Digital Technologies: Now a Subject in the Australian Curriculum

I was thrilled to see that the Australian Curriculum: Technologies has finally been made available online for all teachers to see and begin using in their schools. Sure, it is currently marked as “awaiting endorsement”, but that’s largely due to the Curriculum Review that has been instigated by our current federal minister Christopher Pyne. We’re now at a point where educators can get moving on implementation of the F-10 curriculum.

What excited me about the Digital Technologies curriculum in particular is the way that it has embraced the Digital Technologies as a way of thinking and a tool for creativity. The problem I’ve always had with the teaching of ICT in schools is that it has largely been seen as a tool that should be integrated to assist the teaching of other subjects – that’s fine, but that’s captured in the ICT General Capability in the Australian Curriculum and is very different to the study of ICT as a discipline, sometimes branded as Computer Science, Informatics, Computing or similar. Given the ubiquitous nature of ICT in our world today, it has always struck me as odd that we’ve relegated the understanding of ICT to being all about its use, rather than how it manages to achieve the “magic” that many people mistake it to be.

So finally we have some guidance for teachers, especially in the primary years, about what to teach to impress upon students the fundamental knowledge and skills required to be a developer of ICT solutions. This doesn’t mean we have to make students in Kindergarten write code in Java or anything – in fact, the Digital Technologies curriculum for Foundation to Year 2 instead focuses on pattern recognition and the classification of data in contexts that kids can understand. A significant amount of time was spent during the writing of the curriculum looking at how what students need to know to develop a strong conceptual understanding of the Digital Technologies could be integrated with what they are learning in other subjects. That’s important – it validates what teachers are currently doing to teach these ideas, or provides explicit advice to teachers about what they need to address when they design new lessons.

I accept that not everyone agrees with me – here’s a post from the Conversation written by an academic from the University of Newcastle – but on reading the article (which was forwarded to me by someone I know who has an interest in the DT curriculum), I felt the need to respond to some of the statements being made.

You can see my post in the comment thread at the link above, but I feel so passionate about what I had to say I felt the need to post it here, since I believe it stands on its own.

As an IT teacher who has the skills and knowledge to deliver this curriculum, I get a little bit frustrated about some of the ongoing concerns people keep expressing with the curriculum, largely because I feel like many of the criticisms are being made with underlying assumptions in place that need to be challenged.

The Digital Technologies curriculum does not insist that students become programmers – at least no more so that the English curriculum insists they become authors, the Mathematics curriculum insists they become mathematicians or the Science curriculum insists they become Scientists.

Many of the same arguments and/or questions about the relevance of some of the content included can be asked about other learning areas – such as the need for students to understand stem-and-leaf plots in Mathematics, or the structure of multi-cellular organisms. Look at all of the curriculum documents (and it is important we differentiate the curriculum from a syllabus – they are different things) and you’ll find that if it really came down to it, you could question the inclusion of many of the skills and/or understandings that the writers in each area have decided to focus on.

That aside, the other major consternation people have about it all is the time / crowded nature of the curriculum, however this all comes about because many commentators still insist on looking at the subjects as being independent of one another. We look at the Science curriculum and then, at school, we teach kids Science. We do the same with Maths, English… Why? How many times in the real world do we look at a problem and say “oh, that’s a problem that can only be solved by mathematics, I’m not going to consider any of my scientific or social understanding to come up with an answer”?

The curriculum has been written with the interdependence and relationships between the learning areas in mind – or at least that is my understanding. We talk about falling levels of literacy and numeracy, and then argue that this is a case for eliminating non-critical subjects from the learning of students? Surely the reason they are not engaging with school has to do with the fact that the way they are being taught isn’t working for them? It is possible to teach many numeracy and literacy concepts using much of what has been included in the Digital Technologies curriculum. Similarly, you can teach programming within the context of mathematics, algorithms as recipes in a kitchen, and data representation as an exploration of pattern recognition and language translation.

To simply look at the fact that programming has been included in the curriculum and then dismiss it due to the fact that not every kid needs to be a programmer completely fails to recognise the importance of logical reasoning and the methodical development of algorithmic solutions when faced with complex problems – a critical skill that can be developed through learning computational thinking. Not every student will end up being a mathematician, so why do they need to know about polynomials and parabolas?

And I also don’t think it is sufficient to argue that a lack of trained teachers is reason enough for the subject to be relegated to a position of less importance. The curriculum should be both aspirational and intended – it is up to schools, society and teacher-training programs to find reasons to encourage people with the skills and knowledge required to teach the curriculum to consider joining the profession. The same argument would not be applied to any other learning area – we would never say that not having enough English teachers would be reason enough to stop teaching English, would we?

The use of technology for the “thrill” of using it is fine – I’ve got no problem with people making use of the great technology available to better their lives etc. But accepting technology as “magic” is not acceptable in the longer-term if we want to continue to develop as a society. Would we be where we are today if we had simply accepted the idea that rain just happened and didn’t instead seek out a reason for it? We have the technology that we have today because people who found the passion and excitement to learn more about it did so through curiosity and interest.

We can make the Digital Technologies curriculum interesting for all students, just like we can for every other learning area. The first step in making that a reality is to stop artificially segregating the subjects and to emphasise the interdependence that exists across every discipline of knowledge. When designing a lesson or unit of work, what we need to do is look across multiple learning areas and find ways to engage students with lots of different interests – to connect what they are learning to their world.

Does this mean every child will like learning every aspect of the DT curriculum? No, just like not every child will enjoy Maths, Science or other subjects. But we can at least develop in them an appreciation of the value each discipline has, and the impact of each on their way of life now and in the future.

Oh – and on the last point re: not including Scratch (or anything else) in high school – the curriculum doesn’t do that. There is nothing that precludes the use of visual programming to teach concepts from any learning area. What has been expressly mentioned is that students learn about general purpose programming languages. These languages are different when compared to drag-and-drop type visual languages because they allow us to perform significantly more computation than is possible otherwise. They are important, but that doesn’t mean that other, more familiar platforms or languages can’t be used to address other aspects of the curriculum. I use a similar technique to explore recursion with my students, producing fantastic looking artwork using Context-Free grammars and exploring randomness as well (which is a nice way of visualising genetic mutation).

We need to stop looking at movement through the bands as discrete periods of learning – it is a continuum and the learning that takes place in earlier bands should be used as the foundation for learning in later ones.

I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of other educators of all disciplines on this issue and those like it. Please join the conversation and post your comments below – this is one of those topics I’d love to see start a very interesting, ongoing dialogue.

2 thoughts on “Digital Technologies: Now a Subject in the Australian Curriculum”

  1. aftertrace

    Brilliant blog, Bruce! I’ve always wondered why half of the maths syllabus isn’t taught in Python! To me, that would make every lesson so creative because you could conceive everything as a puzzle with a solution that has to be invented.

    Perhaps once everyone is a little wiser, we can all stop advocating for our corner and work together like you suggest. We’re a little way to go – in music, NSW & many other states have had a syllabus that teachers aren’t qualified (in most govt schools) to teach for decades now. The Australian Curriculum will continue to demand a quality music education for every child, yet there won’t be any accreditation system (like there is in many other countries) for training teachers to teach it.

    I’d gladly design a computing-music unit of work with you, though – just as I did with math and science last year…

    1. Bruce Post Author

      Maths, IT and Music all mesh together really nicely – I can definitely see potential there. I’m thinking of some kind of simplified AI project which uses different types of scales and/or rules to “compose” music and play it back through your computer, with the goal to improve the AI to produce better compositions. Encourages not just coding ability, but a fundamental understanding of the way music is constructed and the relationships that exist between various notes in a particular scale.

      Those are the kinds of activities kids need to experience – not just the rote learning of skills or knowledge that are easier examined through whole-scale testing.

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