One of the selling points of the school I teach at, our marketing department tells me, is that we are one of the few girls’ schools to offer Information Technology as a subject to Matric. But although the number of girls taking IT has doubled in recent years, it is still one of the less popular subject choices. This should not surprise us, as internationally the number of girls opting to study Computer Science has remained low. Far more boys take the subject. The reasons for this gender disparity have been the subject of much debate, and usually revolve around gender stereotyping and how computing has been gendered since the emergence of the pc.
The focus in junior and middle school teaching, while including some robotics and coding, is generally on applications, and most specifically on self-expression through digital technologies. From what I have observed students spend time using computers as tools for communicating their feelings and ideas rather than for learning to code per se. Even when coding platforms like Scratch are used, it is often to create games or tell stories. Stop-frame animation, video creation and digital story-telling platforms are also popular. Office applications likewise are used in creative, rather than business-oriented ways. I find that students really enjoy using PowerPoint to create colourful, graphically pleasing posters and brochures. So, what changes when students get to make a subject choice in grade 10?
Karl Maton (2014) has argued that what you know (a knowledge code) and who you are (a knower code) constitute a set of rules of the game for academic success. By making these rules explicit, rather than keeping them a secret, teachers can grant access to their students.
The diagram below, taken from the LCT website, demonstrates four codes based on the relative strength or weakness of Knowledge (epistemic relations) and Knowing (social relations). These codes broadly define the rules of the game for knowledge practices within particular fields. At an intuitive level we all know that sometimes what you know is important, and sometimes it’s more about how you know, more about your approach or perspective. As a rule of thumb, the Sciences tend to care more about the knowledge, and the Humanities more about the knowing. LCT uses rather difficult terminology and can be tricky to get into, but provides very powerful tools for understanding what happens inside classrooms. The vertical axis indicates the relative importance of knowledge, compared to the horizontal axis showing the relative importance of knowing.
The Knowledge Code indicates that knowledge is important, but the knower is not considered as important. In Science, for example, having the knowledge is the key to success. Your personal background or point of view is largely irrelevant.
The Knower Code is where having the knowledge is not as important as your gaze, your perspective, the way you see things. A literary critic, for example, does not need any specific body of knowledge, but needs to have an appreciation of the canon, a sense of what to look for in a piece of writing.
The Relativist Code is found in fields where no particular knowledge or perspective affords legitimacy. Personal experience and opinion is what counts.
The Elite Code describes success in fields where both the knowledge and the ways of knowing are important. In Architecture, for example, the architect must know why a building will not fall down but must also possess an eye for design.
Understanding these codes allows a teacher to understand the basis for success in each field of specialization and helps us to better understand what is at stake.
I think it would be fair to say then that IT as a junior and middle school subject is mainly characterised by a Relativist and a Knower Code. How you communicate your feelings and ideas to others leads to success in IT at this level. All ideas and feelings are equally valued (Relativist Code), but IT is used as a vehicle for expressing them, and how you go about organising and communicating your ideas forms a Knower Code – a digital gaze if you like. Marc Prensky (2005) has argued that age is the basis for possessing a facility with digital technologies, that if you are born after a certain date you have that code, elusive to older generations. But this idea has been widely debunked. Digital nativity is not based on age alone. Possessing digital dispositions and approaches that facilitate using technology seems to sit with some and not with others. And it is a code that can be taught. In junior and middle school, I would argue, most practices revolve around moving students from a Relativist Code, expressing themselves, towards a Knower Code in which the student is cultivating a digital gaze, a facility with using digital tools to communicate and solve problems. Good students are one who seem to possess an “eye” for using digital tools for communicating their ideas.
By the last three years of high school, by contrast, students make particular subject choices, and if you choose IT as a subject it is focused on programming and on the theory of hardware, software and networking. Subject specific knowledge becomes far more important and there is a code shift towards a Knowledge Code. Students find learning to program a hard skill to master. It feels abstract and self-expression gives way to learning how to solve problems using a machine by designing algorithms and writing code. Given that relatively fewer girls see themselves as taking up a career in IT, this effort might not seem worthwhile in what is perceived of as a hard and time-consuming subject. In any case doing it as a matric subject is not necessary for entrance into a BSc in Computer Studies at University.
It might be the case, in addition, that this shift from a Relavist/Knower to a Knowledge Code is a shift boys are more comfortable making. Perhaps the digital gaze is a somewhat gendered one. Gender stereotypes around the appropriateness of future careers might be creating in boys and girls different digital gazes: one a code match with the Knowledge Code of Computer Science, the other, more geared towards careers in which digital technologies are used for communication and expression (a Knower Code), a code clash with Computer Science.
Maton, K. (2014). Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education. London, UK: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Prensky, M. (2205). Teaching Digital Natives: partnering for Real Learning. Thousand Oaks, California. Corwin.