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A systematic review of primary school teachers’ experiences with digital technologies curricula

Abstract

Many countries around the world have now introduced Digital Technology concepts and pedagogical practices to their primary school curricula to ensure students develop the understanding, competences and values that will enable them to contribute to and benefit from their future labour market and society. This study aimed to explore teachers’ experiences with these curricula in order to understand how teachers can be supported to raise their implementation efforts. An analysis of twenty-three studies across eleven countries was undertaken and found there was a lack of consensus of an appropriate age and approach to introducing Digital Technology concepts within primary schools. Teachers’ Digital Technology self-efficacy, Digital Technology self-esteem/ Digital Technology confidence was seen to greatly influence their implementation, and many challenges to implementation were discussed. Professional Learning and Development was raised as a solution to boost teachers’ confidence and overcome common implementation barriers.

Introduction

Although Computer Science (CS) was first seen in schools in the 1980s, its popularity was short-lived due to the introduction of end-user software and a subsequent emphasis on digital literacy/eLearning/ICTs (Bresnihan et al., 2015; Brown et al., 2014). Fortunately, in the last decade we have seen many countries redeveloping curricula to include technology concepts and pedagogical practices designed to develop students’ “knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that [will] enable them to contribute to and benefit from an inclusive and sustainable future” (OECD, 2018a, p. 4) (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2019; Varoy et al., 2021).

While much of the demand for this resurgence is driven by predicted changes to the labour market caused by general technological advancements, we also face a range of complex global problems, e.g., climate change and ageing populations and find immense pressure is placed on solving these issues through innovative technical solutions (OECD, 2019). With education seen to be the most significant sector for achieving sustainable development goals (UNESCO, 2019), there is additional pressure placed on countries to redevelop and introduce these technology concepts and pedagogical practices to their curricula.

While a range of terms are used globally to describe this redeveloped learning area (e.g.: Computing, Informatics) the term Digital Technologies (DT) is used throughout this article in a general sense to describe the learning area. In the most simplistic terms, DT is learning ABOUT technology, whereas the eLearning/ICT capabilities focus is on learning WITH technology (Ministry of Education, 2018).

More than half of the OECD countries have now developed specific digital education strategies addressing DT goals and priorities, with additional countries prioritising these as part of a broader innovation strategy (van der Vlies, 2020). A range of different approaches to meet these goals have been adopted, with the most common trend to develop curricula which introduce basic DT concepts to primary school students and deliver specific DT courses to secondary school students (Heintz et al., 2016; Krause et al., 2017).

Three general approaches can be seen in a country’s approach to introducing DT content to their primary school curricula: (1) content is introduced as a separate learning area, (2) content is integrated throughout other curriculum learning areas, or (3) a separate learning area is created, but the content is taught through other curriculum areas. These approaches are outlined in Fig. 1 with reference to example countries that follow each practice.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Approaches to Introducing DT Concepts to Primary School Curricula. Note: Figure compiled from information collated from the following sources: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2015; UK Department for Education, 2013; Finnish National Agency for Education, 2016; HITSA: Information Technology for Education, 2012; Ministry of Education, 2017; Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, 2020; The National Agency for Education, 2012; The Republic of Poland, 2009

Most DT curricula have an emphasis on twenty-first-century skill development such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, curiosity, life-long learning, and adaptability (Battelle for Kids, 2019). These are fundamental skills for students to develop alongside their DT knowledge, yet they benefit students across a range of learning areas and are critical components of preparing students for the high-skills information age and demanding labour market of their future (Benade, 2017; Relkin et al., 2021).

Benefits

The benefits of DT education span from an individual level to that of society as a whole. At the individual level, students are provided with increased opportunities to develop skills such as personal agency, problem solving, communication and executive functioning (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2019; Webb et al., 2017). They are given opportunities to apply their knowledge to design, create, test and produce digital solutions to issues that are meaningful to them (Barendsen et al., 2015; European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2019; Reinsfield & Fox-Turnbull, 2020).

Schools are believed to deliver more coherent and relevant learning experiences (Reinsfield & Fox-Turnbull, 2020) which see classrooms improved though heightened student engagement, motivation, and attitudes (Mason & Rich, 2019). Society benefits from creating a labour force that can adapt to changes in the workplace (Barendsen et al., 2015; European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2019) and from having citizens who can design, create, and produce solutions that address ethical, environmental and economic issues (OECD, 2019). Finally, economies are improved through increased economic opportunities bought about by an innovative workforce that can take advantage of trade opportunities (Heintz & Mannila, 2018; Webb et al., 2017).

Challenges

While computational thinking concepts were first taught in education in the 1960s (Rich et al., 2019), DT in its redeveloped form is a reasonably new learning area to both primary and secondary schools (Geldreich & Hubwieser, 2020; Heintz & Mannila, 2018) requiring teachers to develop new knowledge and understandings of technical concepts often with little prior knowledge to base this on (Vivian et al., 2020).

The foundation of DT requires teachers and students to be digitally competent prior to engaging with the DT curriculum content (Garneli et al., 2015), and whilst there has been an emphasis on teachers’ ICT capabilities within education systems for many years now (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2019) a lack of familiarity with ICTs for both teachers and students has been highlighted throughout the Coronavirus pandemic (van der Vlies, 2020).

Adding further to teachers’ challenges is the multifaceted aspect of DT (concepts, skills, principles, ICTs, hardware/software, etc.) and evolving nature of each, which requires teachers to continually upskill to ensure they stay aware of advancements (Johnson et al., 2017; Lindberg et al., 2017; Munasinghe et al., 2021).

Misconceptions surround this learning area due to the changing focus of DT from its vocational Technology beginnings (Funke et al., 2016; Reinsfield, 2018), lack of global agreement on basic concepts within this learning area (Falkner et al., 2019; Garvin et al., 2019), widely recognised male-oriented stereotype (Cheryan et al., 2015; Geldreich & Hubwieser, 2020) and disagreement around the most effective methods to deliver the content (McGarr & Johnston, 2020). Of particular concern is that educators, parents, and students have been seen to develop a range of inaccurate perceptions about the nature and purpose of DT, which affect their attitudes towards teaching and learning DT (Heintz et al., 2016; Hestness et al., 2018; Reinsfield & Fox-Turnbull, 2020; Munasinghe et al., 2021).

Developing the pedagogical approach required to effectively teach DT has also been seen to challenge some teachers set in typically traditional teaching methods (Geldreich & Hubwieser, 2020; Lindberg et al., 2017), and, as yet, there are very few initial teacher education programmes that explicitly teach these pedagogical practices (Cai & Gut, 2020).

Unsurprisingly these challenges have hindered and even ceased some teachers’ implementation of the DT curriculum as they attempt to overcome barriers to deliver the content as intended (Munasinghe et al., 2021; Larke, 2019).

This literature review provides a global insight into the state of DT education in primary school settings. It is anticipated the findings will be used to aid decision making around boosting teachers’ DT implementation, ultimately better preparing students for their future work, life and citizenship (OECD, 2018b).

Method

A systematic literature review process was undertaken following the transparent method set out by Tranfield et al. (2003). This method has been used by other educational technology researchers such as Sarker et al. (2019), Spiteri and Chang Rundgren (2020) and Mantilla and Edwards (2019) to identify any research gaps and link themes across relevant literature on their studied phenomenon. Designed to ensure decisions are informed by rigorous and unbiased evidence, the review process consists of three stages: (1) planning the review, (2) conducting the review, and (3) reporting and dissemination (Tranfield et al., 2003).

Research design

The iterative planning stage consisted of scoping the research area to define, clarify and refine the literature review based on the aim of the study to investigate primary school teachers’ experiences with digital technology curricula. The history of DT from its vocational Technology beginnings was uncovered, and a clear distinction was made between the studied DT phenomenon and the Technology/ICT/eLearning subject.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Initial inclusion and exclusion criteria were developed to limit the review to literature related to the teaching of DT (or equivalent) concepts at a primary school level. After initially scoping the research area, exclusion criteria 2 and 7 were added to ensure selected literature provided empirical evidence from teachers’ perspectives and that additional weighting wasn’t placed on findings from the same research. The final inclusion and exclusion criteria are shown in Table 1.

Table 1 The Procedure for Selecting Studies for the Review Based on Inclusion and Exclusion

Search strategy

The review was conducted in June 2021 through the University of Auckland catalogue, Proquest and Science Direct databases. Each database was searched using the following terms (“Digital Technologies” OR “Information Technologies” OR “Digital Literacy” OR “Computing” OR “Computational thinking” OR “Computer Science” OR “Informatics” OR “Informatiks” OR “Computation” OR “ICT” OR “Information and Communications Technology” OR “Technology” OR “Computational Thinking” AND “school” OR “primary” OR “education” OR “curriculum” OR “teacher” OR “pedagogy”.Footnote 1 Further searches were undertaken adding the name of countries that were identified as having DT components within their curriculum to the search string.

After conducting the searches and removing any duplicate articles, the inclusion and exclusion criteria were used to examine the article title firstly, then the abstract and finally the entire article to uncover publications relevant to this review. This process enabled the quick removal of articles that did not meet the specific criteria developed in the planning stage yet was thorough enough to ensure that those that were relevant were not mistakenly dismissed. Many journals were quickly eliminated as the title and abstract suggested they related to eLearning rather than DT.

Results

Twenty-three articles across 11 countries were found to (1) be relevant to the scope of this literature review as outlined in the selection criteria, (2) have employed high-quality research methodologies and (3) have undergone a peer-review process. A summary is provided in Table 2.

Table 2 Overview of Selected Literature Ordered According to Author Name and Publication Year

Findings

The following five themes emerged from the thematic analysis.

Introduce DT concepts to primary school-aged students

Within the reviewed literature, the following countries were referenced as introducing DT curriculum at a primary school level (or younger); United Kingdom, Poland, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, USA and New Zealand (Duncan et al., 2017; Funke et al., 2016; Sentance & Csizmadia, 2017; Vivian et al., 2020).

Cited benefits of this approach included (1) students learn to be creative with technology (Funke et al., 2016), (2) students are able to develop a positive image of DT before stereotypes and a negative attitude towards DT generally (Bower & Falkner, 2015; Funke et al., 2016), (3) tapping into students’ interests by teaching DT skills across learning areas, and (4) increased learning outcomes, self-esteem and motivation (Geldreich & Hubwieser, 2020).

Critics of this approach believe that students at a primary school level do not have the required cognitive abilities (including mathematical and literacy skills) to understand abstract DT concepts (Ng, 2017; Sentance & Csizmadia, 2017). Emphasis was also placed on how primary aged students lacked the psychological skills, social skills, problem-solving skills and resilience to complete complicated DT skills and interact safely with ICTs (Sentance & Csizmadia, 2017; Larke, 2019; Ng, 2017). Furthermore, they suggest that many primary school teachers lack the foundational knowledge on which to build their understanding and teach DT effectively (Falkner et al., 2019; Vivian et al., 2020), which causes challenges for governments in ensuring both in-service and beginning primary school teachers are fully supported to implement the DT curriculum (Falkner et al., 2019).

Integrate DT concepts across learning areas

The literature review revealed 12 articles that discussed the approach of integrating DT across learning areas, as outlined in Fig. 1.

Advocates for this approach claim DT lends itself well to be integrated within other learning areas because (1) there are many connections with mathematics and problem-solving concepts (Duncan et al., 2017; Funke et al., 2016), (2) it enhances learning in other areas, (3) it aids students’ competency development, (4) it has a smaller impact on classroom time than the creation of a whole new subject area would (Bower et al., 2017; Duncan et al., 2017), (5) planning and integration is simple as students generally have the same primary teacher across learning areas (Duncan et al., 2017; Vivian & Falkner, 2019) and (6) this approach aids teachers’ understanding that DT skills are transferable beyond the DT learning area (Chang & Peterson, 2018; Duncan et al., 2017).

Alternatively, Bower and Falkner (2015) claim teachers require specific pedagogical skills to integrate DT within learning areas effectively, and Chang & Peterson (2018) suggest current teachers have not been given guidance to develop these skills and are not prepared to teach this way. Larke (2019) raised further concerns regarding teachers’ abilities to translate the curriculum into lesson plans that meet the learning objectives for both DT and the learning area DT is being integrated with.

Additional concerns were raised against this approach due to the (1) undervaluing of DT as a distinct discipline on par with Maths or English (Bower & Falkner, 2015; Larke, 2019), (2) belief it gives rise for teachers to develop misconceptions about what DT really is (Corradini et al., 2017) and (3) belief it can lead to aspects of DT becoming lost (Bower & Falkner, 2015). Finally, Pears et al. (2017) claim that developing curricula that integrate CT components requires long term systematic work to ensure its effective implementation.

Factors impacting DT implementation

The major factors described in the literature to influence teachers’ development of DT knowledge and DT implementation were found to fall into the following six themes: (1) support, (2) curriculum, (3) Professional Learning and Development, (4) teacher, (5) limited DT research and (6) resources. Like the work of education researchers Lamb and Branson (2015), Valsiner’s (1997) zone framework was used to analyse the factors and themes uncovered in this review.

Vygotsky’s (1987) Zone of Proximal Development theory is commonly used in education to recognise the learning that occurs when students master new skills and concepts (often with support) that have not previously been studied but are still within their reach. Valsiner’s (1997) zone theory builds on this by recognising that the quality of learners’ Zone of Proximal Development varies widely. Valsiner extended Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory to include the Zone of Free Movement (ZFM) and Zone of Promoted Action (ZPA), which consider, respectively, the goals and actions of the learner as well as their social setting (Goos, 2009). This theory assumes that learning takes place within the intersection of all three zones, as shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Valsiner’s Zones. Note. From “Exploring numeracy teacher identity: An adaptation of Valsiner’s zone theory” by Bennison & Goos (2013, p. 4). Copyright 2013 by Crown AARE

Table 3 categorises the factors found in the literature review to impact teachers’ development of DT knowledge and DT implementation into Valsiner’s (1997) three zones. The teacher as learner definition of zones often applied in educational research to investigate teachers’ response to change was used within this analysis (Bennison & Goos, 2013).

Table 3 Factors Impacting Teachers’ Development of DT Knowledge and/or DT Implementation Categorised by Valsiner’s Zone Theory

Analysing the reviewed literature using Valsiner’s Zone lens provides an outline of the varying facets influencing teachers’ development of DT knowledge and their implementation efforts. It highlights the holistic support that teachers need to develop their DT knowledge and boost their implementation.

DT misconceptions

More than half the reviewed articles described DT misconceptions and gender/racial stereotypes held by teachers, students, caregivers, and the wider community. The underlying causes of confusion around the purpose and importance of DT were attributed to the evolution of technology from its vocational beginnings (Reinsfield & Fox-Turnbull, 2020) and the newness of the topics for many teachers (Duncan et al., 2017). Other misconceptions described throughout the reviewed literature related to beliefs that (1) DT is just programming (Duncan et al., 2017), (2) DT is simply teaching “with” technology (Bower et al., 2017; Falkner et al., 2019; Yadav et al., 2017), (3) computational thinking is only relevant to the CS learning area (Chang & Peterson, 2018), and (4) computational thinking is just problem solving (Yadav et al., 2017). Additionally, the jargon associated with this learning area was seen to contribute to teacher and student misconceptions and misunderstandings of technical aspects (Munasinghe et al., 2021).

Concerningly, the review revealed that teacher misconceptions often led them to interpret and introduce DT ideas incorrectly, miss picking up student misconceptions (Duncan et al., 2017) and, in some cases, not implement the DT curriculum at all (Munasinghe et al., 2021; Larke, 2019). Funke et al. (2016) described the long-term impact of these misconceptions on high schools and universities, who are required to counteract students’ misunderstandings and stereotypes towards CS in order to generate demand for this important learning area.

While the importance of addressing DT misconceptions was dominant throughout all the relevant literature, only four articles provided potential solutions. Bower et al. (2017) and Duncan et al. (2017) both believed teachers’ misconceptions were best addressed within DT Professional Learning and Development. Yadav et al. (2017) stated that connecting teachers to skills and resources was the most appropriate approach to dispel misconceptions and Funke et al. (2016) believed introducing DT concepts to students at an early age would help to foster a positive image of DT before misconceptions and stereotypes had a chance to develop.

Teachers’ DT self-efficacy/DT self-esteem/DT confidence

Within education, teachers DT self-efficacy, self-esteem and confidence have been shown to effect long term change due to the influence they have on teachers’ motivation (Mannila et al., 2018), behaviour (Bower et al., 2017; Mannila et al., 2018), commitment to teaching DT (Bower et al., 2017; Rich et al., 2020), and perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity (Mannila et al., 2018; Rich et al., 2021). Vital to this technical learning area, Vivian & Falkner (2019) found teachers with higher DT confidence used technical language and referenced learning objectives more than those with lower levels.

Throughout the articles within the literature review, many factors were seen to affect a teachers’ DT self-esteem/self-efficacy/confidence, including teachers’ background skills, knowledge, confidence, their beliefs around DT (Rich et al., 2020; Rich et al., 2021), experiences teaching DT (Bower et al., 2017), support from parents, students, school leadership teams, opportunities to observe other teachers (Bower et al., 2017; Vivian et al., 2020) and their self-evaluation of what is ‘good enough’ (Vivian et al., 2020).

Vivian and Falkner (2019) noted that females (comparative to males), primary teachers (comparative to secondary teachers), and teachers with no CS teaching experience (against those with CS teaching experience) had lower CS self-esteem than their counterparts with the differences attributed to the newness of CS to primary schools and teachers’ lack of experience with this learning area.

Manilla et al. (2018) discovered that teachers were seen to hold similar levels of self-efficacy across all digital competency areas, e.g., teachers with low DT self-efficacy had low competencies across all DT areas and vice versa. This led them to claim that teachers with different self-efficacy (low, medium, high) have very different learning needs that are not met by one-size-fits-all Professional Learning and Development. Conversely, Duncan et al. (2017) and Rich et al. (2021) found that teachers’ confidence did, in fact, relate to the specific DT concept investigated, with Rich et al. (2021) finding teachers were less confident in their knowledge of functions, conditions, variables, abstraction and decomposition.

Rich et al. (2021) found that, after undertaking a yearlong Professional Learning and Development course teachers experienced increased confidence for teaching CT and coding. Supporting this, teachers taking part in Bower et al.’s (2017) research initially reported that the biggest impact on their DT implementation was a lack of confidence teaching CT, whereas, after attending a one-day CT workshop, this had shifted, and they claimed insufficient resources was now their biggest challenge.

Teachers’ DT self-esteem has also been shown to increase alongside students’ success with DT learning, suggesting that (1) teachers should give implementation a go even if they lack confidence with this learning area and (2) Professional Learning and Development should be long-term and allow opportunities for teachers to concurrently teach DT with their students (Rich et al., 2021).

Collectively these studies outline the urgent need to raise teachers’ confidence to teach DT through the provision of Professional Learning and Development and resources in order to provide students with learning opportunities reflective of the twenty-first century (Bower et al., 2017; Rich et al., 2021).

Discussion and conclusion

DT education has the ability to develop students’ understanding, competencies and beliefs to ensure they can benefit from and contribute to the complex society and demanding labour market of their future. This literature review found numerous challenges unique to DT impacting teachers’ implementation and a lack of consensus on appropriate approaches to introducing these concepts to primary school curricula.

This review highlighted that DT learning increases primary school students’ creativity, confidence, attitudes, and interest in DT (Bower & Falkner, 2015; Funke et al., 2016; Geldreich & Hubwieser, 2020), although concerns around primary aged students’ ability to comprehend particular DT concepts (Larke, 2019; Ng, 2017; Sentance & Csizmadia, 2017) and fears primary school teachers lack the ability to effectively implement the new curriculum were raised (Falkner et al., 2019; Vivian et al., 2020).

While following a cross-curricula approach was believed to result in enhanced learning across multiple areas of students’ lives (Chang & Peterson, 2018; Duncan et al., 2017), it does requires specific skills for planning and teaching (Bower & Falkner, 2015; Corradini et al., 2017; Larke, 2019; Pears et al., 2017) to ensure DT concepts are not lost, underrepresented, or misinterpreted (Bower & Falkner, 2015; Larke, 2019). Concerningly, Chang and Peterson (2018) believe teachers are yet to be given the necessary support to develop this pedagogy.

This literature review found the majority of factors influencing teachers’ DT implementation come from a personal level rather than from within teachers’ social setting. Relating this discovery with the work of Bower et al. (2017) and Duncan et al. (2017) leads us to believe that the most efficient way to support teachers’ implementation is by addressing challenges and misconceptions through Professional Learning and Development. This literature review found very little research that analysed the type of Professional Learning and Development delivered, and no literature was found that compared different models of Professional Learning and Development or the long-term impact of the Professional Learning and Development on teachers’ implementation. Further studies are needed to understand the effect of different Professional Learning and Development models on teachers’ DT implementation to inform decision making around boosting teachers’ implementation.

This literature review provides a thorough examination of primary school teachers’ experiences with DT curricula across eleven countries and provides an understanding of the issues impacting teachers’ implementation. It recognises the role education and DT curricula, in particular, has in preparing students to be active and contributing participants in a sustainable future and highlights recommendations on how teachers’ implementation can be supported further.

Notes

  1. Truncation was used on relevant keywords to broaden the results to include various word endings and different spellings.

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Correspondence to Lynley Rose Stringer.

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Stringer, L.R., Lee, K.M., Sturm, S. et al. A systematic review of primary school teachers’ experiences with digital technologies curricula. Educ Inf Technol (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-022-11127-z

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Keywords

  • Digital technologies
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Self-efficacy
  • Implementation
  • Professional Learning and Development