Computing in the National Curriculum

Michael Gove leaving a platform on the National CurriculumMy response to the Department for Education’s consultation on the draft National Curriculum

Following my previous posts on the review of the National Curriculum (Digital literacy and the new ICT curriculum and Good lord! Where’s the digital literacy?), I submitted the following response to the DfE’s consultation on the National Curriculum, with particular reference to Computing.

Do you agree that instead of detailed subject-level aims we should free teachers to shape their own curriculum aims based on the content in the programmes of study?

I tend to agree, although I think that the question is poorly expressed.

Means and ends (i.e. aims) typically form chains that mirror in intention the chains of cause and effect that occur in practice. The aims of one person or process provide the means by which another person or process delivers a further set of ends. The aim of the saddle-maker is to make a saddle and the saddle provides the means for the horseman to ride a horse.

Teachers should be free to develop their own programmes of study and to determine the aims of such programmes – but only in so far as these programmes and their associated objectives provide effective means to deliver the higher-level aims that are built into the National Curriculum.

It follows that, relative to the National Curriculum, teachers are not actually devising their own curriculum aims but rather the means of delivering the National Curriculum aims. It is the job of any supplier to propose the means by which a service may best be supplied but not to determine the aims of such a service.

The question would be more helpfully phrased if it asked whether the National Curriculum is specifying aims at the right level of abstraction.

The advantage of specifying aims at lower, more concrete levels is that it will support consistent provision and continuity, enabling children to transfer between different schools more easily. The disadvantage is that it may squeeze out innovation.

In my view, the priority in the current environment should be to encourage pedagogical innovation. At the same time, the potential disadvantages of encouraging varied provision should be recognised and measures taken to mitigate any problems. Consistency may be encouraged by using market mechanisms that encourage the adoption of best practices as robust evidence of their relative effectiveness emerges.

In some senses, the problem over the way in which this question is phrased mirrors a problem with terminology: this document would be better referred to as a curriculum (encapsulating aims) and not a programme of study (which should encapsulate means). Nevertheless, I agree that the DfE is right to encode regulatory aims only at relatively high levels of abstraction.

Do you have any comments on the content set out in the draft programmes of study?

Yes. I have comments regarding the Computing curriculum.

While I strongly support the emphasis in the new Computing curriculum on Computer Science and Computational thinking, I believe that there is also a need to teach digital literacy. Unfortunately, the definition of this term has become confused by the proponents of the old ICT curriculum. Many teachers’ representatives have argued for a vague and set of largely bogus or inappropriate curriculum aims, often expressed as “twenty first century skills”, “creative, independent learning”, “becoming a digital citizen” and “understanding the impact of computers on society”.

It is understandable that many of the curriculum objectives in the original draft that were based on this definition were removed. However, some objectives that reflecting this outlook remain and should be also removed, to be replaced by more rigorous expressions of digital literacy, as the term was defined by the Royal Society’s report, Shut down or restart?

“Digital literacy should be understood to mean the basic skill or ability to use a computer confidently, safely and effectively, including… 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”.

Delete Key Stage 2 objective: “be discerning in evaluating digital content”.

There is no generic skill of evaluation or creativity that may be learnt in Computing classes, nor are the skills required to evaluate digital content any different from the skills required to evaluate non-digital content. It requires expertise in History to evaluate historical content or create historical arguments, in English to evaluate the use of language or produce creative writing, in Science to evaluate the validity of scientific content or create a scientifically rigorous thesis. This is a bogus objective. I make this argument at greater length in a blog post at So does Socrates in his dialogue with Gorgias in which he criticises the orator’s supposed skill in persuasion on the same grounds.

Delete KS2: “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”.

This section should be removed because:

  • it is subject to the same objection as explained above in relation to the “analysing” and “evaluation” of information;
  • the objective is subject to widely differing interpretations, giving no indication of the difficulty or nature of the goals that the students are required to achieve;
  • in common with the old ICT curriculum, the section places too much emphasis on the presentation of information, which is an undemanding objective and is ultimately corrosive of academic rigor (again, refer to Socrates’ argument against the sophists);
  • it is not helpful, at this high level, to make a distinction between “data” and “information”.

In KS3, the following sections should be removed for similar reasons to the above:

  • 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 four objectives listed above represent a survival of the confused thinking that characterised the old ICT curriculum. For that very reason, they are likely to be supported by the bulk of teacher representatives, whose outlook has been determined by that curriculum.

Having removed the last traces of the old ICT curriculum, the objectives of the new Computing curriculum should be supplemented by new digital literacy objectives that reflect the Royal Society definition.

It has been objected by some stakeholders that learning “office skills” is “dull and boring”. This may be true to some extent—but the ability to use a computer confidently is also a necessary prerequisite for further learning and work; it cannot be assumed that children will automatically absorb these skills through street culture; and the real problem with the old curriculum was not the aspiration to teach these skills, but the endless repetition of office skills, in the absence of more demanding, academic topics. The teaching of digital literacy should be weighted towards KS2.

I suggest the following additions.

At KS1:

  • enter short sections of text fluently, using a QWERTY keyboard or other appropriate device;
  • personalise a range of different user interfaces and explore the functionality offered by unfamiliar pieces of software.

At KS2:

  • understand how to maintain different digital devices, managing backup, virus protection, and the installation of software;
  • cut, copy, paste and embed digital objects within and between different applications, understanding how to format and size data for different purposes;
  • enter extensive sections of text fluently, using a QWERTY keyboard or other appropriate device, adding tabular data and graphics and controlling formatting and layout according to purpose;
  • use appropriate software to collect and sort statistical data, representing simple conclusions in a variety of textual and graphical formats;
  • make productive and safe use of different communications tools, including email, synchronous chat, audio and video, asynchronous discussion and social networking sites;
  • create and manipulate bitmaps, vector graphics, animations and video, understanding the use of different data formats to manage colour, resolution and compression.

At KS3:

  • 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;
  • use appropriate software to aggregate and correlate different kinds of statistical data, drawing and presenting complex conclusions.

Do you agree that we should change the subject information and communication technology to computing, to reflect the content of the new programmes of study?

Yes. The term “ICT” encapsulates a body of confused thinking, most damagingly the conflation of the teaching of technology as an end of education and the use of technology as a means of improving the education across the curriculum.

Does the new National Curriculum embody an expectation of higher standards for all children?

I agree, with the proviso that a high-level curriculum such as this will only have a marginal effect on expectations, being subject to widely varying interpretations. Further activity will be required to encourage consistent and demanding interpretations and the development of effective study programmes.

To what extent will the new National Curriculum make clear to parents what their children should be learning at each stage of their education?

Not very much.

It is in the nature of the Computing curriculum that most parents will not understand the meaning of the objectives. The curriculum should be supported by other information, such as guidance targeted at teachers, updated in response to emerging best practice, and supported exemplars of work at different levels.

The purpose of the National Curriculum should be seen as a starting point, something that sets out common assumptions, and not as a document that will be directly read by parents, students, or even teachers.

Those objectives that I have suggested above should be cut are particularly vague and difficult for anyone, however expert they may be, to interpret consistently.

What key factors will affect schools’ ability to implement the new National Curriculum successfully from September 2014?

In Computing (as in many other shortage subjects) there will be an acute shortage of experienced teachers.

It would be a mistake to expect:

  • to be able to recruit new teachers with sufficient experience of computing to work directly from the National Curriculum document;
  • to be able to train existing teachers to a level that will enable them to work straight from the National Curriculum or other high-level documents;
  • that the shortage of qualified teachers will not matter, on the grounds that students can teach themselves under the supervision of “facilitators”.

The only plausible solution will be to ensure the development of strong study programmes and learning resources. Time and money should not be wasted on trying to train new teachers of Computing without developing such study programmes first.

This point of view is unlikely to be widely supported by teacher representatives who, being committed to a doctrine of teacher autonomy, will campaign for teacher-led training programmes, and to place little emphasis on the prior development of systematic study programmes.

In theory, these study programmes will be most effective if they exploit interactive digital technologies. In practice, the development of effective education technology has been neglected and the digital infrastructure required to support such course materials does not yet exist. It may be necessary to develop paper-based study programmes while the infrastructure is developed to support more systematic, digital approaches.

Who is best placed to support schools and/or develop resources that schools will need to teach the new National Curriculum?

This is a critical issue but a slightly misconceived question. Non quis sed quid—not who but what. “Who?” is the wrong question because the answer is always “whoever can do the job best”.

The better question is “how should the right people be chosen? The answer must not be by centrally managed tender processes, previous examples of which have been an unmitigated disaster.

The government should:

  • recognise that the greatest potential lies in the development of digital resources and supporting educational technologies;
  • support the emergence of a vibrant market for course materials, in which demand is driven by schools;
  • in consultation with ed-tech suppliers, ensure that there are suitable digital marketplaces that are accessible to schools and colleges on one hand, and to SMEs and open source communities on the other, addressing any market failure in this respect by investing in a government sponsored online product catalogue, as recommended by Sebastian James;
  • address the current lack of effective technical standards for interoperability of education software;
  • promote well-informed demand from schools by stimulating the circulation of market information, in the form both of product reviews by users and experts, use cases, and digestible acadmic opinion about good pedagogical practice.

Although the government should generally refrain from providing direct funding for course development, there may be a case for limited intervention by way of pump priming. In this case, the Computing curriculum, where the requirement is most acute, would be a good candidate. If the DfE decides to do this, then it should ensure that the project is lead by academic publishers and educationalists, who should stimulate the wider market by publishing their requirements for education technology to support the pedagogical processes that they wish to deploy. No government-funded programme should attempt to develop education technology itself—the products of such finding programmes are rarely satisfactory and have the effect of depressing rather than stimulating wider market competition.

The government should be prepared to see significant funds invested (ultimately by schools and colleges) in good course materials. This investment will be repaid in the more effective use of teachers, who currently represent the most expensive and inefficiently used resource in the education system.

The government should not expect that teachers will have the capability to develop high quality course materials by themselves.

Do you agree that we should amend the legislation to disapply the National Curriculum programmes of study, attainment targets and statutory assessment arrangements, as set out in section 12 of the consultation document?

However, there is a danger that teachers will feel overburdened by the expectation that they will develop effective new study programmes and will manage the transition to the new National Curriculum. This re-enforces the importance of professionally developed courseware (see answers to 11 and 12).

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