The shift from the almost entirely knowledge & skills-based IGCSE in ICT course to the somewhat loftier heights of A levels and the IB diploma course, Information Technology in the Global Society (ITGS) can be a struggle for many students.
As critical thinking, particularly analytical & evaluative skills, are in such little demand in many GCSE programmes, it can be tempting to ignore them in favour of covering the specification in as much detail as possible to squeeze every last mark out of the exam papers.
The problem comes when students start their A level or IBDP study armed with a raft of A* grades and no clue how to engage critically with complex issues. In a previous school that didn’t offer A levels I knew teachers who would fly through the content as quickly as possible and spend the rest of their time (often two terms, occasionally the full final year) on past paper revision. The kids were stupefied by the time the final exams came around, but had been very well-trained to answer the questions in the papers. They didn’t actually know a lot, but that could be the next guy’s problem; the teacher at the VI form college, lecturer at university or manager in the workplace.
That’s why with my current IGCSE groups I’ve spent a lot of time going beyond the checklist of topics in the specification and encouraging them to think.
Beyond the spec: databases
I covered databases at the start of the year with my classes, and found fairly early on that there were several students whose understanding of English was preventing them from truly understanding it. To help with this I made a stack of database flashcards, tweaking definitions with EAL students if they were still struggling, and wrote a series of exercises that started simple, focusing on things like data types, validation & simple queries, building up to including more complex functions like runtime queries, relationships & reports.
Nothing out of the ordinary there, but I told my classes that the major assessment for this unit would take the form of an instructional video, both in English and in their mother tongue. In this video they had to explain to a novice what they now knew about databases.
All of the videos can be found in my school Youtube channel, but here are a couple of particular highlights:
Justin, Jay & Timothy
Agnes & Christine
As the students had to understand databases well enough to educate others about them, they have a really solid understanding of the topic. They also got to engage with the technical vocab in their mother language, which many of them found beneficial.
I also now have a collection of high quality, student-made videos I can share with students in future years. I showed the Korean version to a Korean year 9 student who said if he’d seen that when we were studying databases, he would have understood it much more clearly.
The kids also had the opportunity to engage with multimedia in a way that isn’t really part of the IGCSE course, which I think is a shame. It was time consuming, without any question, but when they really engage with the project the results are great.
Beyond the spec: moral issues
Moral issues occupy a very thin slice of the IGCSE course, but offer the greatest opportunity for debate and discussion. Beyond that, they are at the heart of the ITGS course, which is much more of a sociology-based subject than IT.
After a brief primer in a couple of lessons where we scratched the surface of a handful of moral issues, the students had to choose an area they were interested in to write an essay of roughly 1,500 words.
In preparation, we talked about validity and bias of sources, referencing & citation (linked closely to intellectual property & copyright) and the school librarian delivered a really interesting session on the research databases we have access to, which gave me another opportunity to quiz them about databases.
There were groans & grumbles at the prospect of writing an essay longer than anything they’d written thus far, but through the four research lessons the students had, the grew more and more interested in their chosen topics, which varied from e-waste to cyberwarfare, online piracy to drones, censorship to surveillance. I sit now with a stack of well-researched, substantiated discussions about difficult topics and not only I can see the value in the project, but the kids do too.
Of course you have to cover all of the content laid out in the specification by the exam boards – not doing so would disadvantage the students, and we’d be both short-sighted and a little cruel in thinking that their results didn’t matter. The point here, though, is that I like many newly-trained teachers in the last decade was trained to think that after covering the content your job was to revise, revise, revise. That to me seems wrong minded, akin to hammering knowledge in repeatedly in the hope that some of it will stick.
Ensuring the students understand as much as possible as clearly as possible first time around will reduce the amount of cram time needed & better enable them to do exciting things with their new knowledge. Taking slightly unusual approaches to making it stick by encouraging your students to think deep can help in achieving this, and there’ll be no suggestion from anyone – students, senior leadership, even Ofsted – that ICT lessons are dull.
Give it a go.