A new digital technologies curriculum?
It was the mid-1980s and my grandfather had passed away a few years earlier. Since his passing my grandmother had taken up two new pastimes. The first thing she took up was the 80s phenomenon of jogging and for her that meant training for and running marathons. Often the oldest competitor in the race and often arriving at the finish line hours after the front runners, she was very much an example of perseverance and sheer bloody-mindedness. The second thing she took up was computers and computer programming in particular. I remember the BBC Micro arriving in a big brown box from the UK. It came with akeyboard/console, a large computer monitor and a cassette tape recorder to record and play code. It also came with two thick manuals that were full of step by step instructions. To make this machine do anything you had to programme it. My grandmother explained that computer language needed to be black and white, or binary, with no shades of grey. To help me understand this she pretended to be a robot and got me to think of the instructions I’d need to give a robot to get it to open the door. She would only move if the instruction given was clear, specific and precise. “…move left arm at the elbow forward 10cm…bend left arm at elbow so hand raises 5cm…extend fingers…etc...”. Getting that door open was ridiculously frustrating and as a child I felt like that was 30 minutes of my life I’d never get back!
Fast forward to August 2017 and I find myself at a Ministry of Education consultation session for the new Digital Technologies curriculum and participating in a series of example activities aimed at kids to understand the basics of binary and how to write the kind of language computers understand. Over a couple of hours Tim Bell and Hinerangi Edwards led us through unplugged activities, culturally connected activities and a few online digital activities to exemplify what ‘computational thinking’ in the new curriculum is all about. For me, it was like a wonderful flashback to my grandmother’s robot lesson, although the activities presented were a lot more collaborative and engaging for kids. I know this because my eight year old daughter loved it!
However, it was difficult to grasp where this ‘new digital technologies curriculum’ actually fits in the larger picture of learning and teaching in a 21st century New Zealand classroom. After several years of focus on the pedagogy and methodology in the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC), including teaching as inquiry, learning with digital technologies, assessment for learning and data literacy, it was initially confusing to work out where this ‘computational thinking’ fits in classroom practice. It turns out the secret is in the name: Digital Technologies/ Hangarau Matihiko lies within the technology learning area of the curriculum. The much discussed and debated ‘digital technologies curriculum’ is not a new curriculum as such, it is new content in the technology learning area of the curriculum. The reorganised technology learning area in NZC still has the three strands: technological practice, technological knowledge, and nature of technology. However, five technological areas have been included under the three strands and it is really only the first two areas that are properly new:
- Computational thinking for digital technologies
- Designing and developing digital outcomes
- Designing and developing materials outcomes
- Designing and developing processed outcomes
- Design and visual communication.
In discussion with a colleague, we realised that the success of this initiative hangs more on how well or poorly the technology learning area is taught, rather than on the roll out of a whole new curriculum initiative. A cynic might say, “…what a lot of media bluster over a review of one of our seven learning areas that has resulted in the possible addition of two new bullet points under three already established strands!”. And to be honest that thought did cross my mind. However, on reflection I now think “…why shouldn’t a review and changes to one of our learning areas not be met with debate and robust discussion?”. The seven learning areas are the beating heart of our curriculum and each one of them is there to be engaged with, debated and valued by educators, the media and society in general. This is exciting stuff!
So now, my thinking is that this is a great opportunity to reflect on how we are enacting the technology learning area. I think it’s also a wonderful opportunity to do a flick back through NZC (or scroll up if on the digital file) and take a moment to reflect on each of the other six learning areas and their associated strands. What is happening in the arts at my school? Dance? Drama? How about science? How am I working through the ‘physical world’ or the ‘material world’ with my students?
Finally! After a number of years in the dark the learning areas are getting the official attention they deserve, starting with the technology learning area. Let’s push it out further and look at our effectiveness in the other learning areas. Even from a technology perspective, fluency in the other areas is essential. Who will be the end users of our wonderful programmes and apps? Dancers? Scientists? Musicians? People with different learning needs and abilities? Understanding the end user matters in technology and being a technology user who has a basic understanding of how it all works also matters. My grandmother would have loved all this.