I had a wake-up call recently, sitting in the staffroom at my local primary school, having just finished my weekly computing lesson with year 6.  Building on my earlier comment that ‘if they can read, they can program’, I off-handedly asked the EYFS teacher if she fancied trying out a computing activity to introduce a precise sequence of instructions (i.e. an algorithm).  A more experienced teacher laughed, and said, “You have no idea!  I’d like to see you try to teach computing when one of the children walks up and says ‘I’ve just done a poo in my pants’ !”.

It made me stop and think about my motivation, my understanding, and the motivation and resources of the teaching staff.  Coincidentally, a recent discussion on the CAS forum highlights a growing concern with the way that IT professionals and teachers communicate.  Both groups want the best outcome, but don’t necessarily understand the other’s perspective or imperatives, and don’t necessarily agree what ‘the best outcome’ is.

The Techie

I would suggest that IT professionals and other non-teachers who get involved with computing education do it for one reason: we have an enthusiasm for the subject-matter and want to see it succeed.   But what does ‘succeed’ mean?  Success could be one or many of: open up a world of fun and skill; enthuse children with a creative and rigorous subject; give children the widest opportunities possible; promote the subject as an interesting area to study; create a future workforce; enhance the UK’s ability to compete with other countries; or something else entirely.  Whether it’s iPad app development, PHP programming for the web or parallel processing on multi-core machines, IT Professionals want the students to be able to do all the cool stuff they can do (to paraphrase one of the videos at code.org, “it’s as close as you can get to having a superpower”).  It’s easy to forget that the students are 11, or 15, or 5 years old, have a wide range of abilities, and that all skills take time and practice to develop.

The Teacher

Even with a passion for the subject and wider educational objectives, Teachers (I would suggest) have an overriding priority: to deliver the curriculum and where applicable to ensure good grades in exams, within the context of preparing the student for the next stage of their life.  As a school governor, I endorse this perspective to the extent that we have a legal obligation to fulfil: the content (not delivery) of lessons is predominantly driven by the need to cover the syllabus.  Doing a quick calculation to work out how many teaching hours are available, then dividing this by the topics to be covered (both in the National Curriculum and the exam boards’ specifications), there are very few hours available for any one topic – and programming is just one small part of the syllabus.  There is precious little time for ‘extras’.   Outside those teaching hours, every lesson needs planning and preparation (which is no small task – examples at www.code-it.co.uk), including working out how to deal with both the brightest children and the special needs pupils in the same class.

Taking into account these very different perspectives, here’s a draft set of guidelines for communicating with each other – I’ll be happy to amend and/or enhance per your suggestions.  Just get in touch or register on the site to add a comment.

IT Professionals communicating with Teachers

  • Start from the curriculum. Your communication should help teachers to achieve their objective. If it doesn’t, it’s probably useless. Read the relevant parts of the National Curriculum and the exam board’s documentation. There’s some useful guidance on the CAS website here.
  • Understand a Teacher’s constraints: the time available for preparation and delivery; cost; computing resources; the varied audience. Modify your answer accordingly.
  • Avoid jargon if possible, because it’s unhelpful if you don’t have the vocabulary. (To illustrate, whilst the MS Excel help files are very precise, they’re not easy to read and switch most people off; other sources can be less precise but more helpful to most users.)
  • Put yourself in the shoes of a child in the class, perhaps one who would aspire to achieve grade C at GCSE – might they be able to understand? Or, was the question about extension activities? Terry Pratchett’s lies-to-children may help give perspective.
  • Be supportive and sensitive. Remember you are trying to help.
  • Get into a school to develop your understanding. Whether it’s as a classroom volunteer, a community governor, or a visiting specialist, there is no substitute for seeing it in the flesh.

Teachers communicating with IT Professionals

  • Channel the enthusiasm. These people are giving up their time to try to help, but don’t know how best to do so. They sometimes need your priorities, constraints and key issues spelling out for them so they don’t make unrealistic suggestions.
  • Don’t be intimidated. You know way more about your speciality (teaching!) than IT professionals do.
  • Be tolerant. Nobody can understand what it’s like to manage a class of children until they have tried it.
  • Be supportive and sensitive. This valuable resource needs to be encouraged and nurtured.
  • Modify/ignore as appropriate. What’s applicable in the world of work may need to be simplified for your class.
  • Invite IT Professionals into your school so they can see the reality.