking on the teaching themselves. They are a facilitator. Their job is, quite simply, to ensure that other subject teachers have the skills and knowledge to deliver ICT content relevant to their subject with confidence and excellence. They guide and inform lesson planning in every subject where ICT is used. They are the right hand of every teacher who needs to use ICT in their lessons.
This is what many ICT co-ordinators already have in their job description, though usually as a small part of their overall job. I say it should be their single most important focus. The ICT Co-ordinator should not be taking up the slack and teaching those parts other teachers cannot reach; they should be making sure there is no part that other teachers cannot reach. In doing so, they would usher in the era much-desired by senior leaders where ICT is seamlessly integrated into teaching & learning, leaving the ICT department… empty?
Perhaps, perhaps not. At primary level it could be argued there is no need for a discrete ICT subject, if it was ubiquitous elsewhere. In many primaries, this is already the case, even if not out of choice. The need definitely exists at secondary level, and with an integrated approach to ICT, that department would be free to focus on doing what every other department does; teaching the specifics of the subject, switching pupils on to the wonder of our modern technological society, not drilling them through monotonous exercises in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
In my final year at my previous school, I suggested to the Pendragon, the newest IT teacher, that he might find the time to start teaching Small Basic to some of his students. He leapt on the idea – and started with Year 8. It has been a colossal hit. Year 11 pupils would stare wide-eyed into his lessons and complain “Why aren’t WE doing that?” They were switched on for the first time, and this year, the school finally has a cohort of pupils going into GCSE who look towards university and think of Computer Science.
If ICT was allowed to be more like Computing, doing away with humdrum labouring over how to do a mail-merge for the hundredth time, that success could be replicated with ten times the magnitude in every school. In their upgraded form, the humble ICT-Cordinator can make that happen. It might take a decade to achieve, but it would be shot in the arm that the IT industry desperately needs.