How do you help students bridge the chasm between interest and mastery? This is an eternal challenge that all educators face. Young children have endless curiosity and wonder for the workings of the natural world around them, but few go on to acquire a mature set of scientific skills and knowledge.
Similarly, young children instinctively wriggle about and vocalise along with their favourite tunes, but not many build on this initial musical interest to become accomplished dancers or singers. And so it goes with teaching technology at primary level.
When it comes to technology, you do not have to ask twice with children. This generation of young ones under the age of 12 are true digital natives. Theirs is a world saturated, and even defined, by screens and wired devices and the inescapability of the IoT (the Internet of Things).
Students not only want to learn about technology, they expect it. The task that a teacher faces, then, is to ensure that students are interacting with technology in a meaningfully educational way, and not just on a superficial, passive level.
There are two significant pitfalls associated with the teaching of technology at primary level.
The first is that technology might actually hinder, rather than support, learning. Consider how easily the power of the internet can flip from positive to negative. For instance, speedy access to information is useful for homework assignments but this immediacy can also undermine attention span.
Similarly, equipping children with iPads and laptops expands their ability to create their own content, including their own computer programmes; however, these devices also drain their time with the siren call of social media and games.
Primary level children are especially vulnerable to computer addiction, since they have not had enough time to practice delayed gratification. Schools often have to make it a point to define clear policies regarding their attitude towards technology.
Nexus International School also takes into account the wellbeing of its students beyond schooling hours: “We promote an active lifestyle, and suggest that technology must be used in balance according to other activities a student does in their spare time. We advise parents regularly on 'computer addiction' and give guidance and how they can help to control the amount of time their children spend using technology.”
The second pitfall is that it might actually be counterproductive to contain such an amorphous concept as ‘technology’ within the bounds of a structured syllabus.
Why counterproductive? The first generation of amateur computer programmers in the 1970s were motivated by the excitement of discovery, by a freewheeling anything-goes spirit. Thus you had pre-teen Bill Gates and Steve Jobs tinkering away independently on computers, building their own simple programmes while dreaming of radically new worlds.
The danger of setting syllabus requirements and achievement standards is that it might stifle young students’ capacity to direct their own studies. Children might become less likely to strike out on their own exploratory tangents.
Explicitly teaching technology might make the field too domesticated: it becomes just another subject when, in actual fact, technology is this wild, endlessly-evolving entity.
This second concern is a crucial one to address, since it raises questions that cannot be avoided: What exactly does it mean to teach technology at primary level? And how should this subject be taught?
DEFINING THE CONTENT OF A PRIMARY TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION
What aspects of technology should be taught at primary level?
For a start, it is important for primary students to learn how technology might be put to use in different contexts. Well planned projects and lessons will help students to think of technology as a range of multifaceted, powerful tools.
Alexander Turner, Lead Digital Learning Coach at Garden International School (GIS) explains: “Technology is used to enhance all areas of our curriculum. Skills are taught through the rich context of other disciplines, this could range from producing digital media in Art lessons to learning how to research effectively online to further an enquiry.”
In recent years, it has also become common to declare that ‘coding is the new literacy,’ but what level of coding proficiency should be expected from a child below the age of 12? It is probably advisable to wait till secondary school to explicitly cover abstract topics like variables and loops and object oriented principles. However, it would make sense to prepare for these ideas by introducing children to the basics of computational thinking.
Coding, after all, is about giving precise, detailed instructions. If a student is skilled at giving crystalclear step-by-step directions, then it is a cinch for them to pick up the specialised commands associated with any programming language out there.
How should technology be taught?
Primary educators have to tailor their teaching strategies to the needs of their audiences. This is particularly true when it comes to the thorny issue of coding.
At this level, children tend to have shorter attention spans and are more comfortable with the concrete. Coding can sometimes seem to inhabit a very arcane and abstract universe. This is why schools like Nexus encourage the use of apps and programmes like Scratch and Tickle: these lean more towards an intuitive visual approach and afford a quick rate of success, so that children do not get discouraged.
Robotics classes are also on the rise in Malaysia. Companies like Roboticist and Edu360 offer courses which help children to learn about coding and technology by getting them to be hands-on. In order to build up long-term motivation and to make sure that learning is active, not passive, schools make it a point to incorporate an element of creativity into this subject.
Nexus International School notes, “Our aim for our learners is to create content using technology, rather than consume content with technology. We want them creating interactive books, producing and editing movies, using relevant gaming programmes such as Minecraft so that they are engage in the learning experience.”
There is just so much to explore and learn where technology is concerned. New programming languages crop up all the time; cutting-edge tools are invented on a daily basis; and old paradigms fade away all too quickly.
A technology educator surely cannot be expected to keep up with all the new developments, especially when he or she has to compete with the rapid learning of a primary classroom full of digital natives.
This educator’s role might be most successfully fulfilled by helping students to develop tech-relevant skills of critical thinking, problem solving, and resilience. He or she will also provide the scaffolding so that students will develop mature computational thinking.
As far as the nitty-gritty details are concerned, it might be best to be more decentralised, to loosen the topdown constraints and to allow students the freedom to take flight.
It is no surprise then, that many schools promote learning from and amongst peers. “In primary we have student digital leaders who are ambassadors for the use of technology, this includes modelling how to be safe and responsible online users and teaching their peers tips and tricks,” Alexander Turner comments.
In the end, the most important skill that primary technology educators can impart is a spirit of adventure: technology’s rapid evolution will not slow down, so children will have to develop an appetite for change.
Whatever the content of the technology syllabus, primary students will have to learn larger lessons about how to bridge traditional subjects with soft skills (like independence and teamwork) with actual technological know-how.