Digital curriculum completely misses the point

21 July 2017
Viewpoint is from over the shoulder and a little behind of a child using a tablet in class.

I was surprised by the release of the draft digital technologies curriculum content (DTCC) a few weeks ago. Actually, I should say blind-sided. It wasn’t that a digital focus was coming to our curriculum that shocked me (it is well overdue), but rather the rigidity and narrowness of the document. I believe the DTCC has completely missed the point of education, and the place and purpose of digital technologies.

The New Zealand Curriculum’s vision is for our young people to be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners. Supporting this vision are principles, values, key competencies, and seven learning areas: English, the arts, health and physical education, learning languages, mathematics and statistics, science, social sciences, and technology. The DTCC has been added to the latter suggesting that it is on par with the other aspects of technology as a learning area – it isn’t.

The DTCC provides a prescriptive list of skills-based progress outcomes limited to the use of digital technologies. Whereas the learning area of technology is about using intellectual and practical resources to innovate; this could involve the use of digital technologies, or not. The addition of the DTCC implies a strong connection to the technology learning area, while segregating digital technologies from the rest of the wider curriculum. A more worthwhile approach would be to promote flexible integration of the DTCC across all seven learning areas. Every single progress outcome in the draft DTCC could be richly explored through any of the current learning areas.

The DTCC highlights the need for ‘computational thinking’. There is nothing new here – mathematics has been doing this for centuries. For many years now, my mathematics classes have looked at the history of our number system and been fascinated by Gottfried Leibniz’s ‘binary arithmetic’ and his early calculating machine. These are year 6 children, capably ‘computing’ using binary notation (without the use of digital technology) because they were motivated through their learning experiences. Could they then apply these skills to a digital context? Of course! Could I tick off some of the DTCC progress outcomes? Absolutely! Would I need to use the DTCC to inform the teaching and learning? Absolutely not!

My point is the draft DTCC is narrow, limiting and full of contradictions. The Minister argues the changes have been made in response to a rapidly-changing world. However, while the DTCC may meet the needs of the world today, it is impossible to say it will 10-15 years from now, which is when our young learners will be leaving school. We don’t know what future jobs will be. There are no coders in the workforce today that were taught coding at school. What they were ‘taught’ was the ability to think critically, work collaboratively, and innovate, risk-take, problem solve, and just plain-old learn. These are the skills that set them up for success.

On the flip-side, not everyone wants to be an expert coder, or needs to have a rudimentary understanding of code. Personally, I have always seen benefits to exploring code in the context of other learning areas. For example, basic coding can be explored in the learning area of English when using digital technologies for visual language. Resizing images and fonts for maximum visual impact can be tricky in some platforms, but getting children to recognise and modify these basics within html code makes life a lot easier. Again, no DTCC needed.

The danger is, if implemented, progress outcomes of the DTCC will become a ‘check-list’ of achievement standards – and why not? Schools would technically be delivering the curriculum. But my argument is there is so much more to learning in a digital world than the DTCC offers with its skills-based progress outcomes and integration is key. Under the proposed model, schools already using digital technologies well will continue, business as usual, because they are doing everything in the DTCC, and much much more, through integration. However, schools that are not so fortunate, and would most benefit from an integrated approach, will instead adhere to the DTCC and not actually make any headway into improving the digital capability of their learners – not through the schools’ fault but due to the narrow content and flawed nature of the DTCC.

This document feels as though it has been written by someone who: a) has never stepped foot in a classroom, b) has no idea how children learn, and c) has a very strict business agenda. New Zealand has hundreds of innovative teachers and researchers in this area and yet I doubt any of them were consulted. If they were, their voices are certainly not evident. I am also concerned by its similarity to the Australian version which was introduced two years ago and there is no evidence to date that it is having a positive impact there. The fact is, teachers will find a way to make it work – it’s what they do. In this case, not because it is best for their students, but that they will be held accountable if they don’t tick it off – another example of bureaucracy getting in the way of truly innovative teaching and learning.

What children take from their school years are not facts or skills (these are by-products), but experiences and rich connections. Schooling is a human endeavour; fundamental in developing human qualities such as collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and innovation – this is the big picture. The current New Zealand Curriculum is considered one of the most visionary documents in the world, and we have an opportunity to extend on that and be ground-breaking if we can get everyone on the same page regarding the purpose, place and use of digital technologies.

The proposed digital technologies curriculum content is not the pathway to such an aim: We don’t need an additional learning area; we need the flexibility to integrate when and where appropriate and effective.

Megan Clune is a Woolf Fisher Teaching Fellow working on the University of Auckland’s Bachelor of Education Honours degree in Mathematics and Science Education (primary teaching). She taught in a South Auckland school for 10 years and was assistant principal for the last three. 

Used with permission from NewsroomDigital curriculum completely misses the point published on Friday 21 July 2017.