Prof. Dr. Ute Schmid

There is nothing to be said in favour of keeping digital transformation out of primary schools, but much to be said against. Digital media can beneficially expand the didactic toolkit and hence teaching basic computer science concepts is a prerequisite for digital sovereignty. In addition to technical equipment, it is necessary to develop sensible learning concepts for enhancing knowledge about and use of digital media. This should be done quickly, but carefully.

March 17th, 2021

One good thing at least can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic is that it has given digitalisation in schools a lasting boost. In February 2021, the Federal Chancellor, together with the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, launched the Digital Education Initiative to promote skills’ development in a digitally shaped world. It is now time to establish and expand digital learning rapidly as a matter of urgency for all ages and all types of schools for a number of reasons: (1) Video conferences, chats and learning platforms can facilitate information exchange between teachers and learners during face-to-face lessons; (2) Children are growing up in an increasingly digitalised world and should therefore be provided with the skills to act reflectively and confidently by way of appropriate didactic concepts for media education and computer science; (3) Digital learning in the form of interactive and virtual offers can usefully expand the didactic portfolio of knowledge and competence transfer.

Approaching digital learning sensibly

A prerequisite is sustainable investment in digital infrastructure (broadband network connection, servers, WLAN) as well as digital display and work devices (monitors, tablets, notebooks). Providing money, as the ‘DigitalPakt Schule’ (Digital Pact for schools) launched in 2016 did, is necessary albeit not very helpful in isolation. It makes no sense for each school or school district to come up with its own solutions for equipment that is not only technically appropriate but also serves pedagogical and didactic requirements. To ensure that investments can be used reliably in the long term, it is essential to hire technical staff for support and not leave it to chance that dedicated teachers will take on the additional responsibility as a side function.

Whilst technical problems such as internet overload or defective computers are immediately noticeable, missing or inapt pedagogical and didactic concepts often become apparent only in the longer term, as for instance with the spelling method of writing by ear. ‘DigitalPakt Schule’ explicitly emphasises that, in addition to technical equipment, pedagogical and didactic concepts as well as teacher qualifications are important in order to provide a sensible approach to digital learning. Particularly in the primary school sector, there are hardly any approaches here to date, either in terms of teacher training or syllabi and teaching materials. The gap has been filled in recent years by various reasonably well-thought-out extracurricular offers. What exactly is understood by digital learning here is very diverse and ranges widely from handling digital devices to the use of learning apps for different school subjects and even to programming.

From unreflective use to digital competence

A recurring misconception in public discussion is that the ability to handle a tablet or smartphone equates to digital literacy or even IT literacy. This is reflected in statements suggesting that because tablet classes are already regarded as important in primary schools that must in some way respond to the shortage of IT specialists. It also partly links with the fears of primary school teachers who think that the children know more about digital media than they do. It should be immediately clear to everyone that watching television does not automatically motivate one to study communications engineering, or that an interest in driving a car is not the same as an interest in automotive engineering. The same applies to dealing with digital media. Even if children can handle smartphones confidently and often more efficiently than many adults, this has nothing to do with an understanding of the concepts underlying such a device. Obviously, children do not need to be motivated to use digital devices, but their unreflective use should be underpinned in a sensible way.

Creative knowledge development through computer science

How to encourage children of elementary school age in questioning physical or biological phenomena is demonstrated by already tried and tested approaches from the didactics of natural sciences. The equivalent of scientific “Why is that?” questions, in terms of digital media and computer science, are “How does that work” questions – the basis for research and development in the IT field – and the corresponding question “How can I make that better?”. Computer science didactics for elementary schools is still in its infancy. At textbook publishers, the first media-pedagogical materials focused on media studies can now be found. However, there are calls for children to learn programming as early as at primary school stage, for example from the Minister of State for Digitalisation Dorothee Baer when she says that programming must become as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. Girls in particular can benefit from such school offers, as they are less often introduced to STEM topics directly in the parental home than boys.

In this context, one often hears of Computational Thinking, which used to be called algorithmic-logical thinking. Such a way of analysing and segmenting problems as well as systematically describing their solution, which is typical for computer science, is also central to the study of computer science. That even children should learn about programming as a way of learning how to think is not a new idea. As early as 1967, the programming language Logo was introduced by MIT scientist Seymour Papert. As a student of the development psychologist Jean Piaget, he criticised in writings such as Revolution of Learning (1994) a school system that is geared towards children giving the right answer. He propagated computer technology as a tool for creative knowledge development with positive effects on learning motivation. Today, visual programming languages such as Scratch (also developed at MIT) or the Open Roberta Lab developed by Fraunhofer IAIS are being used for the early teaching of programming skills. In parallel, different unplugged offerings have been developed that use vivid, playful materials to teach basic computer science concepts.

Digital teaching, but with a sense of proportion

To date, it has mainly been up to the commitment of individual teachers whether or not they deal with these offers and implement them at school. Despite all this commitment, there is also the risk that misconceptions can be passed on to children due to the absence of a professional background. In addition to appropriate curricula in teacher training, empirical studies are urgently required to examine what short and medium-term effects computer science classes can have in elementary schools. One assumption – in line with Paperts – is that learning programming leads to an improvement in algorithmic-logical thinking and thus positive effects on comprehension within mathematics can also be expected. A different error culture is also observed. While teaching often strives to avoid mistakes and can therefore also lead to concealing mistakes and difficulties in understanding, programming is designed in such a way that mistakes can be made, which must then be corrected through testing. Finally, it can be assumed that a basic understanding of data and algorithms provides an important basis for a reflective and confident handling of digital media, as called for by the Frankfurter Dreieck (Frankfurt Triangle teaching method).

Even if there are good reasons for teaching basic concepts of computer science and computational thinking as well as learning with digital media already present in primary schools, a sense of proportion is certainly necessary here so that digital literacy topics do not cannibalise other important areas. Findings from different disciplines ranging from neuroscience to educational science argue that, especially for younger children, analogue learning is crucial in order to build up basic competencies. Accordingly, a shift in teaching to a purely digital transfer of knowledge via tablet and smartboard is not desirable. Learning apps can certainly often motivate children more than a worksheet, and behaviouristic incentive systems such as gamification and nudging can also support children in learning tasks such as multiplication tables, vocabulary or geographic facts. In general, though, basic subject-didactic concepts are needed to achieve a snug fit between learning content and suitable didactic measures. Empirical findings suggest that cognitively complex content is actually learned less effectively when the content is presented in an animated way. In the midst of enthusiasm about colourful apps available in stores, it should not be forgotten that their didactic usefulness must be questioned, especially since such apps have to date barely been subject to proper evaluation.

Both learning digital concepts and learning with digital media should already start in elementary school, so that the generation regarded as ‘digitally native’ does not turn into ‘digitally naïve’. The current boost triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is helping to advance digital literacy in elementary schools and this should be done quickly – but carefully.

The blogs published by the bidt represent the views of the authors; they do not reflect the position of the Institute as a whole.

Prof. Dr. Ute Schmid

Ute Schmid is a member of the bidt board of directors. She is Professor for Cognitive Systems at the University of Bamberg and has been teaching as well as researching for many years in the field of artificial intelligence, focusing on humanoid machine learning and methods for interactive and explanatory learning. She is the initiator and head of the Elementary Informatics Research Group (FELI) and has been committed to teaching basic computer science concepts in elementary schools for over 10 years. In 2020, she was awarded the Rainer Markgraf Prize for her commitment to knowledge transfer in the field of computer science for children, teachers and the general public.