Laura Larke

England’s computing curriculum: A clash of values, beliefs and purpose

Laura Larke Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford Monday 20 May 2019

How does industry’s participation in the creation of education policy impact upon what happens in the classroom? My recent ethnographic case study (Larke, 2019), of how England’s national curriculum computing standards are being taught in four state primary school classrooms, demonstrates the importance of keeping the needs, beliefs and values of teachers and students at the centre of policy development.

The subject of computing was added to England’s national curriculum in 2014, with great fanfare from industry and government officials alike. Replacing the former ICT curriculum with computing was meant to provide England’s schoolchildren, from five years of age onward, with the skills, knowledge and ways of thinking necessary to participate in an increasingly digitalised world. The hope was that by teaching all children the fundamentals of computer programming, robotics and computational thinking, England would bring up a new generation ready to compete globally as computer scientists, tech entrepreneurs, and digital citizens.

The Department for Education (DfE) invited a wide selection of tech companies, professional organisations, and learned societies to take part in a series of drafting sessions in order to develop the new computing curriculum. While a handful of school teachers were involved in the creation of early drafts, the final drafting of the curriculum was handed over to British professional bodies for computer science and engineering, resulting in a curriculum very different from the one that teachers and academics had recommended.

With no additional funds provided by the DfE for teacher training or the purchase of technological resources, schools were left to interpret a hastily put-together, thin outline of subject content on their own. The computing programme of study assumes a certain level of background knowledge in computing, a competence and confidence in teaching computer science fundamentals, and the physical resources necessary to teach computing (or, alternatively, the time and know-how necessary to produce offline, ‘unplugged’ computing lessons).

However, research evidence suggests that teachers in the UK feel they are, in fact, ‘lacking sufficient theoretical and technical knowledge of computing’ (Royal Society, 2017, p. 54). Furthermore, not all teachers are enamoured with an economically motivated approach to education reform. These clashes in beliefs and values have resulted in a policy that exists on paper but, in many schools, not in practice. Utilising data collected across 230 hours of classroom observations, four teacher interviews, student artefact creation (that is, writing and drawings), and 44 student interviews in the south of England, I investigated the policy-in-practice stage (Ball & Bowe, 1992) of the national curriculum computing standards.

‘Teachers were acting as gatekeepers to their respective classrooms, modifying or rejecting outright a curriculum that clashed with local, professional knowledge.’

What I found were teachers acting as gatekeepers to their respective classrooms, modifying or rejecting outright a curriculum that clashed with local, professional knowledge (Foucault, 1980) of what was best for their young students. Instead, they were teaching digital skills that they believed to be more relevant (such as e-safety, touch typing, word processing and search skills) than the computer-science-centric content of the national curriculum, as well as prioritising other subjects (such as English and maths, science, art, religious education) that they considered equally important and which competed for limited class time.

Policymakers and many others involved in the creation of this curriculum did not adequately account for how state school teachers – and primary school teachers in particular – would interpret this new policy, the impact it might realistically have on young people’s relationship with modern digital technology, and whether there might be a mismatch between the pro-technology narratives represented in this curriculum and the everyday beliefs and experiences of today’s teachers. The teachers who participated in this study used their professional judgment to modify or outright reject England’s national curriculum computing standards by minimising or ignoring subject content that they saw as redundant or less than critical to their students’ success, or that they felt themselves not to have the training, experience, resources or time necessary to teach. The results of this study provide a critical lesson for policymakers and others interested in changing education at the policy level: the beliefs and values of end-users must always be accounted for.


This blog post is based on the article ‘Agentic neglect: Teachers as gatekeepers of England’s national computing curriculum’ by Laura R. Larke. It is is published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, and is free-to-view for a limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


References

Bally, S. J., & Bowe, R. (1992). Subject departments and the “implementation” of National Curriculum policy: an overview of the issues. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 24(2), 97–115.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings by Michel Foucault (C. Cordon, ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.

Larke, L. R. (2019). Agentic neglect: Teachers as gatekeepers of England’s national computing curriculum. British Journal of Educational Technology. Advance online publication. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjet.12744

Royal Society. (2017). After the reboot: computing education in UK schools. Retrieved from: royalsociety.org/computing-education


Dr Laura Larke is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, a research and teaching department at the University of Oxford devoted to the social science of the Internet. Her research focusses on educational policies aimed at preparing individuals for safe, productive and agentic engagement with an increasingly digitalised world. After completing a first degree in sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she spent several years working in teaching and educational research in Japan and the Silicon Valley. She moved to the UK to complete an MSc in education (learning and technology) and DPhil in education at the University of Oxford’s Department of Education. She tweets from @laurarpinkerton.