In the 4th century BC the Ptolemies of Alexandria began throwing money at the arts. They saw engagement in the arts as a means of establishing power and prestige, and through their investment Alexandria began to flourish as a centre of culture. At the heart of this was the mouseion – the home of the Muses – which housed a flourishing academic community of the world’s finest minds. These academics had no teaching responsibilities, as they would elsewhere, but focused solely on their discipline.
The mouseion was multidisciplinary; physicists had rooms alongside astronomers and poets, and so for the first time in history we see the divisions between academic disciplines being blurred. The major extant work of the poet Aratus is called the Phaenomena, in which he marries science with literature, combining an astronomical description of constellations with the mythology the Greeks ascribed to them. He applied his skills to turn a piece of dry, technical prose into a work of art. It was immensely popular in antiquity – translated into Latin and Arabic, and read by Cicero, Ovid and even St. Paul, who quotes a line in Acts 17:28. 
Not everyone thought the mouseion was a good thing, however. Timon of Phlius referred to the scholars within as “scribbling endlessly and waging a constant war of words with each other in the Muses’ birdcage.”  By contrast, academic disciplines in schools are pigeonholed. Isolated. Separated from all others so as to better understand them. There are many good reasons for this – teachers are better equipped to educate students in their specialist field than in any other, so in an ideal world students would enjoy the benefits of an education at the hands of many different teachers who can enthuse & educate in enough breadth & depth to spark a deeper interest in the subject.
There is an exception, though. I’ve argued (not always successfully) that the greatest strength of my subject is that from day to day, lesson to lesson, I can be teaching anything from history to ethics, from geography to physics. The very nature of ICT as an application subject means unless I’m applying it to something, I’m not doing it right. ICT gives us, more than any other subject taught in UK schools, the opportunity to blur the lines between subjects where the learning would ordinarily stop at the classroom door.
Whether it’s in dealing with the effect technology has on the way we live our lives, potentially getting into some pretty heady sociological study, in developing logical thinking by programming, or even in looking at the history of war as I’m going to demo at an SSAT conference, we’re floating on an ocean of material when it comes to content. It’s not all good news, though. More and more ICT teachers are coming to terms with the fact that the people who write programmes of study & exam board specs seem to remain blissfully unaware of this, and instead cling to the old ideas of “make the spreadsheet about a theme park – that’s applying it”. I’ve been discussing the extraordinarily disappointing Edexcel GCSE coursework brief on Twitter recently – the focus is on “upcycling” (a form of recycling). Over the course of the project students are expected to represent this issue through creation of the usual KS3 suspects – a logo, posters, etc – and put it all into an e-portfolio. Thrilling.
By contrast, my year 11s are currently writing essays in which they’re examining civil liberties abuses in China, the increasing difficulty in policing computer laws and computer addiction, among many, many more topics. Unfortunately, they’re completing unit 8 of the OCR Nationals course – almost universally disregarded by VI form colleges in my area, and decried & railed against on the TES forums. How, when the level of thinking involved is so much deeper than even the theory content of the better-respected GCSE, can it be so poorly thought of? It is absolutely true that schools have pounced upon vocational qualifications as a means to climb up the league tables, and I do believe that there is a shred of validity in the proposals put forth in the recent government white paper, the myriad other worries in which Donna Hay discussed extremely well earlier today.
I’m not suggesting that everything that falls under the OCR Nationals umbrella is at the same heady heights as unit 8 (the overwhelming majority isn’t anywhere near – it was never intended to be), but the idea that the only two choices we as ICT teachers have are open-ended, vocational qualifications that carry with them the taint of trying to cheat the system, or patently unengaging, uninspired academic qualifications like the GCSEs, recently repackaged and rebranded as shiny and new for 2010. The major difference between the model exam paper provided for the 2010 Edexcel course and the AQA one I sat back in 2000 seems to be the change of font from Times New Roman to Myriad. As one of many people who believes in the potential power & substance of ICT as a subject, I’m not happy with the idea of these being our only choices.
Nick Jackson & the rest of the #ictcurric band have been making progress in developing exciting, deep, broad projects that students can really sink their teeth in to at Key Stage 3. I was recently asked by one of my year 9s who is now entering his third month of Key Stage 4 why ICT isn’t like it was last year, and my only response was “I’m doing the best I can with what the exam board let me teach.” Poor answer, but it’s all I’d got.
Earlier this evening, a group of teachers was gathered together by Drew Buddie to talk about the problems with girls’ involvement in ICT & computing courses – in itself a fascinating topic, but we ended up straying on to this issue of engagement across the board. Dr Sue Black of UCL agreed that in part due to adversity to change on the part of the curriculum-makers we’re switching too many kids off ICT & computing as subjects. Facing increasing competition from technologically-literate students from countries like China & India, we risk falling behind the times unless we shift the focus of ICT from “doing stuff” to providing students with the thinking skills they need to work through problems independently.
If we’re to avoid the death of the information industry in the UK as we’ve seen with manufacturing & industry, we need to encourage thinking skills & creativity as the cornerstones of ICT education. We do need a change in perceptions from the top, and for current ICT qualifications to be current, but the change also has to come from the classroom up – it’s all too easy to bullshit when there’s a computer in front of you… all too often it can feel like your students are achieving something when they’re really only passing the time with WordArt & Google Image Search.
In order for the subject to be seen as rigorous and important, it has to be taught as such. In order for it to become the modern day mouseion, it also needs to include the scope to encourage learners to bring with them what they learned in Science, French or English – and we as ICT teachers need to be ready for it. No mean feat.
Staikos, K. (2004). The History of the Library in Western Civilization, p166. Newcastle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press.