What we need to know about IT

I was involved in discussion recently about the teaching of IT, and how it should be compulsory for everyone in further and higher education. Personally, I don’t think IT skills need to be taught post-16, at least not to everyone.  The basic grounding in computers most people need can be taught pre-14. It isn’t that complicated. The rest is all specific stuff that anyone who has this basic grounding can pick-up. If you teach IT to everyone post 16 you’re either going over the same stuff again and again, or teaching unnecessarily specific and untransferable skills that will rapidly go out of date.

I also feel that it does not need to be a separate, compulsory, subject post 14. I mean sure an IT GCSE should be available to those who want to do technically oriented jobs, and all other GCSE equivalent courses should cover relevant IT skills. But IT needs to be part and parcel of what people are learning. It needs to be a tool rather than a thing in its own right for most people.

It almost goes without saying that education is a good and necessary thing, we can always find ways to improve teaching. However I think education is only a small part of the problem with IT knowledge.

The biggest problem is attitudes to knowledge. We need to become a society that values knowledge, and expects people to know the stuff they were taught at school. Taking science as an example- that has been compulsory on the national curriculum since the early 90s, and it before that it was fairly standard for most people to be encouraged to do at least one science subject. Yet as a society we don’t seem to consider that teaching as basic background knowledge. Newspapers do not seem to pitch stories to a public that was taught basic science at school- they pitch them to people with almost complete scientific illiteracy.

There’s a similar story with maths, I was once privy to a conversation with two adult education advisers who were teaching basic maths to nursing students. One bemoaned that some of the stuff they were expected to learn was GCSE level. Well, that *is* basic maths.

The other thing we need as a society is to be more relaxed about, and aware of our ignorance. We should be relaxed about our weaknesses and not be aggressive when they are pointed out. We all lack knowledge that it is reasonable to expect us to know. I know this because I am no different. Be too harsh about lack of knowledge and people hide and don’t seek help. However, if you normalize a low level of knowledge, many people who need to know more assume they are doing fine and don’t seek help either. In the second situation people feel better about themselves, but otherwise are no better off.

The problem with normalizing a low level of IT knowledge is that we end up with policy (in businesses as well as the public sector) being driven by people who know little, but feel that they are well informed. They know quite enough, thank you very much, and those who know more are difficult pointy-heads. These people do not seek the advice of specialists because they judge those specialists to be pedants, geeks and weirdos (I’m generalizing of course) who just make the mumbo jumbo up as they go along. Anything they don’t understand is irrelevant and nonsense. Well it must be.

So my point is, yes we do need to teach IT at school. We all need the basic aptitude to use computers so we can easily pick up the specifics as we go through our lives. But unless attitudes in society towards knowledge change, much of that teaching will be going down the drain.

Unfortunately I can’t see how these attitudes can be fixed.


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