In the post-lockdown climate, as schools return to some semblance of normality, decisions are being made about how, why and where core skills can be prioritised over other subjects. Computing leads in primary schools are being told by senior leaders that computing is no longer a priority after the last year and a half; after all, children have ‘done’ computers daily during lockdown.
As a computing specialist and digital technologist, this worries me a lot.
I appreciate that it’s hard to draw a line between what could be considered important and vital to education versus what could be pushed to one side to make way for this. If I had my way, the focus would be on emotional skills and the enjoyment of learning rather than ploughing forward with teaching facts in preparation for a test.
However, if Covid lockdowns have taught us anything, surely it has shown us the importance of being digitally literate, flexible and open to learning how to use new technology rapidly?
Let’s start by taking a look at computing as a subject because it’s only really existed for a few years. Back in 2014, the new computing curriculum was dropped onto primary school teachers with very little warning, replacing the existing ICT curriculum. Some schools embraced the change, some took tentative steps towards meeting the targets and some just buried their heads in the sand. Some even went so far as to read the keyword ‘coding’ and focused their entire curriculum on just that, neglecting other basic computing skills around using computers effectively for a purpose. But, until Covid hit, progress was only just beginning to be made.
In the last year, the NCCE has begun publishing free resources to support teachers and there are several great paid-for schemes of work, including one that I helped to develop and write, Kapow, which supports teaching and learning in computing; but at the end of the day, the entire primary school computing curriculum is a one-page document with some ambiguous bullet points. The key thing is that computing needs to be a blend of the old ICT skills combined with knowledge and understanding of how computers and networks work as well as learning a little bit about writing code and understanding algorithms. How this is delivered has been left entirely to schools to interpret and figure out.
And this is where we see a fundamental problem because it’s easy to read the headline ‘computing’ and assume that as long as students are using computers, they are completing the required curriculum. Added to that, there is still confusion around being able to use a computer versus being able to use a computer effectively i.e. shifting from consumers to active users and producers of content. For many children and teachers, the last 15 months has been a time of high anxiety and stress as well as a significant rise in screen time, but it is essential that we differentiate between quality and quantity screen time because they are two very different concepts. It isn’t fair to say that children have ‘done’ computers during lockdowns, anymore than it is fair to assume that all people born this century are digital natives and just ‘know’ how to use computers. We have an obligation to ensure that not only do children understand how to use computers effectively and efficiently to support and improve their learning and understanding, but also to teach them how to be responsible digital citizens and use technology politely. These are skills that don’t just happen; they need to be explicitly taught.
On top of that, the computing curriculum is so much more in-depth than just being able to open a document and edit it - it’s highly unlikely that much time would have been dedicated to databases, networks or writing programs in Scratch during lockdown.
As for arguing that children should at least be able to manage the ICT side of things... In a recent school visit, I observed that several year 6 pupils still weren’t able to login to their Google accounts without help or to navigate to anything other than Google Classroom because that’s all they needed to do in lockdown to access their work. In effect, children have used computers a lot over lockdown, but they have only used a very narrow range of tools and have rarely been pushed outside of their comfort zones.
And the trouble is that using computers isn’t something you can learn once and know everything; technology is constantly changing, upgrading, improving. As teachers, we have had to spend lockdowns learning how to use new tools, exploring ways to make teaching more exciting as well as preparing for updates and changes. So there’s no way we can assume that just because our pupils are using a computer, they know how to use it effectively. Computing and digital literacy need to be constantly taught, updated and reassessed depending on what tools are available.
We need to make sure that we take time in the curriculum to explicitly teach children how to use digital tools to support their learning and then continue to use them outside of the computing classroom to support other subjects and to make computing an implicit part of our teaching and learning, just as computers will almost certainly be an integral part of workplaces for children in the future.
The skills we learn in computing are transferable across the curriculum; they should be taught in computing lessons, but then used across subjects, just like we do with reading and writing.
If children are shown how to do some digital artwork using Canva in a computing lesson, why shouldn’t they use that same skill for an RE lesson? Or if they are learning about the planets, why not create a fact file on a Google Site instead of writing it down in a book? Not only are pupils more likely to be engaged in the lesson, but they are also applying digital learning to other subjects and acquiring real-life, useful skills.
At the end of the day, we’re not just trying to push facts & figures on children, we are preparing them to become adults in a world where technology is becoming increasingly important and we need to learn the lessons of the last year and take the time to prepare for a digital future.
Cat Lamin is a former primary school teacher with 12 years of teaching experience. She has a passion for coding and computer science and specialises in supporting teachers who are getting started on their journey into using technology in the classroom. In 2017 Cat was shortlisted for the European Digital Woman of the Year award and has been invited to speak about her experiences teaching computer science around the world including in Brazil, Argentina and the US. She is passionate about talking about equality, stereotypes and mental health as well as supporting the teaching of computer science. Cat is a Raspberry Pi Certified Educator, CAS master teacher and Google Certified Innovator.