It is just over a year since the introduction of computing as a named subject within England’s National Curriculum. While research exploring schools’ experience of this change will no doubt be forthcoming, it seems timely to reflect on opportunities that may be missed through this re-working of technology in the curriculum.
Like others I was frustrated by the idea of children in Key Stage 2 being taught to create PowerPoints (an example often used to deride the old ICT curriculum) when many were already using digital technology in far more sophisticated ways outside school. Like others I’m excited by the work being done to support children to code, demystifying skills that had seemed the preserve of the few and equipping them to engage in all kinds of creative and exploratory activities. What concerns me though is that the enthusiasm for programming – and the training, expenditure and resources associated with it – may detract from issues and questions that are equally or perhaps even more important in a digital age.
I take a broad look at such issues and questions in a report commissioned by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust which will be published in the new year: The Digital Age and its Implications for Learning and Teaching in the Primary School. Part 1 of the report summarises research related to how we use digital technology in everyday life, including how it is used by children, and identifies challenges and opportunities facing primary education. Recognising that children’s experiences are often uneven, it proposes that we need to do far more than equip children with skills or knowledge, whether these are the ‘matters, skills and processes’ associated with the computing curriculum or with frameworks such as Go On UK’s Basic Digital Skills Framework. The report proposes that we need to consider cultural, social, creative, ethical, and civic questions and explore technology use in relation to fundamental debates about how we see education and the role of schools. This involves thinking about technology in relation to things that have long been priorities in many primary schools and indeed the Cambridge Primary Review Trust: pedagogy, social justice, relationships, creativity, community.
Part 2 explores how research is shaping ideas about how schools respond to these challenges and opportunities, while Part 3 proposes implications for policy-makers and education leaders, and recommendations for schools and teachers. Research is considered in terms of five broad ‘traditions’ representing different perspectives on how schools might take account of the digital age. These traditions include: technology across the curriculum; 21st century skills; computer science; participation, learning and digital media; and new literacies. The point here is that different kinds of research (often involving different communities of educationalists and researchers) are generating different kinds of insights and there is a need to explore how these different traditions, whose aims are sometimes complementary and sometimes not, intersect.
There isn’t space here to explore all five traditions discussed in my review. However, considering the contribution of one of these – new literacies – illustrates some ways in which our response to the digital age needs to go beyond the computing curriculum as specifed by DfE.
Literacy in everyday life is commonly understood to be changing rapidly and researchers in the field of new literacies are helping to describe these changes and explore implications for literacy in schools. More than ever, people produce as well as access texts, negotiating their lives online. These literacies are multimodal, incorporating images, moving images and hyperlinks, for example, and increasingly mobile as people keep in touch with others and search for information on the move. And then of course there are all the associated concerns about personal and financial security, state supervision and use of social media by sexual predators and terrorist groups. Thinking about how technology intersects with social, cultural, political and economic activity has never been more pressing. And in the light of this, never has it been more important for children to be able to navigate digital resources creatively and critically, to consider how to put them to use, and review what others’ uses mean for what they might or are able to do.
Creative, cultural, critical dimensions are also relevant to lots of the activities taking place during computing lessons. In many schools children are using programs like Scratch and Kodu to create animations and games. This process involves thinking about aesthetics, coherence and how players or viewers will interact with what they produce. These are things that researchers and practitioners in the field of new literacies have long argued should be part of literacy provision. An expanded literacy curriculum would recognise the wide range of media that children use and encounter, and the diverse literacy practices in which they do and could engage in their current and future lives.
And yet English in the national curriculum includes no explicit references to digital media at all. Schools are of course free to interpret programmes of study as they choose and many integrate film, computer games, social media and so on in innovative ways, and of course the ‘digital literacy’ element of computing goes some way to addressing these issues. However, as I explore with Becky Parry and Guy Merchant in a new book Literacy, Media, Technology: past, present, future (Bloomsbury, forthcoming) much of this is hindered by a curriculum, accountability framework and testing arrangements that do not appear to value the mobile, multimodal literacies that are so common in everyday life.
So I applaud the new emphasis on programming but also argue that, in ensuring that all can draw on digital technologies in ways that are personally fulfilling and economically, socially and politically empowering, we need to consider how provision for digital technologies relates to the values and aspirations that underpin our wider vision for children’s learning across and beyond the curriculum. As Neil Selwyn and Kerry Facer argued in The Politics of Education and Technology technology – like everything else in education – is never neutral.
Professor Cathy Burnett leads the Language and Literacy Education Research Group at Sheffield Hallam University. Her CPRT research report The Digital Age and its Implications for Learning and Teaching in the Primary School will be published early next term.