Good lord! Where’s the digital literacy?

Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Tarragon and Snowy find that the mummy has disappeared, from Tintin and the Seven crystal balls by HergéThe most recent draft of the Computing Curriculum for England and Wales has majored on Computer Science at the expense of Digital Literacy. Before we can discover where the latter has gone, we will need to agree on what it is we are looking for.

In November I posted an article on Digital literacy and the new ICT curriculum, which argued that:

  • the review of the ICT curriculum would allow us to disentangle the teaching of technology (“Computing”) from the use of technology to improve learning (“education technology”);
  • this opportunity was not yet being realised because teachers’ representatives were still led by adherents of the old conception of “ICT”, which deliberately conflated these two separate objectives.

The supporters of the old consensus have been arguing that there is no need to change the old ICT curriculum at all because all was well with the status quo. In response to some misleading information that suggested that this view had the support of OFSTED, on 5th February I wrote an opinion piece in Computing Magazine, clarifying OFSTED’s position and summarizing what I see as the problem with the debate over Digital Literacy.

This article gives some more background to the position described in Computing. It will:

  • analyse the current draft of the DfE’s Programme of Study (PoS) for Computing;
  • review the theories that lie behind the definition of “digital literacy” put forwards by the advocates of ICT;
  • restate the case for the adoption of the definition of “digital literacy” put forwards by the Royal Society;
  • propose a set of amendments to the current draft of the ICT programme of study, bringing back what I suggest is the right sort of digital literacy.

Analysing the current draft of the DfE’s PoS for Computing


The following tables contain the complete text of the current draft of the DfE’s PoS for Computing. Each of the clauses are highlighted according to whether I interpret them as addressing:

Label Title Description
CS Computer Science Understanding how computers work at the level of hardware and code.
IT Information Technology Understanding the use of pre-existing software to meet user needs.
DL-ICT Digital literacy (as defined by the ICT community) Using computers to be creative and to orient yourself to the world.
DL-RS Digital literacy (as defined by the Royal Society). Being able to use computers effectively.

Key stage 1


Pupils should be taught to:

1.1 understand what algorithms are, how they are implemented as programs on digital devices, and that programs execute by following a sequence of instructions;
1.2 write and test simple programs;
1.3 use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs;
1.4 organise, store, manipulate and retrieve data in a range of digital formats;
1.5 communicate safely and respectfully online, keeping personal information private,…
and recognise common uses of information technology beyond school.

Key stage 2


Pupils should be taught to:

2.1 design and write programs that accomplish specific goals, including controlling or simulating physical systems; solve problems by decomposing them into smaller parts
2.2 use sequence, selection, and repetition in programs; work with variables and various forms of input and output; generate appropriate inputs and predicted outputs to test programs;
2.3 use logical reasoning to explain how a simple algorithm works and to detect and correct errors in algorithms and programs
2.4 understand computer networks including the internet; how they can provide multiple services, such as the world-wide web;
and the opportunities they offer for communication and collaboration
2.5 describe how internet search engines find and store data;
use search engines effectively;
be discerning in evaluating digital content;
respect individuals and intellectual property; use technology responsibly, securely and safely
2.6 select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information

Key stage 3


Pupils should be taught to:

3.1 design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems
3.2 understand at least two key algorithms for each of sorting and searching; use logical reasoning to evaluate the performance trade-offs of using alternative algorithms to solve the same problem
3.3 use two or more programming languages, one of which is textual, each used to solve a variety of computational problems; use data structures such as tables or arrays; use procedures to write modular programs; for each procedure, be able to explain how it works and how to test it
3.4 understand simple Boolean logic (such as AND, OR and NOT) and its use in determining which parts of a program are executed; use Boolean logic and wildcards in search or database queries; appreciate how search engine results are selected and ranked
3.5 understand the hardware and software components that make up networked computer systems, how they interact, and how they affect cost and performance;
3.6 explain how networks such as the internet work; understand how computers can monitor and control physical systems
3.7 explain how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system
3.8 explain how data of various types can be represented and manipulated in the form of binary digits including numbers, text, sounds and pictures, and be able to carry out some such manipulations by hand
3.9 undertake creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals, including collecting and analysing data and meeting the needs of known users;
3.10 create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital information and content with attention to design, intellectual property and audience

Analysis of the current draft


The following graph shows how these different strands are distributed across key stages 1‑3.

Distribution of different strands in the current PoS

The Computer Science strand is clearly the most important component in each key stage, rising steadily until it is dominant in KS3.

The IT component (understanding the use of pre-existing software to meet user needs) appears only briefly in KS1 and KS2. On the assumption that any treatment of the effect of computing on the world in KS1–KS3 is likely to be vague and may well be tendentious, this seems to me to be about right. Small children should certainly know that computers are having a major effect on our society—but they are unlikely to be in a position to have anything very interesting to say about globalization, connectivism, and the digital divide, all of which have profound political, sociological and philosophical ramifications, until they have a lot more learning under their belts.

Digital literacy, as defined by the Royal Society as the ability to use computers, makes some appearance in KS1 and KS2 but none at all in KS3; while digital literacy as defined by the supporters of ICT makes an equivalent, brief appearance in KS2 and KS3.

The argument of this post is that this final category, digital literacy as defined by the supporters of ICT, is a bogus curriculum objective. It should be replaced entirely by digital literacy as defined by the Royal Society, which merits a larger share of the total Computing Curriculum.

“Digital literacy” as defined by the supporters of ICT


 

The problem with digital literacy in the current PoS


The main reason to drop the term “ICT”, as it was used during the Becta years, is that it conflated the teaching of technology as an end of education with the use of technology as a means of education. I made this argument in January last year in Scrapping “ICT”, as did the Royal Society in its report Shut down or restart? published at about the same time.

The following are the clauses in the current draft of the curriculum that I have associated with digital literacy as defined by the supporters of ICT. These state that pupils shall be taught:

at KS2 to: be discerning in evaluating digital content;
select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information;
at KS3 to: undertake creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals, including collecting and analysing data and meeting the needs of known users;
create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital information and content with attention to design, intellectual property and audience.

All of these objectives are about using computers to achieve other goals: to evaluate content; to collect, analyse, evaluate and present data; to create, reuse, revise and repurpose information; or to accomplish other unspecified but “challenging” goals.

None of these represent knowledge or skills relevant to computing itself. Take any of these words—“evaluating” or “analysing” or “creating”—and ask yourself what it would take to teach children how to do these things in a meaningful way.

Newspaper front pages

What would it take to “evaluate” four newspaper front pages giving different accounts of George Osborne’s latest budget: skills learnt in ICT or skills learnt in History and Politics? What would it take to “create” a really persuasive speech or a thought-provoking piece of art: skills learnt in English and Art, or skills learnt in ICT? What would it take to analyse data from experiments designed to establish how the boiling point of water changes with altitude: skills learnt in maths and science or skills learnt in ICT?

In every case, the answer is that none of these skills are intrinsically technology skills. Although we might use computers to retrieve a selection of newspaper front pages or draft a speech or collect scientific data, in every case these uses of computer technology are incidental to the fundamental skills being addressed. It is an insult to William Shakespeare,  Michaelangelo, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Fleming, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein—and a laughable insult at that—to suggest that digital literacy is either an essential part of the ability to create, analyse and evaluate, or even a necessary prerequisite. Digital literacy is merely a prerequisite for being able to create, analyse and evaluate in a digital environment.

“Digital literacy” as an ideology


 

Dr Doug Belshaw


In my article for Computing magazine, I suggested that the account of digital literacy being advocated by the profession amounted “not to a curriculum but to an ideology”. In case this phrase might appear to represent something of a rhetorical flourish, it is worth taking some time to establish look in detail at the definition of digital literacy as proposed by the advocates of ICT.

Doug Belshaw is a well-known figure who has put himself forwards as an expert on digital literacy, having completed a Ed.D. on the subject. He has a wide following on Twitter and, having worked for the UK’s Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), now works for Mozilla’s Open Badges project (on which more in a future post). He gave a session on digital literacies as part of a recent Education Technology MOOC (ETMOOC), which is available on YouTube and, if you have the time to handle the necessary downloads, in Blackboard Collaborate. Dr Belshaw’s presentation gives a good insight into the orthodox view that has grown up in academia and the profession during the Becta years.

In addressing the question “How would YOU define digital literacy?”, Dr Belshaw starts by articulating the post-modernist relativism, so familiar in left-leaning academia, that I have addressed elsewhere.

What I want to get at here is that there’s no real right or wrong answer here. It’s all about your context… So let me just introduce myself in terms of context—I think it’s important because I’m going to present something that makes sense in my context and it might not make any sense in yours.

In other words, there is no point in trying to disagree with Dr Belshaw or engage him in argument. I know because I tried, sending and re-sending him a comment on his blog—but it was not published and I received no reply. If you disagree with him, it is just because you have a different “context”. The consequence of this relativistic position is that these views are a matter of preference and inclination—and not (as many of Dr Belshaw’s followers claim) the result of any sort of expertise.

It is of course true that there is no single right or wrong definition of digital literacy—we can define a term however we like. But this is not the same as saying that there are no right and wrong at all, no better and worse answers.

First, the whole point of language is that the meaning of the terms we use should be shared. If everyone is going to come up with their own definition, depending on their own inclinations, then it will be almost impossible to have a sensible discussion about, for example, the national curriculum, because everyone who uses terms like “digital literacy” will mean something different. So a shared definition is clearly more useful and therefore better than a series of different definitions.

Second, some definitions will be more consistent with other uses of the same words in other contexts and will offer better distinctions with other parallel terms. Definitions do not exist in isolation but form part of a linguistic system. If, for example, there is no clear and consistent difference between our definition of a “digital skill” and “digital literacy”, then the term “digital literacy” serves no purpose, other than perhaps a rhetorical one; and rhetoric is designed to muddy and not clarify the waters of debate.

Dr Belshaw makes exactly this point when he continues to observe that people use the term “literacy” merely as a rhetorical device to emphasise the importance of whatever they want to emphasise, quoting with approval a tweet from EdTechHulk that:

Hulk think you can put “literacy” after anything and make people take it more serious! Digital literacy! Mobile literacy! Hulk literacy!

This rhetorical free-for-all leads to:

a huge problem in this area…this kind of attempt by academics to carve out a new literacy according to how they see the world.

But having deplored the rhetorical use of the term, Dr Belshaw then goes on to recommend that we carry on in exactly this same way:

Effectively, its an argument between some people who say that digital literacy, as a construct, is something that is objective and can be delivered as opposed to somebody who says that digital literacy is subjective and needs to be developed…and I would be much more towards the subjective end of that continuum.

What Dr Belshaw says is that we should carry on with the rhetorical free-for-all so long as we recognise it for what it is. And being a good post-modernist and believing that all knowledge is a “construct” anyway, this is just to recognise the inevitable. Eistein’s theory of relativity is no better that Newtonian physics, which is no better than animism: they are all just personal constructs, appropriate to our different contexts and there is no point in flattering ourselves that reason has anything to do with it. We will just have to get used to the relativist babel.

The continuum between objective and subjective accounts parallels the dichotomy that Dr Belshaw had presented a little earlier in his talk.

There’s really two ends to the spectrum. There’s the autonomous end  of it, where people like Brian Street described that view as being “independent of and impartial towards the trends and struggles of everyday life”…Then the other end of the spectrum is the kind of ideological view that instead of being it being something that is objective and just “out there” and people need to get on and learn it, it’s much more of an active relationship, a way of orienting yourself to the social and cultural world…and it won’t surprise you that I’m much more to the right had side of that diagram.

In his conclusion to this section, Dr Belshaw quotes Alan Martin that:

“digital literacy is a condition, not a threshold”—and if you think about that, then it changes the way we think about teaching this stuff because its not as if, oh well, you can now have a stamp and a lollipop, there’s a good boy, you’ve now reached your standard of digital literacy. It’s much more a way of orienting yourself to the world…I really like that.

Having criticised the use of the term “literacy” for rhetorical purposes, Dr Belshaw argues that everyone should be able to create their own definitions of “digital literacy” for ideological purposes. In his own ideology, he sees digital literacy as having eight essential elements:

  • cultural;
  • cognitive;
  • constructive;
  • communicative;
  • confident;
  • creative;
  • critical;
  • civic.

So why didn’t “hulk literacy” make it onto this list? Why, when a definition of digital literacy is so subjective, are these the right elements? Well,

From the research – and…you’ll have to trust me that I spent a lot of time doing a meta-analysis of various research in this area…and basically I came up with what I would consider to be the eight essential elements of digital literacies – the things that any definition of digital literacy really needs to include.

Dr Belshaw does not offer a single reason why we should accept these eight elements. Nor does he offer a justification for calling these things “literacies” and not just “skills” or “attitudes”. Remember, this is not about reason, it is about subjective ideology, so Dr Belshaw does not have to offer any justification. But if you were to doubt the importance of Dr Belshaw’s ideology you would need to pay attention to the fact that he has done an extensive meta-analysis of the “the research” and found that lots and lots of people agree with him; lots and lots of academics with similar views to Dr Belshaw have also said that these are the key elements,

lots and lots of seminal thinkers in this field – people who have really done some hard thinking.

It is remarkable that, in spite of all the hard thinking that has been going on, Doug Belshaw is not able to produce any justification or rationale whatsoever for his version of “digital literacy”, other than that it works for him.

In summary, and according to Doug Belshaw, digital literacy is not something that can be rationally explained or anything that needs to be defended against criticism because it is something subjective. It is not so much a set of knowledge that can be learnt, but is more a set of attitudes. It is precisely, as I described it in my article in Computing magazine, not a curriculum that can be learnt but an ideology. But even though it is meant to be a subjective ideology, it is nevertheless something that we are all supposed to accept and that teachers should use the authority that is vested in them to inculcate in their students—because these eight elements are in fact “things that any definition of digital literacy really needs to include”.

Futurelab


Such a self-contradictory argument would be fit only for ridicule if it had not been so influential. All through the ICT community, similar points of view are endlessly parroted. Futurelab published a booklet in 2010 called Digital Literacy across the Curriculum. It is another manifesto of Doug Belshaw’s radical ideology built on a flaky, left-wing post-modernism.

Digital literacy involves critically engaging with technology and developing a social awareness of how a number of factors including commercial agendas and cultural understandings can shape the ways in which technology is used to convey information and meaning.

Did you notice those “commercial agendas”? The way this community reacts to views that they do not agree with is not to engage in rational discussion but to dismiss their opponents on the basis of their different (and of course suspect) social context. Like all ideologies that reject reason as a common language of debate, Dr Belshaw’s is tribal and divisive.

The Futurelab pamphlet continues to expound the relativistic post-modernism that has already been explored in Doug Belshaw’s presentation. According to Futurelab, “digital literacy”:

refers to the more subtle and situated practices associated with being able to create, understand and communicate meaning and knowledge in a world in which these processes are increasingly mediated via digital technologies.
It means being able to communicate and represent knowledge in different contexts and to different audiences (for example, in visual, audio or textual modes). This involves finding and selecting relevant information, critically evaluating and re-contextualising knowledge and is underpinned by an understanding of the cultural and social contexts in which this takes place.

Who cares about truth when all that matters is that this should be re-contextualised according to cultural and social context? This view is summarised in a diagram (page 19) which shows Digital Literacy as the loosely coupled connector between a range of different skills, attitudes and activities, including cultural and social understanding, critical thinking and evaluation, collaboration, communication and creativity.

Futurelab Digital Literacy diagram

Bob Harrison


My article in Computing Magazine was a response to an earlier piece that had been based on statements by Bob Harrison, who as Chair of the somewhat mysterious New Technologies Advisory Board, managed to get himself included in the British Computer Society’s consultation about the new ICT Curriculum, as well as promoting himself to Computing Magazine as a spokesman of some significance. Computing quotes Mr Harrison talking about the Royal Society report, Shut down or restart?:

The background to that is the Royal Society report on computing in schools, which was called – there’s a bit of a clue in the title here – Shut Down or Restart. And then you look at who paid for it: Microsoft, Google and a dozen or so computer science departments of universities who had seen their enrolment for computer science degrees plummet to about a third of what they were 10 years ago. It begs the question, “What was their agenda?”

Like all of his colleagues in the ICT camp, Bob Harrison dismisses Shut down or restart? without showing any sign of having even read it, let alone condescending to offer any rebuttal. It is enough that it is paid for by people who will raise a boo from Bob Harrison’s supporters when he accuses them of ulterior motives. In his blog, Academic Computing, Keith Turvey also picked up on Bob Harrison’s “over the top” Twitter campaign, in which he made repeated accusations of commercial bias of the authors of an extremely thorough and impressive report.

In the same the first Computing Magazine article, Bob Harrison also promulgated the common view amongst supporters of ICT, that everything was going swimmingly before Michael Gove intervened on mistaken grounds. Mr Harrison stated that Michael Gove’s characterisation of ICT as “dull and boring”

didn’t correspond with evidence produced by OFSTED, which said that in over two-thirds of the schools, especially primary schools, the teaching of ICT was ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’.

Bob Harrison’s account of the Ofsted report, ICT in schools, 2008–2011, was simply incorrect. In four categories, Ofsted judged the proportion of schools judged as “good” or “outstanding” to be consistently below the national average achieved in other subjects of 70%, consistently below the 66% claimed by Bob Harrison, at secondary school consistently below 50%, and in the critical area of the quality of the curriculum, as low as 35%.

Proportions “good” or “outstanding” Primary Secondary
Student achievement 57% 36%
Teaching & learning 64% 47%
Quality of Curriculum 51% 35%
Leadership & management 69% 50%

When I pointed out  Bob Harrison’s statement, Mr Harrison refused either to correct his misleading account of the Ofsted report or to debate the disagreement under the auspices of Computing. When I denounced what I consequently regard as straightforward dishonesty, accusing Bob Harrison of “talking through his backside”, Mr Harrison told me that he was referring the matter to his lawyers.

Bob Harrison is not alone. He is only one extreme example of very general refusal to debate the issues or to respond to opposing points of view. To those who sign up to the digital literacy ideology, this is not an problem that can be clarified by rational debate but rather a war of conflicting political and ideological “contexts”.

The Becta chorus-line


Until now, the subscribers to the ideology of digital literacy have not been required to argue their case because under the Becta regime they occupied the commanding heights. Bolstered by their pseudo-academic meta-analyses and their self-proclaimed expertise, what really mattered was their control of government funding streams and key institutions:

  • ed-tech in Higher Education was controlled by JISC, for which Doug Belshaw originally worked;
  • Futurelab produced a series of reports, popularising so-called academic research;
  • the Open University’s Vital programme delivered the vision by running a series of regional TeachMeets;
  • NAACE represented the profession and administered Becta’s ICT mark;
  • and in the school sector, the whole cosy establishment was co-ordinated and substantially funded by Becta.

When all of these organisations shared the same ideology and between them controlled all the levers of power, why would anyone bother to answer any dissenting voices that could be heard above the chorus singing in unison?

Funding is now being withdrawn from these organisations and one by one they are either folding or being parked in unpromising mergers. Yet still we live in the ruins of the decaying empire and its intellectual outlook is remarkably persistent. When the British Computer Society ran its consultation on the first two drafts of the new PoS, the profession was represented by Neil McLean of FutureLab (previously, Executive Director in Becta), Bob Harrison, Peter Twining of Vital, and Miles Berry of NAACE, the National Association of Advisors for Computers in Education, the subject association for ICT.

NAACE


In May 2012, NAACE developed its own ICT Curriculum Framework in response to Michael Gove’s announcement of the disapplication of  the ICT curriculum. When it came to defining “digital literacy” (see page 18), this document quoted extensively from Futurelab’s 2010 pamphlet. NAACE, the most authoritative representative of ICT teachers, shares the same views of digital literacy as those described above.

At its recent annual conference,  Miles Berry, the outgoing Chair of NAACE, gave a talk on the evolution of the new ICT curriculum. In tracing this story, Mr Berry played a clip of Michael Gove’s speech at BETT 2012, concluding that:

For good or ill, he had this wrong idea of what was going on in many, many school ICT lessons and it seems a shame that it’s predicated on that.

Along with Bob Harrison, Mr Berry (also quoted in the Computing article referenced above) refused to engage in a debate that Computing offered to host. Ten days later, he then continued to give in his conference speech the same picture of a traditional ICT curriculum working well, without making any reference to the Ofsted report. Strictly speaking, it may be true that ICT was being well taught in some schools, maybe “many” schools, maybe even “many, many” schools. There are, after all, 25,000 of them to choose from. But to fail to refer to the acute, chronic problems with ICT highlighted by the OFSTED report; moreover to suggest that Michael Gove did not have any evidence to support his position; and moreover to fail to respond to those who point these things out to you—amounts to a deliberate misrepresentation of the evidence.

Mr Berry then continued in his conference speech to make the same attack as Bob Harrison on the Royal Society report, Shut down or restart?, suggesting that what matters about this report is not its argument but who paid for it (its “social and cultural context”):

The day after that, the Royal Society report commissioned by university computer science faculties and Google and Microsoft Research and various other big players say that what we need to do here is rebrand the subject and move away from ICT to a subject called “Computing” and have that seen as having three core aspects: digital literacy (which they interpreted in a very narrow sort of way), information technology and computer science.

In fact, what the Royal Society said was that the DfE should remedy the current situation by “reforming and rebranding the current ICT curriculum”—not just “rebranding” it as Mr Berry states in his talk. But he does not discuss the reasons given by the Royal Society for reforming the curriculum. Nor does he discuss the reasons given for the Royal Society’s definition of “digital literacy”, airily dismissed by Mr Berry as “very narrow”.

Miles Berry continues to tell the story of how NAACE contributed to the BCS consultation and how changes were subsequently (apparently arbitrarily) requested by the DfE, including the need for a:

shorter statement of the subject aims. In fact they got rid of the fifth aim. The fifth aim was the one about being critical about digital media, about working safely and responsibly and ethically and all of that lovely, lovely stuff that really ought to be part of the entitlement, in my view.

Slide from Miles Berry's presentation

The fourth point required that:

Digital skills content was to be edited and condensed…

…and it was under this point that most of the digital-literacy-related objectives that NAACE and other teacher organisations had put in to the curriculum was subsequently taken out again. The particular failing, as far as Mr Berry is concerned, is the general lack of explicit reference to creativity in the details of the PoS:

Slide from Miles Berry's presentation

Could you all point with your finger please to where creativity (which remember is an aim for the NC programme of study and for the NC) where is creativity on this list? Point now! Come on folks, join in! They’re not pointing. Nobody’s pointing… (intervention off) Yes of course it is. Manipulating in a creative sort of way; writing programmes in a creative sort of way. I feel there is a disjoint there between the aim to have creative users of technology and the entitlement to be taught to use technology creatively.

The nature of creativity


As the members of the audience clearly pointed out, there is no disjoint at all. The requirement for students to manipulate a range of different types of digital artefact and to write computer programs provides ample opportunity for creativity and, given that the students have the skills to enable them to exploit those opportunities, that is how creativity ought to be taught. The idea that creativity is an “entitlement”, that can be stuffed didactically into students’ knapsacks like some sort of regulation packed lunch, shows a complete misunderstanding of what it is.

The point was made eloquently by Michael Gove on Question Time on the BBC on 21 March (UK only until 21/03/2014):

Creativity depends on making sure that you master certain skills, you acquire a body of knowledge before then being able to give expression to what’s in you. So if you are musically gifted or you want to pursue creativity in the way in which you write, you need first of all to learn your skills, you need to be able to secure a foundation from which your creativity can flourish. In the same way, if you’re going to write, if you’re going to move, if you’re going to persuade, if you’re going to inspire, then you need to be able to know how the English language, which is a wonderful instrument, can be used and tuned in order to move hearts, in order to persuade people. And you cannot be creative unless you understand how sentences are constructed, what words mean, how to use grammar.
It is critical that we recognise that unless children are introduced to that stock of knowledge, unless they know, for example, how to use numbers with confidence, unless multiplication and long division become automatic processes, then they won’t be able to use mathematics creatively, whether it is in Engineering or whether it is in Science, in order to make discoveries that are going to make our lives better in the future. Unless there is that solid foundation, then creativity cannot flourish.

What goes for language and numeracy, goes also for the creative use of tools such as computers and computer software: knowledge and skills come first. This really is not rocket science. Any educationalist should be familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy which, depending on the version that you subscribe to, puts creativity either at the top or in the second place in a hierarchy of skills, of which all of the lower levels must be mastered before the higher levels can realistically be addressed.

Bloom's taxonomy (original and new versions)

Creativity is an aspiration—and it is the highest aspiration of the teacher and the curriculum developer. To listen to Michael Gove, I find it impossible to doubt either his understanding of the nature of creativity or his passion for creativity. It is those like Miles Berry who cheapen creativity by talking of it as an “entitlement”, an item on a list to be covered.

I hope that it is apparent from the review in this section that the reaction of the DfE to the first draft of the ICT curriculum was completely logical. Finding that it had been presented with a lot of post-modernist nonsense that the teachers’ representatives were pushing under the name “digital literacy”, the government got out the red pen and radically “condensed” the offending sections.

Logical is not the same as right. Logic provides a way of making deductions from the premises that you start with: unsatisfactory premises lead, through impeccable logic, to unsatisfactory conclusions. Faced with an flawed and ideological account of “digital literacy”, the DfE condensed it. What it ought to have done was to have replaced this definition with a better one—particularly when that better definition was already lying close at hand.

Digital literacy as a prerequisite for learning


What none of the definitions of “digital literacy” above care to mention is that “literacy” is an analogy for reading and writing. It’s literal meaning is the skill of being “lettered”. If the term is useful at all, we must ask what is peculiar about the skill of reading and writing that is important to the common context of teaching and learning in schools and what might be the similarity between the skills of reading and writing and the skills of using computers. It is an indication of the superficiality of thought of all the educational advocates (Doug Belshaw, FutureLab, NAACE) that not one of them even mentions this fundamental point about where the term “literacy” comes from and what are its associations.

I suggest that the applicability of the literacy analogy is obvious and practical: reading and writing is a prerequisite for learning across the curriculum. The History teacher, the Science teacher, the Maths teacher and the foreign language teacher are all severely disadvantaged if they cannot tell their class to turn to page 73 in the expectation that all of them are going to be able to read what they find there. There are certain respects in which the use of computers can be seen in the same light. Computers are powerful tools. Although they will not in themselves teach you to write creatively, the ability to draft and redraft essays, either working by yourself or in response to external criticism, will certainly help. The ability to discuss your work with peers, regardless of time or location, is another potentially powerful learning tool, as is also the ability to model statistical relationships and use a wide variety of domain-specific productivity tools. Specialised, education-specific and subject-specific technologies may be learnt “on the job”, but only if students have acquired a range of basic computer skills first.

I do not claim that digital literacy is an absolutely necessary prerequisite for learning—but then neither is traditional literacy. Given sufficient direct access to good teachers, it is theoretically possible to receive a good education entirely by oral means. But oral tuition is extremely expensive in terms of teacher time and most people would accept that traditional literacy is, to all practical purposes, a necessary prerequisite if students are to participate in schools that are educating large numbers of students. The same argument is made in my article Education’s coming revolution about computers: given the shortage of well-qualified teachers, our only realistic chance of improving the quality of education for the majority of the population is through the intelligent use of education technology—and that requires a prerequisite level of digital literacy among students.

This is the modest, straightforward (but according to Miles Berry “very narrow”) account of digital literacy that was given by the Royal Society in Shut down or restart? (page 17). Complete with a simple and persuasive justification, it all fits in a single paragraph:

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 teaching of creativity is a task for teachers across the curriculum. English teachers should teach creative writing; History teachers should teach creative argument; Maths teachers should teach creative approaches to problem solving; Science teachers should teach the creation of theories and the experiments required to test them; Music, Art and Dance teachers should teach creative expression in their various fields; and teachers of Computing will teach creativity in the construction of software. As teachers of digital literacy, those same teachers of Computing should ensure that their students have the prerequisite skills to enable them to practice and develop creativity in all their subjects across the curriculum. If that is to happen, the National Curriculum needs to clarify what those prerequisite skills should be.

I do not claim to be able to come up with the perfect statement myself. However, since the whole debate has been skewed by the facile account of digital literacy that has so far been offered by teachers’ representatives, I think it would be useful to offer the following amendments as a point of departure.

Proposed amendments to the current ICT PoS


The tables below are marked-up as follows.

Existing component to stay as-is
Proposed cut
Proposed addition

Key stage 1


Pupils should be taught to:

1.1 understand what algorithms are, how they are implemented as programs on digital devices, and that programs execute by following a sequence of instructions;
1.2 write and test simple programs;
1.3 use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs;
1.4 organise, store, manipulate and retrieve data in a range of digital formats;
1.5 communicate safely and respectfully online, keeping personal information private,…
and recognise common uses of information technology beyond school.
1.6 enter short sections of text fluently, using a QWERTY keyboard or other device.
1.7 personalise a range of different user interfaces and explore the functionality offered by unfamiliar pieces of software.

Key stage 2


Pupils should be taught to:

2.1 design and write programs that accomplish specific goals, including controlling or simulating physical systems; solve problems by decomposing them into smaller parts
2.2 use sequence, selection, and repetition in programs; work with variables and various forms of input and output; generate appropriate inputs and predicted outputs to test programs;
2.3 use logical reasoning to explain how a simple algorithm works and to detect and correct errors in algorithms and programs
2.4 understand computer networks including the internet; how they can provide multiple services, such as the world-wide web;
and the opportunities they offer for communication and collaboration
2.5 describe how internet search engines find and store data;
use search engines effectively;
be discerning in evaluating digital content;
respect individuals and intellectual property; use technology responsibly, securely and safely
2.6 select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information
2.6 understand how to maintain different digital devices, managing backup, virus protection, and the installation of appropriate software.
2.7 cut, copy, paste and embed digital objects within and between different applications, understanding how to format and size data for different purposes.
2.8 enter extensive sections of text fluently, using a QWERTY keyboard or other device, adding tabular data and graphics and controlling formatting and layout according to purpose.
2.9 use appropriate software to collect and sort statistical data,  representing simple conclusions in a variety of textual and graphical formats.
2.10 make productive and safe use of different communications tools, including email, synchronous chat, audio and video, asynchronous discussion and social networking sites.
2.11 create and manipulate bitmaps, vector graphics, animations and video, understanding the use of different data formats to manage colour, resolution and compression.

Key stage 3


Pupils should be taught to:

3.1 design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems
3.2 understand at least two key algorithms for each of sorting and searching; use logical reasoning to evaluate the performance trade-offs of using alternative algorithms to solve the same problem
3.3 use two or more programming languages, one of which is textual, each used to solve a variety of computational problems; use data structures such as tables or arrays; use procedures to write modular programs; for each procedure, be able to explain how it works and how to test it
3.4 understand simple Boolean logic (such as AND, OR and NOT) and its use in determining which parts of a program are executed; use Boolean logic and wildcards in search or database queries; appreciate how search engine results are selected and ranked
3.5 understand the hardware and software components that make up networked computer systems, how they interact, and how they affect cost and performance;
3.6 explain how networks such as the internet work; understand how computers can monitor and control physical systems
3.7 explain how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system
3.8 explain how data of various types can be represented and manipulated in the form of binary digits including numbers, text, sounds and pictures, and be able to carry out some such manipulations by hand
3.9 undertake creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals, including collecting and analysing data and meeting the needs of known users;
3.10 create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital information and content with attention to design, intellectual property and audience
3.9 create and manipulate complex documents, web-pages and presentations that include hyperlinks, bookmarks, cross-references, footnotes, and embedded graphics, working collaboratively with others to review and agree amendments.
3.10 use appropriate software to aggregate and correlate different kinds of statistical data, drawing and presenting complex conclusions.

Conclusion


The answer to the question “where has the digital literacy gone?” depends on which account of digital literacy you are talking about. The ICT community’s version of digital literacy is explicitly not a set of skills. It is an ideology, a “way of orienting yourself to the social and cultural world” and a medium through which to teach a degraded sort of creativity-as-entitlement. Having been included in the initial draft of the ICT curriculum by teachers’ groups like NAACE, this element was understandably reduced by the DfE. It ought to be removed entirely.

The Royal Society’s version of digital literacy was poorly represented in the first draft of the curriculum—and this is what ought to be put back in.

The overall effect of the changes that I have proposed above are summarised by the graph below.

Graph mapping distribution of proposed PoS strands

  • The digital-literacy-as-ICT elements have been cut entirely.
  • The computer science and IT elements have been left untouched.
  • A total of two digital literacy objectives have been added to KS1, four to KS2, and there are the same number of digital literacy objectives at KS3.
  • The new digital literacy objectives do not challenge the primacy of computer science and programming as the final objectives of the subject in KS3. Instead, they introduce a significant element of rigorous digital literacy in KS1 and KS2. Because this sort of digital literacy is a prerequisite for learning, it needs to be mastered early. Because it is relatively simple,  it can be mastered early.

How the digital literacy that children will master at primary school is used across the curriculum, and in combination with what different educational and subject-specific technologies, are matters to be addressed pragmatically by different subject teachers. They are not matters to be resolved by a group of ICT teachers, consultants and second-rate academics, who are simple-minded enough to think that Twitter and Facebook have fundamentally redefined the whole nature of human knowledge.

Contents

To link to a section in this article, right click on the appropriate section and choose “Copy link address”.

1 Analysing the current draft of the DfE’s PoS for Computing
1.1 Key stage 1
1.2 Key stage 2
1.3 Key stage 3
1.4 Analysis of the current draft

2 “Digital literacy” as defined by the supporters of ICT
2.1 The problem with digital literacy in the current PoS

3 “Digital literacy” as an ideology
3.1 Dr Doug Belshaw
3.2 Futurelab
3.3 Bob Harrison
3.4 The Becta chorus-line
3.5 NAACE
3.6 The nature of creativity

4 Digital literacy as a prerequisite for learning

5 Proposed amendments to the current ICT PoS
5.1 Key stage 1
5.2 Key stage 2
5.3 Key stage 3

6. Conclusion

7 thoughts on “Good lord! Where’s the digital literacy?

  1. Hi Crispin,

    I think it is dangerous to ‘overthink’ the ICT curriculum’s structure. Even if one should by chance get it right ( whatever that may mean) it is guaranteed that it will be lost in translation very quickly especially if delivered by a cadre of professional ICT teachers.

    I think that ‘digital literacy’ defined in both ways above is achieved by those who use computers as ‘tools of their trade’ ie delivered through their subjects. For example nowadays in science you use a datalogger to measure stuff often because it is the quickest most convenient way of using an instrument, not because it is anything to do with computers.

    What is needed is that Business Studies would not dream of not having PoS to hand, or that Art would not have an i-Pad, or that extra tuition would not be provided by Skype etc etc. To do this subject specialists need to see how their post-school world works and have the money to buy the kit they need.

    I think if ICT as a subject remained banned in schools this would be a valuable first step. At the moment subject teachers get let off the hook, absolved, because ‘they do it in ICT’.

    I really would have school ICT banned along with any MSc/MA/MEd that had ICT anywhere in its header…that would help digital literacy more than anything

  2. Hi John,

    I am very ready to accept that the argument that the Computing curriculum may have run its course and it would not be the end of the world if the current version went through as-is. I think that the jury is still out on what importance the document will have anyway. Maybe, as you say, it will be widely ignored by teachers and will find its place at the back of the filing cabinet. But there again, teachers who ignore it may find themselves being brought up short in Ofsted reports and SATs results. It may still matter.

    I am with you regarding the dumping of the name “ICT”. But when you say that banning ICT as a separate subject would put pressure on other teachers to teach it cross-curriculum, then I am not so sure. As a History teacher, I think that the opportunity to use computers to re-draft essays is sadly underused. But if I want to do that, do I, as a History teacher, have to teach my students to type and use word processor software?

    I think that the pressure you put on other teachers should not be to *teach* digital literacy but to *use* it productively in lessons to teach their own subjects – which I accept is part of the re-enforcement process of what may have been formally taught elsewhere. And I think that will be helped (1) by suitable education-specific technology and (2) being able to count on all the students in the class coming through the door with basic computing skills.

    I do accept that if you teach e.g. word processing in ICT/computing, and then no-one uses it in other subjects, then it will be quickly forgotten. So I can see an argument for not having DL in the curriculum but letting the school teach it in response to “demand” from other teachers. Someone would say at a staff meeting “I want to get everyone handing in word-processed assignments in year x. So let’s run a course to make sure everyone can use a word-processor in year x – 1”.

    Crispin.

  3. Crispin
    I have been weighing up the implications of your previous post, “Education’s Coming Revolution”, as it poses the question:
    “whether it is realistic to expect ordinary teachers, wanting to do an ordinary job, to meet the aspirations of the more ambitious educationalists”.

    I have been troubled by this because I recognise the situation where teachers seem able to deliver programmes of learning but do not seem to invent teaching approaches or learning situations based on theoretical concepts or new ideas. I see the reality and I hear people say, “Good teachers are born not made.” I get it but I don’t like it.

    Then I read your post today and I agree, taking learning objectives or selected skills and creating irresistible learning opportunities is absolutely the teacher’s job. It should be incumbent on every teacher to see this as their responsibility and to have the appropriate skills to be able to ensure this kind of learning.

    Any Key Stage 1 teacher who cannot read the programme of study above and (a) not want to turn that into something that is engaging and creative for 5-7 year olds and (b) who doesn’t consider what Piaget or the pantheon of child development might offer to the planning process isn’t being the best teacher they can be.

    I recognise there may be a shortage of teachers such as this and maybe these skills are rare but I challenge the idea that we have to make do. These staff are degree educated and they demand a professional status and salary. Then why do we not expect the same level of professional development and self study that we would expect of doctors, nurses, lawyers, civil engineers etc. If these are the required skills of teachers then they need to be expected and they need to be supported to be effected.

    I’m not sure we can rely on good teachers being born, I think we need to ensure that good teachers are made. This begins with training and professional expectations. Then we all acknowledge that a teacher qualification is only the beginning and after that the learning begins. The current understanding of CPD in schools delivered through staff meetings and one day courses would need to change. Personal reflection, ongoing self study and mentorship would become the tools of change.

    I want it all, a high quality curriculum providing creative opportunities and all teachers able to deliver it.

    • Hi Gareth, Thanks very much for the thoughtful comment.

      I completely agree with you about the need to train the teachers we have got – the point being made by Dylan Wiliam that you refer to in your blog. One problem, highlighted by Kim Taylor (quoted in my “Education’s coming revolution”) and also by an interesting Academy Head from Kent I saw speak at a NAACE meeting a few years ago (someone might remind me of his name) – is the isolation of teachers, so that the normal professional process of learning from colleagues does not operate very well. So I would add “team teaching” as a powerful means of CPD, alongside your list of reflection etc. As I argue in my “In the beginning was the conversation”, reflection does not happen in isolation but only as a consequence of interaction – and the modern teacher is starved of interaction with peers. I suspect that the most important factor in improving the supply of good teachers is not so much bringing in a whole new tranch of e.g. city bankers, but in making the job a more tolerable and intellectually rewarding one, thereby reducing the wastage of current good and improving teachers.

      In terms of making opportunities for creativity, in “Education’s coming revolution”, what I was challenging was the idea that the teacher has, as a matter of professional pride, also to be the the course creator. Why can’t we have good programmes of study, subject to and allowing adaptation, but providing a solid baseline and implementing proven pedagogies, and supported with really good quality resources. As interactive and adaptive, supercharged equivalents of the traditional textbook, that is where I think education technology has a major and so far largely unexploited role to play.

      I also think that the isolation of teaches in their classrooms is reflected in the fact that our pedagogical language is impoverished – because people do not talk about it very much. To use a chess analogy, I imagine a teaching team discussing the wisdom of playing the Sicilian defence or the Kings Pawn’s Gambit with 10B on Friday afternoons. We don’t have that equivalent pedagogical language – partly because teachers do not read the research literature, partly because academics do not write for teachers, partly because much of the academic research is IMHO, rather tendentious anyway.

      In the teaching of creativity, I think we need not only to provide the the opportunity for creativity, we need to ensure that students have the basic skill-set needed to exploit the opportunity (I address this above) – but I think we also need to recognise that one of the most important ways that children learn is through imitation. That is why I think the “guide on the side” model of teaching might be so powerful because, as I quote Papert saying in my “In the beginning was the conversation”, when the teacher is in some respects a co-worker, the student can learn from what teacher does and not just from what teacher says.

      I think there is an interesting question about how this new curriculum is going to be used. Again, I find the approach proposed in Miles Berry’s talk and frequently echoed in Twitter, rather unhelpful: that you push the interpretation to the limit of what a legalistic mind can suggest – which really amounts to ignoring it.

      What I think we really need is the development of intermediate agencies to create programmes of work, digital software and content, and supporting assessments and CPD. In other words a sort of pedagogical supply chain – so that the personality and professional practice of the teacher, although vital, is only the tip of the iceberg.

      Apologies for what is probably an over-long response – but I would be really interested to explore how these sorts of productive conversation could be taken forwards. I think the current situation presents really exciting opportunities, but we are not going to exploit them properly while so many leaders of the ICT community appear to be so set on doing a Custer’s last stand in the face of basically very reasonable and long-overdue reforms.

      Best, Crispin.

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