Confessions of an occasional IT teacher

Anyone can teach IT, can’t they? That attitude may be changing now the subject has morphed into Computing (all that pesky programming and the like), but when I started teaching IT it was definitely the view.

IT teachers themselves were conscripts from other subjects, usually D&T or Maths. As long as you were geeky and liked tinkering with cables at the back of a computer you would do.

As a Business Studies teacher I qualified to be able to teach IT. After all, we used computers in my subject too and I looked like I knew what I was doing. To be fair, we did some IT in my teacher training (and dabbled with some Economics). But I was self taught in using computers, and still am. I’ve never attended a training course and yet I can do some cool stuff with a spreadsheet!

For that matter, I’ve never been trained properly to teach any of the other subjects I’ve ended up teaching; Economics, Sociology, Maths and RE. I’ve taught four subjects to A Level, three of which I learnt by teaching myself the content one lesson ahead of the students.

I’m a headteacher now and I try to help out in filling the gaps in the timetable where I can. This year I’ve been given two Year 7 IT classes (except now its called Computing and IT; more of that later). I haven’t taught IT for a over 10 years. I have taught the subject to AS Level, but it has changed a lot. Anyway, I was happy to teach it again and, you know what, I’m enjoying it.

The thing is, two things have changed since I last taught this subject:

  1. My teaching
  2. The subject

10 or 15 years ago, there seemed to be a common approach to IT teaching which might be described as ‘Come in. Get on with it’. IT was all about learning how to use application software. There was obviously some explicit teaching which usually took the form of a quick explanation of how to do something on the computer (all about the skills, certainly at KS3), then students worked on an open-ended task, sometimes for weeks.

The features of this approach were:

  • Short, skills-based teaching inputs (usually begrudged by students who just wanted to ‘get on with it’)
  • Limited amounts of theory or conceptual understanding
  • Low levels of challenge
  • Extended projects
  • Students working at their own pace
  • Individual, verbal feedback from the teacher when students got stuck or the teacher noticed them doing something wrong.

I was observed by a senior colleague once and given a ‘satisfactory’ for my lesson. The reason it wasn’t ‘good’? The observer told me “there was no starter or plenary. They just came in and got on with it”.

I was livid at the time. I had spent months training them how to ‘get on with it’. As a result, they were productive, focused, on task and making great progress. Every student in that class got A*-C and the value added was through the roof. Interrupting this Zen-like flow would have been crazy, I thought.

Although we can scoff at the (Oftsed inspired) three-part-lesson looking back, I am starting to think the observer had a point. What were students learning in that lesson? They were doing lots, but were they applying the skills they already knew?  I could tell they were making progress in completing the task (I had a spreadsheet to prove it), but could I tell they were making progress in their learning?

I think now that the subject, the subject pedagogy and the assessment was all wrong. I’m glad the subject has changed and I’m glad my teaching has changed.

What follows is a summary of how my current practice as an occasional (Computing &) IT teacher is now, with some visuals thrown in for good measure.

Change 1: What I am teaching

IT is not the subject it used to be. The dramatic swing to Computer Science (driven by Michael Gove) has changed the subject beyond recognition in some schools. The pace and scale of these changes has left many schools floundering to find teachers, train teachers and retain teachers (who just don’t want to teach high-level programming skills).

In our school, common sense prevails. Our great head of department and I agree that, whilst a minority of students will need skills like programming and it is useful to give all students an introduction to Computer Science, most still need application software skills too. Being able to write a letter on Word, create a spreadsheet, use a database, search the internet, send an email or prepare a presentation, are skills that most young people will need in their personal and working lives in the future.

Our Computing and IT curriculum is therefore a healthy mix of the old IT and the new Computer Science.

Compared to my previous experience, however, teaching the subject feels quite different. There is now much more ‘knowledge’ to be taught and a greater need to ‘teach’ over ‘facilitate’. The content is also much more challenging. The topics I taught to Year 12 students over 10 years ago are now in the Year 7 curriculum. Think about that for a moment. We aren’t expecting Year 7 students to understand as much as a Year 12 student would, but we are touching upon the same topics, concepts and skills.

Change 2: How we think about ‘progress’

When your teaching is built around students completing a task to ‘show’ they have a set of skills, then moving on to the next unit, it is unsurprising that progress is measured by whether they complete the task and evidence a set of competencies. The dominant mode of assessment – coursework/projects – reinforces this view of what progress is.

We have been looking carefully at our models of progress (i.e. where students start from, where we want to get them to and the route from A to B). I have been influenced greatly by the the definition of learning as a ‘change in long term memory’ (Kirschner, Sweller and Clark). I want students to remember the skills I have taught them, not just be able to apply them immediately afterwards. I am also faced with considerably more conceptual knowledge to teach in the subject than I was previously used to. To make progress over time, students will need to retain this knowledge and be able to access it later.

I have also increased my awareness of the importance of breaking down knowledge in to its component parts and sequencing very carefully how this knowledge is introduced to students. Writers such as Daisy Christodoulou (Making Good Progress) have introduced me to deliberate practice models which require explicit instructional approaches. When faced with teaching topics like ‘Binary’, I am finding that careful thinking about knowledge and sequencing is very important. But even in teaching the ‘old IT’ content, such as spreadsheets, these ideas are valuable. I find myself building conceptual understanding and skills more methodically and carefully than I used to, preempting misconceptions and checking that everyone is ready to move on.

Change 3: How we summatively assess

We have made the decision to introduce end-of-year exams at KS3 in our school. This has been driven by the idea that a well-designed, summative assessment is probably the most reliable way to infer if students have actually learnt anything.

As an occasional Computing & IT teacher, I welcome this change. It will support my change in focus from short-term performance to long-term retention of knowledge. The knowledge that my students will be tested on what they have learnt over the year is beginning to change my teaching.

Change 4: Being clear about essential knowledge

I have started to experiment with Knowledge Organisers (early days). Part of me thinks this might be a fad, and I share some of the concerns I hear and read about this being a reductionist approach. However, I am drawn to KOs for the following reasons:

  1. They force me to articulate exactly what it is I want students to know, at least as a minimum
  2. They provide clarity for assessment
  3. They are useful for non-specialist and novice teachers of the subject in their planning
  4. They (may) help students develop better study habits and (could) be useful for promoting retrieval practice

So far, I have written some (which has been useful in focusing my teaching) but I am yet to share with students. I intend to do this in the run-up to the summer exams, to help them structure their revision. However, I might try some retrieval practice homework to support revision for some low-stakes tests in the meantime.

Here are my first attempts (apologies for the picture quality).


Change 5: Diagnostic questions and deliberate practice

I am interested in the common mistakes, bad habits and misconceptions in Computing & IT. Whereas my old self would have spent a great deal of time walking from student to student, individually and repeatedly correcting their errors, I now want to preempt these errors and explicitly address them in my teaching.

For example, students often right-justify text in Word using the space or tab bar. It drives IT teachers crazy. In days gone by  I would tell students not to do this, but instead to use the ‘right alignment’ icon. They would then ignore my instruction and resume their bad habit. They would print their work, I would take it home to mark and write “Right align!!!” or something similar on their work. They would ignore this and continue with their ingrained habits. And why wouldn’t they? Repeated behaviours cannot be broken by a swipe of my red pen.

I have come to realise that habits will only change if new habits are introduced and reinforced. I have done this in two ways, with some success. Firstly, make students repeatedly practice the behaviour you want them to adopt. In the example of alignment, give students text aligned in various ways with an instruction to change the alignment in a specific way (e.g. left to right). Whereas students can ignore your verbal advice, this simple approach gets them to practice the behaviour you want them to adopt. If they persist in their old ways, get them to do the exercise again. They soon change their ways.

For errors that are based more on conceptual misunderstanding than passive resistance, I have made use of diagnostic questions which provide a snapshot of the class’s knowledge and help explicitly address misconceptions.

The example below (which I used as a starter – that old observer would have been pleased!) was designed to reinforce good habits around formula construction. Three of the answers would work (A, C and D), but D is the required solution. This question emphasises the need to put the = at the start, not the end of the formula (as you do in Maths) and leads to a reminder of the benefits of using cell references over numbers.

Diagnostic question picture

Following this starter (which some students gave the wrong answer to) none of the students made the common errors which I would normally expect from a Year 7 class. What is more, hardly any students made these mistakes in any of the spreadsheet work they did thereafter. There was no time wasted in correcting students individually and no need to write on their work with red pen – they got it right first time.

These skills were supported by an excellent deliberate practice exercise (produced by my head of department) whereby students repeatedly entered sum formula in to a spreadsheet model, which gave them instant feedback on their efforts.

Change 6: Retrieval practice and spaced practice

This area is definitely work-in-progress, but requires a more fundamental shift in our schemes of work, assessment and homework. However, I have mentally shifted from my past practice as an IT teacher of teaching it and moving on. With an end-of-year assessment looming, we cannot afford to touch upon key concepts only once. Students’ memory of the content will fade over time and find recall in exam conditions tough, or impossible. Revision needs to become something that happens throughout the year, not just before the exams.

I am increasingly using low-stakes testing to promote retrieval and this appears to be effective. Technology such as Plickers appeals to the students and enables me to capture their responses, but I am also using more traditional approaches (like quizzes and starter questions). My next step is to interleave questions from past topics. I like the ‘starter for 5’ approach I see used in Maths which has some questions focused on the learning from last lesson, some on concepts further back and one to bridge to that lesson’s content. This approach is simple and can become a habit which is easy for a teacher to sustain.

The knowledge organisers will help with planning retrieval practice. By setting out the essential knowledge in each topic, it is easy to come up with recall questions and track which knowledge you haven’t yet revisited. I hope that students will also find these useful as they become more accustomed to retrieval practice homework.

Change 7: The pattern of my lessons

As a result of all of the above, the pattern of my teaching in this subject has changed. Instead of prolonged periods of independent working, my lessons are punctuated by bouts of explicit teaching, deliberate practice, diagnostic assessment, low-stakes tests and the occasional open-ended tasks. My teaching is more varied, more targeted and more explicit. You will never hear “Come in. Get on with it.”, that’s for sure.

Its’ a better subject now, and I think I’m a better teacher. I wonder how much it will change by the next time I’m asked to teach it?

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