Digital Literacy and the new ICT curriculum

The Royal Society made a convincing argument that ICT should be replaced by a combination of Computer Science and Digital Literacy. The current draft of the new ICT PoS does not live up to this vision.

In my post Scrapping “ICT” on January 18th, I attacked the term “ICT” on the grounds that it confused two concepts: the teaching of technology (which I proposed to call Computer Studies) and the use of technology to improve learning (which I proposed to call education technology).

I had not at that time read the Royal Society report, Shut down or restart?, which had been published five days earlier. This report argued along similar lines to my own, but suggested that the term “ICT” confused not two but five concepts:

  • the National Curriculum Subject called “ICT” (itself a combination of many strands);
  • the use of generic information technologies (e.g. the internet, VLEs, office software) to support teaching and learning;
  • the use of specific technologies to support individual subjects (e.g. weather stations in Geography, MIDI instruments in Music);
  • the use of technologies to support teachers’ administrative processes, and the school’s management information systems;
  • the physical infrastructure of a school’s computer systems: the networks, printers and so on.

I can agree with the Royal Society that “ICT” confuses many different terms without necessarily  agreeing that their five points represent the most helpful classification of the different concepts.

Disaggregating “ICT”

First, the Royal Society makes the important distinction (which I have argued in this blog) between generic and specific technologies—but it uses these terms to distinguish technologies that are specific to particular subjects and does not mention the need to develop technologies which are specific to teaching and learning (indeed, it classifies VLEs as a generic technology). Nor does the Royal Society make clear whether the use of MIDI instruments in music ought to be regarded as an end of music teaching, or a means of teaching music; or whether the software being used will be of a type that students will continue use when they move on to professional recording studios, or whether it has been developed specifically for the classroom. In short, we may need to see specificity in two different dimensions: what is specific to the business of education; what is specific to the curricula of different subjects (i.e. subject-specific technical curricula)—and where these two senses overlap, what is specific to the business of education in particular subjects (i.e. subject-specific educational technology).

Second, I am not sure that it is useful to make a clear distinction between the instructional and the administrative use of technology. True, the division between the MIS and the VLE is evident in our current ed-tech landscape. But a significant part of teaching is about good classroom administration: the control of assignment, progression, differentiation and remediation—and all these functions need to be better handled by software which bridges the gap between the administrative and instructional domains.

With the one exception of what I would call subject-specific technical curricula, all three points (instructional uses of technology, administrative uses of technology, and subject-specific uses of technology as a means of teaching) can be subsumed under my term education technology.

This leaves us with the Royal Society’s points 1 and 5. I shall leave point 5, the physical infrastructure of a school’s computer systems, on one side and consider point 1: ICT as a subject.

The Royal Society proposes that this should in turn be split into three strands:

  • Computer Science
  • IT
  • Digital Literacy.

The main concern of the Royal Society is to introduce Computer Science to our schools as a stretching, academic discipline—and it has been this aspiration which has been dominating the review of the ICT curriculum. Beyond saying that I fully support the idea, I will also leave this to one side as being beyond the scope of this post.

The extraction of Computer Science as a hard, academic discipline leaves the messy job of clearing up all of the other bits of the old ICT curriculum. Covering “the rest” is left to the other two of the Royal Society’s categories: Digital Literacy and IT.

I believe that the Royal Society’s definition of IT (as a subject discipline) is particularly problematic. It says that IT consists in “the application of computer systems and the use of pre-existing software to meet user needs”. This definition does not make clear whether this is something that is taught, something that is done as a matter of course by other subject teachers (i.e. when they use a whiteboard to present a lesson on Geography), something that is done independently by students, or something that is done by the school technicians when they manage the school infrastructure. The Royal Society’s definition of IT appears to me to be just as problematic as the old definition of ICT ever was.

I shall offer my view of how to make sense of the Royal Society’s “IT” strand, once I have considered the main subject of this post, which is Digital Literacy.

Three definitions of “Digital Literacy”

We have seen three separate definitions of “Digital Literacy” in the current debate, each successive definition creating a wider scope, like the ripples spreading out on the surface of a pond. I shall start with the largest, outer ripple and work my way in.

The widest definition of DL: understanding the transformative effect of technology

The widest definition is given by the most enthusiastic advocates of ICT. According to this view, Digital Literacy is about understanding technology as a transformative force both in education and in society more generally. It is not enough to be able to use computers productively in school; you should be able to use computers to become a “21st century citizen”.

The clearest definition of this perspective is given by Dr Peter Twining, Director of the Vital[1] and member of the committee which is compiling the new Programme of Study. On his EdFutures blog, he defines Digital Literacy as:

the ability to operate effectively as a citizen in the 21st century. It covers the following areas:
* Understanding the impact of new technologies on society, including the ways in which new technologies change disciplines (e.g. history, chemistry, English, etc)
* Understanding the nature of digital identities and being able to manage your digital identities appropriately
*Being able to interact safely in a digital world (encompassing e-safety, cyber-bullying, data security, etc);
* Being able to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, analyze and (re)present information using digital technology (including using dynamic and procedural representations).[2]

According to this account, it is not enough just to be able to use technology to improve teaching and learning: you need to understand that technology is changing what you ought to be learning as well.

It is a consequence of this proposition not only that ICT should be taught across curriculum but also that all other subjects need to change in order to reflect the impact of technology in modern society.

Those of us who are susceptible to wishful thinking tend to over-rate the likelihood of what we hope for will actually come about. Some people go one step further and seek to persuade other people that something is desirable by telling them that it is going to happen anyway, whether they like it or not—or even that it has happened already.

While it is undoubtedly true that technology is changing society in many ways, exactly how it is changing society is not necessarily clear. I have sat in countless conferences listening to speakers waxing lyrically about the “wisdom of crowds” – yet as I write, the use of social media is in the news for spreading false accusations of paedophilia against innocent victims. This seems to suggest a more traditional view of the “foolishness of crowds”:

Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it.[3]

Laying aside the virtues of Twitter, Dr Twining’s proposition that technology fundamentally changes all other subjects is very far from self-evident. A word-processor may be a useful tool but it does nothing to change the nature of great poetry or confer the ability to produce it. A recent BBC Horizon programme featured a selection of the world’s top mathematicians and physicists, all sitting around in the state-of-the-art National Research Council in Canada, speculating on what came before the Big Bang. When asked to explain their cutting-edge theories, they turn to blackboard and chalk[4]. And one reason that the Japanese are so far ahead of us in international comparisons of numeracy is that they use the abacus to achieve extraordinary feats of mental arithmetic, avoiding the calculator which has transformed (presumably to Dr Twining’s liking) our teaching of Maths in the UK.

Technology may be useful, it may influence the context in which we operate, and scientists in particular may rely on it to construct the experiments that enable them to collect evidence: but technology does not necessarily change the fundamentals of an academic discipline. Even when it comes to Computer Science itself, the Royal Society report argues that Computer Science “has longevity (most of the ideas and concepts that were current 50 or more years ago are still applicable today), and every core principle can be taught or illustrated without relying on the use of a specific technology”[5]. Core academic principles do not change—and in comparison to the mastery of those principles, the skills required to tweet, blog and file-share count as trivia.

In respect of the “embedding” of ICT across the curriculum[6], Shut down or restart sounds a cautious note.

The phrase ‘ICT across curriculum’ can mean two quite different things in a school context:
a) Using information and communication technology to enhance learning in, say, history.
b) Embedding the teaching of ICT skills in other curriculum subjects – e.g. Excel skills are learnt through subjects such as business studies and mathematics.
These are not the same, but they are very frequently conflated. In our opinion, the former is a given, and is not the focus of this report. The latter is the approach taken through the ICT curriculum in Northern Ireland, and many international examples of this exist.
The call for evidence and stakeholder meetings provoked a mixed response to this approach – some saw this as an efficient way of building the ICT curriculum into the school day, but others were highly sceptical of the idea that many different teachers throughout the school could between them have sufficient subject knowledge to avoid a tickbox approach. Naace notes that ICT as currently constructed can be delivered in a solely distributed way, but also cautions that there are many potential problems with this method and few examples of success.

“Embedded technology” and “cross-curriculum ICT” are confusing terms because they mean “mean two quite different things in a school context”, two things that “are very frequently conflated”[7]: the teaching of subject-specific technology (such as weather stations in Geography or MIDI instruments in music (which the Royal Society regards as a given); or the teaching of technology across the curriculum (which the Royal Society cautions is likely to be impractical. The Royal Society implicitly agrees with me (see my post The dog that didn’t barkthat the use of the term “embedded” is appropriate to the teaching of technology but not to the use of technology in the classroom—and that the indiscriminate use of the term therefore confuses these two very different ways in which technology appears in our schools. In all of Dr Twining’s extensive advocacy of embedded technology on the web, I can find no rebuttal of the Royal Society’s position.

Once it has been agreed that the teaching of ICT across the curriculum is impractical, we are left with

  • the teaching in different subjects of subject-specific technologies;
  • the use of education technology in different subjects to improve learning.

In both of these cases, the application or teaching of technology should be driven by the subject concerned, and not by the advocates of ICT. This point of view appears to be put very clearly in the Explanatory Notes to the Draft ICT Programme of Study produced under the auspices of the BCS and RAEng:

The extent and nature of the use of technology in other subjects should be driven exclusively by the needs of those subjects, and not by the needs of the ICT curriculum.

However, the force of this admirably clear statement is muddied by the sentence that follows:

Nevertheless, it would be extraordinary for any subject to make no use of technology – which should be recognised in the statutory requirements for these subjects within the National Curriculum.
The tension between these two consecutive sentences in the notes suggests radically different perspectives on the committee considering the PoS. If it is true that “the extent and nature of the use of technology in other subjects should be driven exclusively by the needs of those subjects and not by the needs of the ICT curriculum”, then it is not for a document which seeks to outline the ICT curriculum to tell other subjects what they should be teaching.

The middling definition of DL: using computers to improve learning

The middling definition focuses on the use of computer skills to improve learning. According to this definition, you need to be able to use these applications productively in your learning. This is the definition which seems to form the focus of the first draft of the Programme of Study, created under the auspices of the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

At each key stage, the draft PoS provides a single bullet point which (although it is not stated explicitly) appears to address the need for Digital Literacy. They are:

At KS1

Use software on a range of devices; create, manipulate and evaluate digital media in a range of formats for use by an audience with whom they are familiar; use the web as a tool for learning and research.

At KS2

Select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of electronic devices to accomplish a given goal, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information; apply good design practice when creating digital products for a given audience; work collaboratively in digital media and manage small projects; use search engines effectively and appreciate how results are selected and ranked.

At KS3

Work creatively on individual and team projects in a range of digital media; select, use and assemble multiple applications across a range of devices to achieve complex goals, including analysing data and meeting the needs of known users; create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital content with attention to design and audience.

There is nothing radical about any of these points—they could all have been lifted straight out of the ICT curriculum that anyone might have been likely to write over the last 10 years—and that is precisely the problem. They transfer to the “new” ICT curriculum all the failings of the old ICT curriculum, widely regarded as having been “too off-putting, too demotivating, too dull”.

I suggest that this approach has several problems.

The proposed PoS for Digital Literacy is not specific

Even though the document being prepared by the BCS and RAEng can only provide a top-level overview (having to fit on two sides of A4), there is no reason why it should not specify in some detail the key skills that need to be achieved at various stages.

In this respect, the proposed paragraphs on Digital Literacy contrast unfavourably with the paragraphs included in the same document for Computer Science. These require that students, at KS2:

Use ‘if … then … else’ and loop structures in algorithms and programs; use variables and tables to store, retrieve and manipulate data; work with different forms of input, data representation and output;

and at KS3:

Represent the relevant aspects of a problem as abstractions that can be described within a program, including a conceptual understanding of how data is represented and how instructions are processed within a computer system.

Unlike the PoS for computer science, the requirements for Digital Literacy do not specify what precisely students should be able to do. Nobody can assume that anyone will have been taught to use any particular type of software (as it will be the students who are given responsibility for selecting what sorts of software to use) and different schools are bound to have different interpretations of what is meant by “complex goals”. The only category of software that they are explicitly required to master is internet search engines.

At both KS2 and KS3, the PoS requires students to be able to “select” the right sort of software for a particular purpose. But it is only possible to make a selection from those options with which you are already familiar. Nothing in the PoS specifies how wide a vocabulary of software types and software applications the student ought to have, from which to make this selection.

The proposed PoS confuses the teaching of technology with its use

Instead of defining what students should know about digital technology, the PoS defines what students should use digital technology for. This makes the implicit assumption that if students are required to use technology for the right sort of ends, then they will automatically have to learn about the technology which provides the most effective means (given the current state of a rapidly changing technical landscape) of achieving those ends.

Broadly speaking, the “right sort of ends” are defined as the presentation of information in digital form, working collaboratively on creative projects. These are the processes that lie behind the currently popular model of Technology Enhanced Learning—the use of computers to enhance learning across the curriculum, supported by software that in general has not been developed specifically for education.

The problem with this formula is that assumptions are being made about how technology can best be used to enhance learning across the curriculum—and then these assumptions are being wired into the curricula, not only for ICT but also (because of the assumptions also being made about the need for embedded ICT) in the curricula of all other subjects. This is dangerous. Many prominent advocates of current Technology Enhanced Learning talk nonsense (see my post, Sir Ken Robinson and Scott Goodman’s guest post Ken Robinson Rebuttal ), refuse to debate their position with anyone who disagrees with them (see my post, The dog that didn’t bark), and fail to point to any substantive evidence that current approaches to Technology Enhanced Learning actually work.

The proposed PoS confuses ICT skills with subject-specific skills

There are many parts of the PoS which address non-technical skills. At KS2, students must “use…software…to accomplish a given goal”, which should include “evaluating…information”.

There is a section in Plato’s Gorgias in which Socrates challenges the eponymous orator to explain what he means when he says that “persuasion is the chief end of rhetoric” (rhetoric being the art which we would probably call “spin”). Socrates argues that the ability to persuade someone of the truth of a mathematical proposition is what maths is about; the ability to persuade someone of an historical truth is what history is about; and the ability to persuade someone of a scientific truth is what science is about. There is nothing left for which we need to use rhetoric as the means of persuasion. Socrates concludes (as have so many observers of modern politics) that the purpose of rhetoric is to deceive and not persuade anyone of the truth.

A similar argument can be applied to creation, evaluation and communication: the ability to evaluate statistical data (or create and express useful statistically valid conclusions) is what the subject of statistics is about; the ability to evaluate scientific information (or create and express valid scientific propositions) is what science is about; and the ability to create or evaluate a pot is what pottery is about. There is no such thing as a general ability to create or evaluate that can be acquired in isolation from these particular cases—and it is certainly not something that we have any evidence is delivered by the discredited ICT curriculum.

The proposed PoS assumes cross-curriculum delivery

It is presumably because the advocates of Technology Enhanced Learning are aware of the argument above that they argue that ICT in general (or Digital Literacy in particular) must be “embedded” across the curriculum. This argument runs into all the difficulties that have already been highlighted by the Royal Society, by this post and by The dog that didn’t bark.

The tightest definition of DL: using computers

The tightest definition of digital literacy is given by the Royal Society report as “The general ability to use computers”[8].  A fuller explanation of what this means is that:

Digital literacy should be understood to mean the basic skill or ability to use a computer confidently, safely and effectively, including: the ability to use office software such as word processors, email and presentation software, the ability to create and edit images, audio and video, and the ability to use a web browser and internet search engines. These are the skills that teachers of other subjects at secondary school should be able to assume that their pupils have, as an analogue of being able to read and write.

The Royal Society report makes clear that it does not regard Digital Literacy as anything very demanding. Most of these skills should have been taught by the end of KS3 at the latest.

The great merit of the Royal Society approach is that it is precise. Even in the short paragraph that it devotes to the subject, it lists the different types of software (word processors, email, presentation and image editing software) “that teachers of other subjects at secondary school should be able to assume that their pupils have, as an analogue of being able to read and write”. You would have though that when it came to producing a programme of study, detail would have been added to this definition. In fact, detail has been subtracted.

Sorting out the relationship between ends and means

My argument in January was that the term “ICT” confused technology as an end of education and technology as a means to education. Thanks partly to the Royal Society report, these two meanings are slowly separating out, like oil and water in a shaken bottle. But the process of separating what was previously conflated takes time and the current exercise shows that the overall picture is still confused.

Part of the problem is that, as argued in my post Aristotle’s Saddle-maker, ends and means are relative, not absolute terms, and they generally form chains with many links:

  • we use technology in order to teach and learn more effectively;
  • we teach and learn in order to acquire new knowledge and skills;
  • we acquire new knowledge and skills in order to achieve certain goals.

The PoS ought to address the middle of these links in the teleological chain, specifying with some degree of precision what knowledge and skills our schools should teach. In its current draft, the wording of the PoS addresses the third link in the chain, requiring students to use whatever technology they think is appropriate in order to achieve certain “complex” goals. What these goals should be is not specified either, except that there is a strong implication that it should be to improve their own learning (looping back to the first step). In this way, the current PoS does everything except specify what students should know.

This does not mean that in specifying what we should know, no account should be given of why we should know it. As far as the teaching of Digital Literacy at school is concerned, I suggest that there are two main justifications:

  • to enable students to learn more effectively at school;
  • to equip students with the basic skills required in adult life.

With respect to the first goal, if we want to know what sort of digital literacies are required for better learning across the curriculum, then we should ask the teachers of those other subjects in which the digital literacy is going to be used.

As an ex-secondary school History teacher, I would answer that my main requirements would be that students should be able to:

  • type with reasonable fluency;
  • use a word processor, with particular emphasis on reviewing and redrafting documents;
  • use an outliner or mind-mapping software to organise and structure an argument;
  • use reputable online sources of reference;
  • to have the general confidence to access subject-specific software packages, such as assessment software for the revision of basic facts.

From the same perspective of a teacher of History, I would place little importance on the use of:

  • the internet as a primary source of information (as in “internet research”);
  • presentation software, such as PowerPoint;
  • image or video manipulation software;
  • databases and spreadsheets.

My requirements would be poorly served by the PoS for Digital Literacy as currently proposed, which suggests the prioritisation of the second set of bullet points and not the first. It implies a great deal of time making videos and graphics, presenting and posting these creations online, rather than getting down to mastering the less glamorous business of handling text and writing essays.

Other History teachers might  of course disagree with me, suggesting different priorities. But it is at least the History teachers (and Science and Maths and English and Music and Art teachers) who are the ones that should be asked.

Beyond using computers to enhance teaching and learning, students also need to be able to use computers to operate efficiently in adult life. Students therefore need to be taught about personal security and identity fraud, both in the context of financial transactions and social networking environments, copyright, defamation and other consequences of online activity. These issues could perhaps be covered, fairly simply, as an aspect of PSHE.

Where this leaves Information Technology

As suggested at the top of this post, I think that the Royal Society’s definition of IT as a third curriculum thread is confusing. This leaves the possibility that the term “IT” could still be used in a variety of ways:

  • to refer to the “physical infrastructure of a school’s computer systems”, which is not a curriculum issue at all;
  • to refer to what might loosely be called the “sociology of computers”—i.e. a study of the ways in which computers are changing our society;
  • as a generic term, to a collection of more particular, often vocational courses, such as secretarial skills, business accounting, digital art, network management etc.

None of these three cases suggests that the term “IT” has a place in the compulsory, pre-GCSE curriculum.

Where this leaves “ICT”

Both the Royal Society and I proposed that we should get rid of the term “ICT”. This has not been possible because the term is specified by statute law and the DfE has better things to do than to introduce new primary legislation.

This is not significant. The term ICT can be preserved as a formal and abstract term that, when it comes to the practice of teaching, can be clearly disaggregated into its constituent parts: Computer Science, Digital Literacy, and some optional extras which I propose would be better covered by “IT Studies”, acting as a further umbrella term. What is required is not new primary legislation but a clear categorisation of curriculum content.

The current draft of the PoS does not achieve this, which should be one of its primary objectives. Having summarised at the beginning of the draft the tripartite division that it inherited from the Royal Society, no attempt is made to specify what curriculum content constitutes each of the three strands.

The way in which the current draft is structured therefore perpetuates exactly the sort of confusions from which the old ICT curriculum  suffered. The PoS should be restructured to make explicit, not only how the three strands are defined, but of what curriculum content each of the three strands is composed.

This will leave “ICT” as prehensile survival of an earlier age, an umbrella term of the same type as “the arts”, “the humanities” or “the sciences”. It should keep its place in statute but should have little direct effect on the way that the curriculum is delivered.


The current reform of the ICT curriculum was initiated by the Royal Society, whose primary interest has been to promote an academically rigorous Computer Science. Neither the Royal Society, the British Computer Society nor Royal Academy of Engineering, appears to be very interested in the parts of ICT which are left once Computer Science has been extracted.

As a result, the BCS and RAEng are currently deferring to a group of people who have been identified as stakeholders in the old ICT curriculum. But the old ICT curriculum has been discredited and what is needed is a fresh start, not more of the same. By handing over influence to these groups, the BCS and RAEng are losing the tightly-defined account of Digital Literacy that was proposed by the Royal Society, drifting back to a the old model of ICT that is long on rhetoric but short on either substance or evidence that it makes any useful contribution to learning.

The two principal components of the technology curriculum should be Computer Science and Digital Literacy. Digital Literacy should focus on a clearly-defined set of skills “that teachers of other subjects at secondary school should be able to assume that their pupils have, as an analogue of being able to read and write”. What those skills should be should be established by consulting with teachers of other subjects – not through the campaigning of those who are already committed to the old notion of ICT.

Let subject-specialists:

  • specify what prerequisite “digital literacies” they want students to bring to their classrooms;
  • buy from the software industry the education technologies that they find useful (thereby driving innovation in the market);
  • teach those subject-specific technologies that are part of their curriculum;
  • use technology to teach their subject in whatever way that they think works.

And let the skills that are asked for in the first step be clearly specified under the Digital Literacy strand of the new ICT PoS.


Becta's ICT markScrapping “ICT”, argued that the term “ICT” was no longer useful and should be scrapped. I did not know at the time that the Royal Society had published a report 5 days earlier which came to the same conclusion.
Sir Ken Robinson is a rebuttal of one of the popular videos of Sir Ken Robinson, evangelist for a more creative approach to education.
Ken Robinson Rebuttal is a guest post written by Scott Goodman, rebutting another of Sir Ken’s videos.
Detail of horse from Elgin marblesAristotle’s Saddlemaker makes the argument for education-specific software, based on a discussion of the relationship between ends and means found originally in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.
The dog that didn’t bark reviews the SchoolsTech discussion that occurred in the Spring of 2012, along the way questioning the doctrine of embedded ICT.
Peter Twining’s blog on the ICT curriculum argues for a wide definition of “digital literacy”, which he thinks should be embedded across the curriculum.
The draft Programme of Study, published by the BCS and the RAEng on 22 October 2012.
My response to the consultation focused on the draft PoS.
Home page, with a full listing of posts on this blog.


[1] A programme for teacher training in ICT, run by the Open University and funded by the Department for Education. Vital is one of the invited stakeholders which have contributed to the draft Programme of Study, produced under the leadership of the British Computer Society and Royal Academy of Engineering.

[2] These four points are also offered by Dr Twining as a definition of a new term that he appears to have invented, “Digeracy”. The rationale for inventing such a new term was to use it to refer “to refer to those elements of ICT (the statutory subject) which are not part of Computer Science”. This seems to me to be a misconceived argument. There now seems to be a broad consensus that “ICT” is a poorly defined term, while “Computer Science” is a fairly well defined term. What is left behind by subtracting a well-defined set of concepts from a poorly defined set of concepts is another poorly defined set of concepts.

[3] William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2, Act 1, Sc 1.

[4] “there’s a building in Canada that looks like a mathematical problem itself which is full of people whose job is to sit around pondering these questions. And that they still use blackboards and chalk there. “

[5] I have argued against this terminology, both in comments on Embedding “ICT” and, more recently, in the main text of The dog that didn’t bark.

[6] “Shut down or restart?” ( page 19.

[7] Ibid, page 43

[8] Ibid, page 5

7 thoughts on “Digital Literacy and the new ICT curriculum

  1. Hi Crispin. This is probably the most comprehensive and accurate treatment of the great ICT-Computing debate in schools. Did you not feel though, as you grappled with the whole picture, that it is a bit like trying to grasp soap in the bath? As a blogger who survives on one point per post I specialise in (over) simplification but have been defeated many times trying to do such a summary.

    I would add something though and that is the distinction between essential and enhancing. It is essential that this country produces coders ( well I think it is anyway). arguably it is essential that young people know how to conduct themselves in a technologically advanced society but technology can only enhance learning…and this is only ‘sometimes with appropriate use’.

    In other words ICT is an optional extra in the classroom and is generically in the category of the magic lanterns and motion pictures that so enabled our teaching visual aids. You’ll never get a proper debate around optional enhancements.

    • Hi John, I love the image of struggling with the soap in the bath – that is exactly what it was like, though I am sorry that the struggle is so obvious in the finished result. This was the hardest of all the posts I have made on the blog and took several days of work spread over about three weeks. It may be because the ICT curriculum is not really my home territory. If I were to pass the buck, I would say that it is because the language that everyone uses is so poorly defined and loaded.

      I did not mean to downplay the importance of the Computer Science agenda (in which I include coding). In fact I wrote an extra couple of thousand words on that, which I cut with precisely the same thought as yours, that it might help if I focused on one point at a time! As well as producing fully fledged coders, I also buy into the Royal Society’s argument that the intellectual discipline of what might more loosely be called system design is powerful enough to affect many other disciplines. And the practice of coding too will be helpful for non-coders, enabling people e.g. to automate their use of mainstream applications by the use of macros, or just programme the video recorder. But, subject to being able to find the right people to teach such a curriculum, I do not doubt that the BCS and RAEng will put their full weight behind this agenda.

      I also completely buy into your distinction between the curriculum aspects (e.g. Computer Science and coding) and the use of technology to enhance learning (what I call education technology). But I hesitate a little in agreeing to say that the enhancement of learning was optional – I would say that in the long term, it is essential. The problem (and here comes the soap) lies in the fact that what passes for “technology enhanced learning” doesn’t really enhance anything very much. It just adds a rather “soft” veneer of collaboration and presentation, which more often than not covers up the lack of substance in the underlying study. Personally, I believe that technology has a huge potential to provide genuine enhancement to learning – but that so far, this potential has not been realised.

      So, having hesitated a little, I am after all happy to accept that the use of technology to enhance of learning should be regarded as optional, and in two senses:
      1. because teachers should be judged on outcomes and not on process
      2. because the effectiveness of TEL is still very much unproven.

      The reason that I am so keen that current ideas about TEL should not be hard-wired into the curriculum is that I think that, being wrong, their enforcement is likely to inhibit the development of more productive approaches – which I think will centre on the use of interactive instructional media, continuous assessment, and data-driven tools to manage progression, differentiation and remediation.


  2. Hi Crispin,
    An intensive and extended summation of the issues. I don’t think you can toss the term ICT out – and my reason has naught to do with the law. Simply, even when talking about MIDI, AR, etc. it is still some form of Communication (from a multimedia Communication’s teacher perspective). I do agree with your proposal that it would be better used as an umbrella term in education with the three strands you outlined as one way forward. I also wholeheartedly agree that the stakeholders, in your thesis, the teachers, should be involved. As many of us have been lamenting for years, the real issues are learning and teaching: we have forgotten that studying and learning are not synonymous (and ICT and learning are not), and pedagogy that motivates learning is what is missing. I also believe that some form of “literacy”, including security, privacy, and programming (in conjunction with other units) is necessary. Yes, output proficiencies are useful guides, but remembering facts and figures does not necessarily transfer to learning. Surely the tool to achieve the learning is irrelevant IF learners can transfer from one context to another. Maybe the educational structure itself should wear some of the blame (forget the political whims here)??? Are students learning about very nice independent bricks but are failing to realize that bricks need to be used with other bricks to make anything substantial? A case in point, as you also (mis)used, Japan. The Japanese can study and recite many facts and figures, but are very poor at transfer. (Your example of the use of an abacus is incorrect for the vast population and even if it were true, how do you explain other countries who out-perform Japan on math and science but do not use an abacus – e.g. New Zealand or Korea? Why would you use the same logical fallacy that you claim in others as it only weakens your good case?). (I have avoided taking aim at your shot at Sir Ken Robinson. You make a passing ad hominen claim with no support… again, why apply such a fallacy when the rest of your case tries to steer the path of logical argument?) Maybe the issues are being blamed on “ICT” when they may be endemic in the system????
    And my hobby horse? Why don’t we ask the students to retell the “information” in their contexts? This can be done across disciplines. (e.g. ask kids why they need to learn statistics, or geometry or when the Magna Carter was signed and see what results). Surely, in this way we can see what they don’t know, what has been misapplied, and the process may even create knowledge that can be transferred. This can be done with or without ICT, but for the kids that live on the stuff, let them use it (correctly).
    Anyhow, thanks and definitely good thoughts to help move our kids’ futures forward.

    • Hi Malcolm,

      Many thanks for the challenging comments. We agree on some things and not on others. But I very much welcome the constructive debate, which is I think one of the best uses that serious online discussion can be put.

      Let me start with Ken Robinson. Your impression that this reference was a facile ad hominem was down to an editorial mistake – I meant to put in a link at that point to my extensive rebuttal of Sir Ken Robinson’s views (, which has since been supported by a guest blog from Scott Goodman at I would be interested to your response (or indeed, to Sir Ken Robinson’s, whose office I informed of the post but which has not responded).

      My argument about the “communication” element in ICT is also substantially dealt with in another post, referenced at the top of this one, ‘Scrapping “ICT”‘ at It is not that I am against “communication” or “creativity” – of course, these are at the heart of what education is all about. My case is that “ICT” confuses *what* we should teach with *how* we should teach it. The thought behind “ICT” is not that children should know more about communication but that by communicating more, they might become better learners. And, while plausible, I think this view is over-simplistic, particularly when the form of communication that is being encouraged is at the facile end of the spectrum (my point about Twitter). In this post, I add the argument from Plato’s Gorgias that it is a mistake to think that there is some kind of generic “creativity” skill or “communication” skill (still less that this has something to do with ICT) – but that these are essentially subject-specific skills.

      I don’t agree with you that teachers, qua “stakeholders” have an important role in setting the curriculum. In my view, the whole concept of “stakeholders” was a clever bit of New Labour spin which blurred the distinction between suppliers and customers. It is the customers that should be determining what needs to be delivered, not the suppliers. As experts, the suppliers *do* need to be able to say *how* something is delivered – and it may be found through such a converstation that what was originally conceived was unrealistic. But if you go to your travel agent for a holiday on the Costa del Sol, it is not for the travel agent to tell you that it would be much better for you to take a cultural tour cruise down the Danube instead. My immediate assumption would be that that particular travel agent *only* did cultural tours on the Danube.

      Of course, “who is the customer?” is a difficult question in education – and the answer will inevitably be a complex one. My argument when it comes to “digital literacy” is that it is the teachers *of other subjects* who are important customers of a digital literacy course because if they want to be able to use a digital strategy to teach their lessons, they need to be confident that all the students in their class are going to be able use the necessary technology – just as they need to be able to assume that they can read and write.

      You present an argument about rote learning, creativity and cross curriculum studies, most of which I agree with. On a point of fact, as far as the PISA results are concerned, the last set of results are those for 2009, in which Japan is rated above both Korea and New Zealand for both Maths and Science ( – and my understanding is that the next set of PISA results, for 2012, is due out in the autumn of 2013. Although Korea (or China, which is at the top of the table) may not use abacuses, they certainly take a much more hard-edged, rote-learning approach to these subjects than does the UK, which is languishing far behind in the tables.

      I guess that you will say that the tables may tend to measure what is more easily measurable and I quite agree that creativity and transferability (which I see as two sides of the same coin) are critical. But this is surely not either-or. My argument against Ken Robinson is focused on his suggestion that creativity occurs without – and is somehow antagonistic to – knowledge. The opposite is the case.

      But I also agree that some education systems that might do well in the PISA tables might over-focus on rote learning and not move beyond that. I would argue that we should teach both factual knowledge and the skills to apply and use that knowledge in a wide variety of situations – with the first generally being a prerequisite of the second. It is time to follow a kind of Hegelian dialectic and move beyond this arid dichotomy between knowledge and skills (in which UK educationalists have been caught the last half century) and recognise that we need to teach both.

      So I agree with you on your “hobby horse” about breaking down the subject silos, getting students to reapply the knowledge that they may associate with one subject, topic or activity to another, and trying to produce a few more “universal (wo)men”. At the same time, we need to recognise that the difficulty in doing this lies just as much in the exponential growth of specialised knowledge as it does in the flaws in our education system.

      I do not quite go along with your language about “retell[ing] the ‘information’ in their contexts”. One of the things that I dislike about the current ICT PoS is its emphasis on presentation (e.g. re-telling). The mark of true knowledge lies in the ability to manipulate and use knowledge, not just in narrative and presentation. I suspect that this may be a point at which we can agree fairly easily. I also do not think we should be so hung up on the “context” of the learner. I understand that constructivist hinterland to this perspective (and disagree with it on the grounds that it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of knowledge, peddling a sort of cheap relativism – see my piece on Ken Robinson). The practical upshot of this sort of child-centredness is that we pander to an infantile view that we are individually at the centre of the universe, with the result is that our learning is stunted. We should be taking the learner *out* of their context and constantly introducing them to new ones.

      I agree that motivation is important but it is not sufficient and I think there has in the UK been a tendency to over-indulge students and use ICT for “gee-whizz” effect on the pretext of motivating them. In the short term it may have some effect. But in the long-term I believe it is counter-productive. If school becomes primarily a place of entertainment, the student is ultimately demotivated by the impression that there is not much point to it—and if entertainment is the criterion against which school should be measured, then there are always more entertaining things to be doing. It is the same as when they see through a teacher who tries to be hip in the expectation that this will be a route to popularity.

      As a result of your comment, Malcolm, I have made a few minor edits to the original post, making the links to other posts more explicit, adding in a table of references at the bottom, and adding the word “communication” to “evaluation” and “creation” in the paragraph concerning the argument from Gorgias.

      Many thanks again for the comment. I look forward to your reply – and if you were moved to do so at length, you may like to send me something for the guest blog (


  3. Hi Crispin,
    I shall be brief as time is against me presently.
    Actually, I think we agree on more than it may seem. Of course, I am partial to Sir Ken Robinson’s view as I think what he says is good for the general populace, who remain, on the whole, somewhat uninformed on many issues. I stand corrected on Japan and PISA (except for Korea unless I am misreading it), although I did have in mind an overall result. (I also must add that the tiny country called New Zealand often gets overlooked in many of these discussions. Oh, I am not from NZ, in case you were wondering).
    This leads to my first agreement. I concur that “The mark of true knowledge lies in the ability to manipulate and use knowledge, not just in narrative and presentation.” Your eloquence far exceeds my poor iterations. For me, that is what I mean by contexts. I agree that pure presentation and narrative is not enough. However, unless learners can apply that “knowledge” in a context with which they are familiar, or across platforms or contexts in their world/s, then I would argue that we are reinforcing shot-term memory processes. From both personal experience and my understanding of learning and cognitive science, short-term memory learning repertoire do little to advance the kind of learning I believe is needed. (Ambiguous, I know, but time is the essence today).
    Some colleagues and I did some work in a country in Africa with primary school students. We created animations and loaded them on to iPads – not because we believed that iPads were the way forward for these children, but only as a means to animate the information. We were addressing the 4Fs (no answer given but a hint: it relates to hygiene). Children are required to regurgitate what the 4Fs are on exams. After watching our animations, we asked the children to “write” their own story. The results clearly reveled that the students were not applying all the 4Fs into their contexts, and yet the information is important to their health and well-being – and they can state them in exams. Have a look at some examples we have tried to create generally across different country platforms so primary schools could get some ideas ( Students need to understand content, context, programming, design and communication skills. The examples show mixed degrees of success – especially for university level. Well, it is open for criticism, although some comments reveal that some of the animations have helped some people some of the time…
    Your comment on “the exponential growth of specialised knowledge” I think is all the more reason why the vast majority have to learn through some form of across-disciplinary curricula. I think Robert Full’s talk on TED provides a good example ( I would also suggest that the team that was searching for the Higgs boson provides another good example of the need. The team working on silk at Oxford University, another.
    Again, I think we may be agreeing more than not on views of “communication”. I am not a big Twitter fan, and have even less endearing comments about Facebook. My context is influencing my rather stiff position on ICT. (I have listened to speeches where people have criticized ICT, believing the term IT or IAT is better suited, then they have the gall to use the term when discussing AR communicating with customers…). The key questions for me are: How does ICT (or whatever one prefers to name it) improve learning? How is ICT more effective at improving learning? How does ICT better prepare learners for their futures? In many cases, it is difficult to argue that it does because what has or has not changed is pedagogy, which could have been improved anyway. (Could the same questions be leveled at other subjects?)
    As I am starting to meander, and as time is short, I will leave it there. I am interested in your post and comments. I thank you for the offer to submit a guest post, something I will endeavor to do in the near future – and after I read your posts on Sir Ken Robinson 😉
    Cheers for now,

    • Sorry for the slow response. As you say, time is the enemy!

      I don’t want to put too much weight on the PISA figures or really to make too much of a point about traditional vs progressive pedagogies. I am sure that too much drilling is unhelpful – but the idea of “skills” in an academic context, does not make too much sense to me without prior knowledge – so the answer on pedagogy seems to me to lie, as so often, in finding the virtuous mean. The point I was trying to make was against the position that technology means that the basic subject matter changes. Just because computers can automate calculation does not mean that an appreciation of the principles of how calculation is done is not useful for someone trying to understand the nature of numbers. Nor does the opening up of new avenues of experimentation in Science itself change the fundamentals of Newtonian or Einsteinian physics, the development of the latter being almost entirely based on maths, without any experimental underpinning until about half a century later.The core of the academic subject does not change that much.

      On the application of knowledge in different contexts, re-enforcing and making permanent short-term memory acquisition, I completely agree with what you say. I think that this is where serious games, simulations and creative tools have much to offer.

      I am interested to hear of your work in Africa. I see an article in this week’s Economist, “Tablet Teachers – Digital education in Kenya”, met a representative from Kenya at recent ISO/IEC meetings in Korea, and at Online Educa met Nick Short of of the Royal Vetinary College and Michael Trucano from the World Bank, both of whom were doing interesting things in Africa (the World Bank being behind the project being covered in the Economist). So I would be interested if you had any links there.

      I also completely agree with you that we need to counter the increasing specialisation of knowledge. I look forward to your reaction to Ken Robinson. But before you do, I should stress that I am not against creativity – my disagreement with Sir Ken is that it seems to me that his account of creativity is trivial, when in fact creativity is difficult. It is like the saying in the army that you need to learn to obey before you can command: you need to understand before you can create.

      If fact I think we need a better understanding of what creativity *is*. If do not think it consists of summoning new ideas out of nowhere – (a sort *causa sui*) but rather a weaving together of different ideas, a matching of two previously unmatched dominoes. Which is why pluralist societies are creative societies. And it therefore follows that the more “contexts” and traditions a student can access, the more more creative they will be. While the child-centred tradition (in which I place Piaget, constructivism and Ken Robinson), by expecting creativity to emerge from the student’s inner soul or developmental map, deprives them of the multi-stranded material out of which creativity is woven. Creative people are knowledgeable people.

      I have just watched your TED clip on Biomutualism which I think makes this same point exactly. The first link did not seem to work.

      As for your final paragraphs, I agree that “How does ICT (or whatever one prefers to name it) improve learning?” is exactly the question that needs answering – and has not been answered satisfactorily to date. I think that part of the answer lies in finding the right relationship between pedagogical development and technology development – you may be interested in my recent post on “TEL” at

      In the meantime, I am looking forward to the guest post!

  4. Update. The Second Draft of the PoS has now been released along with supporting notes – all links are given in the post of 12 December on Peter Twining’s blog at

    I posted the following in response to comment by Peter about the perceived “underhand behaviour” of the BCS, reported on Merlin John’s website at


    I haven’t been engaged in the discussion with the BCS directly and so cannot comment on the way they have managed the working group – but I am not convinced by the accusation of underhand behaviour. It is they, after all, who have been asked to take charge of the PoS – and while they should certainly consult, they would not be fulfilling their remit if they deferred. If they believe something strongly enough, then they have a right and also a duty to push that point of view with Michael Gove.

    Most words have multiple meanings – so that is not necessarily a problem in itself. The problem comes when particular conflations of meaning lead to woolly thinking – of which I think there has been a great deal in this area. And I think the educationalists (who in fact boil down to a fairly small, self-appointed community) overplay their hand when they claim to be the great experts. In my book, there are two things you should look for in an expert: either evidence of excellent performance or a convincing rational account of their knowledge and how it can be applied in future. In the case of the ed-tech/TEL community (or indeed ICT teaching community) we have neither – both ed-tech as a means of improving education and the subject ICT have both, taken in the round, been abject and expensive failures – and when you try and debate the key issues with the leading proponents of ICT, they all scurry off into the comfort of their self-congratulatory communities.

    No-one has submitted a cogently argued rebuttal to the positions that I have been arguing on my blog and in the SchoolsTech debates. You may say that what I say can be ignored – but why has no-one at least produced a serious rebuttal of the Royal Society’s very carefully argued position? The so-called ICT experts are simply not in the game.

    I think the point about interest is a slightly unseemly distraction, for three reasons.

    1. People with interests can say very sensible things, even if they are saying those things for self-interested reasons.

    2. It is very easy to impugn someone else’s motives and very hard to produce any evidence either to support or refute such accusations – indeed, motivation is often complex. That is why “ad hominem” attacks are generally regarded as rather a cheap shot.

    3. We all have interests. You, Peter, certainly have interests through your involvement in the Vital programme, which has received millions of pounds of government funding. I don’t think that means that you do not have anything interesting to say.

    4. If we have to come down to politics and influence (and I would prefer to concentrate on a rational debate), then you cannot expect (and should not want) not to have interested people around. The knack is then to recognise what people’s interests are and to take account accordingly. I would argue that the influence of BCS and RAEng is *more* legitimate in this matter than the interests of NAACE and Vital – because BCS and RAEng represents a sort of “consumer” interest and NAACE and Vital are a “supplier” interest. And when it comes to deciding what it is that needs to be supplied, it is the consumer interest and not the supplier interest that should predominate. If of course there is a reason why something is difficult to supply, then obviously the supplier’s arguments need to be listened to very carefully. But if consumers want and are prepared to pay for bananas, then no-one should pay too much attention to the supplier whose business has been based on the supply of apples.

    My own reaction to the second draft is that it is fairly good and probably an improvement on what has gone before. I like the distinction in the notes between the teaching of ICT and TEL (though I do not like either of these terms and I think if we keep “ICT”, this note will not stick). I think it is weak in its provisions for Digital Literacy – and I would agree with you, Peter, that this may have something to do with their interest in the Computer Science half of the curriculum. As I have argued in my blog, the main “consumer” interest which needs to be consulted on Digital Literacy is other (i.e. non-ICT) teachers.

    I also think there is a problem with the nature of the document. This sort of planning process typically moves from abstract overviews towards increasingly concrete implementations. A two-page document is at the abstract end of that spectrum – but a “Programme of Study” is quite a concrete, specific thing. I think this is one of the reasons for the very accompanying notes. But who is going to use this document and how? Until we know that, it is difficult to know whether it has the right sort of content.

    I would suggest:

    1. That the current document should be renamed – I would go for something like “The aims of Computing as a subject discipline in compulsory education”.

    2. There should then be an open invitation sent out for people to produce Programmes of Study to deliver these goals. This would give NAACE and anyone else who thought they had been hard-done by to put a concrete offering on the table.

    3. The Programmes of Study (which could be accompanied by justification) should be reviewed by the DfE, probably working alongside the BCS, RAEng and Ofqual, with the outcome of that review depending on what sort of regulatory regime the government decided on for this area. they might be combined into a single PoS, provided as a list of alternative approved PoSs etc.

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