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Why ICT in schools is shit (and how to fix it)

A government report was just recently published which tells us all what we already know about ICT in schools; it’s shit. Kids know more than the teachers, and that’s a testament to how luddite a typical teacher has become, not at how advanced our kids now are.

I’m a father now, and as a geek, everyone seems to assume that my son was born with an iPad in his hand. I’ve had at least twenty people ask me, not if he already has a mobile phone, but if it’s an iPhone or a Blackberry (no love for Android, then!). He’s just four and a half and already a master of Angry Birds and a veritable Fruit Ninja!

Now ICT has always been crap and I’m frankly surprised that it’s taken us over two decades to realise it. The solution to making it better has been under our noses for decades too. Let me explain…

Let me take you back over twenty years to when I was a kid in primary school. I grew up in Germany, but as an army child – educated in a military-run (but national curriculum) school in Germany in the 1980’s. It was, co-incidentally the time that the BBC had just chosen the “Micro” as the computer it was going to push a series of TV, radio and magazine programs out about and encouraged schools to buy them. And buy them they did, in droves.

My parents bought one. It was archaic and stayed with us throughout my childhood. No Nintendo entertainment system for me, my parents weren’t happy with our household having a C64, Amiga or any of those ‘games’ computers. No, for me it was monochrome joy and games such that they were came from days, weeks and sometimes months of painstaking copying of code from monthly magazines from the city’s newsagents. If I was lucky, I could type two or three thousands lines of code from a magazine without errors – although invariably there would be a print error and the finished game code wouldn’t run. Such is life. But if it worked, the result would be a card game, tetris or even… After an entire term of after school coding.. Elite! (A space ship trading game that started it all for me :P).

That’s how I learned to code. Not really understanding what I was doing but going through the ropes all the same, simply to get what it was that I wanted (a game) required me to build it.

Later, back in England at secondary school around the time of my GCSE’s and A-Levels, I made some good friends who were also computer geeks. We’d hang around before and after school to use the school computers. Hacking, mostly. And mostly harmless.

We were spurred on – at first we wanted to find ways to hide our games, so we did. Then we wanted a method of ‘instant messenger’ (before such a thing existed), so we wrote one together. (we wrote out text files to a shared folder that we secretly created on a machine in the main computer office – clients would read and write these files). This made us happy and gave us a real rush. It was a thrill.

We moved on to bigger and bigger projects – if we could remote chat, then we could remote CONTROL, and our chat client became a Trojan, a back door on every computer in the school and the sixth form college. We got some funny sound files and a speech engine and made our chat client play these sounds – at full volume anywhere from the library, to first year ICT classes, to the headmistresses office. It was THRILLING. And it got us in trouble a LOT.

This leads me to recount the only moment that I was officially in deep trouble at school. It was via our remote control client that another student managed to obtain (a few years under us) and officially script-kiddied our work to hack the salaries files of all the teachers. I was one of those who got the blame and spent an hour getting screamed at after school by our Irish deputy headmaster. After he finished venting his frustration at his salary was now public knowledge (again, not my fault), he offered me a taxi ride home. I didn’t accept, but instead did my usual 3.5mile walk home, deeply upset. That incident made me hate him and wasn’t at all a factor in future pranks 😉 however all four of us involved were banned from using the computer rooms. At least, officially 🙂

Needless to say, ICT classes throughout this time was a complete bore. We had to work through worksheets given by teachers who had clearly never even touched a computer before. It’s frustrating, and I feel for kids in a similar situation to the one that I’ve been through. Looking at comments coming from kids at school on Twitter, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So why am I telling you all this?

Because I know what we can do to fix the problem and I know that what we are currently doing is still pretty shit.

I saw a report by the BBC today and it shows a new charity whose idea of bringing ICT to schools is to teach kids how to “Make apps”. Oh my God, can you honestly think of anything more crude? It’s almost as if “Apps” has become the new blog, or the new “Web 2.0”. Are those kids actually MAKING apps? Would any of them be able to tell us the difference between a Model, a View and a Controller? Could any describe the benefits of the Singleton pattern?

Of course not.

But they could all tell you the best way to conceal porn on an iPhone and the most ten most amusing things to do with Skype in a classroom. Some of them might even have a genuine passion for, say, World of Warcraft, and already be writing custom excel spreadsheets to calculate the most cost effective farming runs or their own apps to monitor their gaming networks while they’re at school – daydreaming about how they’re going to master a new dungeon instance when they get home.

The key, then, dear Ofsted is to meet the kids where they are. Teach everyone why critical thinking is important, show them how technology can improve lives. And then take the ones who care and rather than give them programming lessons – allow them to use your equipment.

Bill Gates would never have gotten anywhere unless he had access to a top of the range programmable computer at his school (as donated by his dad) and I would never have gotten this far if my school hadn’t at least inadvertently given me a hundred-computer playground with which to tend and abuse to my young geek heart’s content.

Inspire them all, then give the ones who want to learn the tools, the equipment, the resources and the time to do something.

Just don’t be angry if they build something inappropriate or hack your accounts.

You have been warned.

Published inMy Life

7 Comments

  1. Similar story here – we didn’t have a PC at home until I was in sixth form (by which time I was already running my own websites, hand-coded in HTML + Javascript).

    I picked all my programming skills up by using school computers at lunch times and after school. They had BASIC installed on them, and I started writing basic games (text-based at first, then primitive graphics). If I’d been unable to use the PCs, or BASIC hadn’t been installed, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do today.

    So I completely agree. Give them access to the machines, and let them figure out what to do themselves. They’ll learn far more programming doing their own thing, than following your textbooks that were out of date before they left the printers!

    • Good point Danny, and I’m pleased to hear from a fellow geek with a story that sounds horrifyingly familiar. And we are the lucky ones.

      I suspect that the problem with our approach, “Give access to machines and software, leave them to it” won’t work for all. But it will work for some, and that’s what matters, surely? An ICT GCSE was *just* available at the time I was doing my A-Levels and the school I was at was thinking of offering it but there “wasn’t enough interest” amongst the younger pupils. It’s a shame, but school ICT does seem to be overly heavily focused on “Word and Excel” skills, rather than thinking about all the cool and fun things that kids could design and build together.

      I spoke to a fellow amateur astronomer who is also a Primary School Teacher last week. She said that they’re now using Lego programmable bricks in school to teach logic/technology. I thought this was a brilliant idea as it allows kids who are more ‘hardware’ hands on to get involved with the product engineering process.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvZU2PchUmY 🙂

      All the best,

      Mike

  2. a46565 a46565

    Almost everything in IT is crap and boring

  3. I am 17, I did A-Level ICT for the first year of my sixth form, that is how a stumbled upon this post. All 100% true!

    ICT has got worse and worse from what I’m being told. From having access to programmable computers to learning Microsoft Office 2003 (1 DECADE out of date)

    I tried writing a website in HTML in school, and was told I wasn’t allowed. Seriously. That bad.

    Nice post anyway, I have done a similar one on my experience here,

    http://techrunner.hopto.org/ict-lessons-whos-learning/

    • Hi Dan,

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experiences on your ICT lessons.

      Your article says, “Anyone under the age of about 20 will have experienced the current curriculum ICT lesson”. I’m 32 and that sounds like the ICT lessons I had at school. Unfortunately ICT learning outcomes are all about being able to ‘use’ technology (which seems to be defined rather loosely) and it’s often packaged up with other subjects to save time for example word processing for English or using Google Maps for Geography or Wikipedia for History. Pointless, really.

      Don’t feel too bad though – on my Computing degree there was a module in the first term which covered things like bullet points and font styles which was also a bit like being told how to turn a computer on and off again.

      Unfortunately it’s a case that, frankly teachers don’t know what’s available or what they can do – management are scared (it was very commendable that you wished to create a HTML website – a great idea!) – but there’s so much fear which boils down to a moral panic about internet pornography – that we end up losing the golden opportunity to learn modern skills in school.

      But don’t worry Dan. You sound like you have the right aptitude to succeed in our tech industry. If someone goes through the course and can identify the shortcomings of the course then you must surely know what it is that you should be learning and thanks now to the internet, you’ll be able to self-teach yourself a little before maybe taking it further at higher education level if you’re still interested (which by the looks of your blog, you certainly are!).

      Stay in touch and thanks for your comment!

      All the best,

      Mike

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