Becoming an ICT teacher

Probably my biggest shift in the last two years has been a from being an ESOL teacher to becoming an ICT teacher for ESOL students: indeed, the majority of my contact with ESOL learners at the moment is as an ICT teacher, rather than as an English teacher. I come to this with mixed emotions: there are good sides and there are less than good sides.

What I like about it, for example, is that it’s a bit of a change – apart from anything, it’s a fun challenge to work out how to make functional ICT interesting. This, I have to say is no mean feat given how desperately tedious and, well, functional the ICT syllabus is. I have drawn on my ESOL experience a little here, but also on my own ICT learning – nothing in functional ICT is learnable for its own sake, really. Where I have been shown something techie which I genuinely have gone “wow, cool” about but then not needed or had opportunity to make use of, then it has gone into the great recycling bin of forgetfulness. I think that when teaching ICT, you need to set it in a context or a situation, and make it interesting that way. The other benefit to this, of course, is that the lessons can be differentiated more easily – the formatting for a tri-fold leaflet is significantly harder to think about than a poster, but the content can be more or less the same; or in a session on spreadsheets you might have one person working on just entering data, another on entering data and adding formulas and another doing both then making a chart.

It’s a different type of knowledge to the type of knowledge I’m used to, I think. Language is a fairly subtle blend of skills and knowledge, which are quite tricky to ever completely segregate. In ICT, however, most things are fairly simple. The essential motor skills are pretty straightforward, and for me most of practical functional ICT is essentially about knowing specific sequences of actions to achieve a particular end. Click that, move that, double click there, click-copy-paste-drag etc. Things can get more complicated, of course: were we to go deeper into computer technology, we would encounter commands and conditions in programming. Alternatively, drawing back out from the dry functionality we encounter social and personal issues: health and safety, of course, but also those aspects of digital literacy that revolve around data ownership, personal privacy and so on. These latter ideas lend themselves very easily to a discussion or reading lesson in the ESOL model, and then allow you to cover the practical elements by having students prepare a leaflet or presentation using the appropriate software, or accessing data to inform the discussion with online research or in the format of a spreadsheet.

Where I am less happy is in the syllabus. I’ve already described it as dry and tedious: and it is. Functional Skills exams and syllabi are by their nature pretty dull and boring, be they English, maths or ICT, and it’s the teacher’s job to make them engaging, often for learners who may not want to engage. Some people would have you believe that stuff on a computer is a form of motivational alchemy. I wonder if it is the elearning fraternity (gender specific term intended) trying to protect their status as innovators, perhaps. Either way, ICT is not immune to being seen as dull: once you get past social media and the rest, the functional windows and office software focus of the subject doesn’t hold interest for long.

Another thing I noticed last year were the huge gaps in my own knowledge, and my knowledge of structuring learning in ICT. As I may have said before, most of the learners I now teach have, technically speaking, greater evidence of ICT knowledge than I do. The challenge for me is structuring and scaffolding learning. I don’t have the subject knowledge or the teaching/learning experience to properly scaffold learning in ICT. It’s growing, of course, and next year I’ll be better than this year. Apart from anything else, I keep getting caught out by the relative ease of the exams for which learners have been entered.

So could I ever make a full transition from ESOL to ICT? Probably not. ICT certainly fails to excite me in the same way as language teaching and learning does: probably the most interesting elements are the social/privacy aspects of the web. For the time being, it remains just an interesting extension of the teaching I have been doing for some time: using ICT to develop language skills, only with a specific ICT syllabus attached. As daft as it might sound, it just ain’t grammar.

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