Fitting computers into the curriculum
The NCCA is considering the development of a computer science curriculum for Leaving Cert students and the revision of the maths curriculum to incorporate coding and computational thinking
‘It’s not about the technology as much as it is about empowering the children to use the technology to fulfil their own potential’
If schoolchildren are to learn how to navigate and fully participate in the digital world, so too must their teachers.
Achieving this is central to the work of PDST Technology in Education, which promotes and supports the integration of ICT in teaching and learning in first and second level schools. Part of national support service, the Professional Development Service for Teachers, it operates under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills.
But industry has taken an active interest too. Telecoms company Three Ireland is working on a mobile learning initiative for adult learners, while Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Ireland initiative offers free classroom resources to educators and its Showcase Schools programme promotes digital education.
“Where previously there was an emphasis on giving students access to devices and software, that is less of an issue now as the cost has gone down,” says Dr Kevin Marshall, head of education at Microsoft Ireland.
“From a macro perspective, it’s about figuring out how computational thinking fits into the curriculum,” says Marshall, who is an industry representative on the board of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.
The NCCA is considering a number of initiatives on this front, including the development of a computer science curriculum for Leaving Cert students and the revision of the maths curriculum to incorporate coding and computational thinking.
If these are to come to pass however, teachers will need support. “In some ways the biggest shift will be for teachers to have the confidence to allow the kids to just get on with it, knowing that, when it comes to the digital world, the kids may know more than they do. But for the most part what will be required is continuing professional development for teachers, as there are very few computer scientists teaching in our secondary schools currently,” he says.
A holistic approach to technology is required too, says Serena Serena Mizzoni, a director of Ashoka Ireland, a social enterprise which works with schools. “The notion that you give a child an iPad and teach it to use MS Word and off they go, is not enough. It’s not about the technology as much as it is about empowering the children to use the technology to fulfil their own potential,” she says.
For teachers to teach this, they must also learn it. “We have to enable both pre- and in-service teachers to design a learning environment, so that, while they have their curriculum requirements, they can also design the learning environment to deliver it, for both Junior and Senior cycles,” says Prof Deirdre Butler, senior lecturer in digital learning at the DCU Institute of Education.
Already student teachers at DCU are learning to take an innovative approach. A recent project Butler oversaw had students using LEGO materials to create programmable vehicles to learn about levers, gears, motors and motion sensors.
“If I had to read a book about vehicles, I’d have snoozed quietly in a corner. This way it’s science in action,” she says. “It’s about looking at coding and programming, so that it’s not a ‘black box’. The vehicle project allowed teachers to cover science, art, design, oral language skills, logical thinking, technical writing, maths and history – in the context of the research their pupils will have to do on a topic.”
In-service teachers need continuing professional development so that they too can learn about the ways in which technology is informing teaching, particularly as the classroom, which has remained much the same for centuries, looks set for transformation.
“We’re going to see a physical space that will be like a big box with white walls, where you can project onto anything. Using moveable projectors, teachers will be able to do everything from creating terrain on the floor to, if someone is having a particular issue with some topic, projecting it on to the wall with a mobile device,” says Butler.
The use of gaming tools and other devices that facilitate “hard fun”, will grow, she says, to the delight of kids. “As teachers we have to learn to let go and realise that we don’t have to be in control of everything. It will be more about co-creating, about working with, and alongside, our learners.”