Teaching ‘theory’ in CAT & why we need to get out of the classroom

Teaching ‘theory’ in CAT & why we need to get out of the classroom

Teaching CAT theory

One of the biggest challenges facing many CAT teachers is the issue of the ‘theory’ and the consistently lower marks achieved by students as compared to the ‘practical’ papers. I have taught CAT for a few years now and have always been baffled by how little my students actually know about the technology that they use on an almost-daily basis.

When I grew up, there was no Google. There was me, the mouse, keyboard and monitor. I clicked, I explored, I broke it, I fixed it. I figured it out as I went along (yep, that includes the Windows registry too!). Years later, I was teaching adults how to fix their mistakes with hardware and software as they were simply too scared that they too would break something! My point is this : pure experience was my teacher, not books or manuals (although they probably would have helped!).

The path less travelled by

Although all the knowledge is there, in their textbook, a  lot of students still seem to insist on choosing one of two paths:

  1. Rote memorisation of facts
  2. Ignore the knowledge and ‘wing it’ in the exam

My problems with the two paths mentioned above are these:

  • We are not teaching students to simply remember facts
  • We are not assessing how well a student can remember information with no understanding
  • Students “miss the mark” (excuse the pun) when it comes to explaining concepts in a theory exam as they lack the understanding of the concept and the means to practically apply it in a real-world scenario
  • “Winging it” results in a scatter-gun approach: blast the paper with as many answers and facts that they can remember and hope that something sticks and gets them a mark or two

The only source of knowledge is experience. – Albert Einstein


Here is my view on why we, as teachers, are seeing lower marks in what we call ‘theory’. The learners are disconnected from reality and the concepts we are teaching. There is no real, tangible demonstration of what we’re teaching and its practical application in real-world scenarios. So, for the learner, it is in fact, just theory – they have nothing to relate it to as they do not see it in actual practice and therefore can make no connection to their own learning experience. This may be the reason a lot of learners approach the study of ‘theory’ with, shall we say, much less enthusiasm!

Students daydreaming!

The word ‘theory’ is first, and foremost, misleading. A theory is an idea, a concept, a formula that needs to be tested before being proven true or becoming a fact. So, we’re already starting on the wrong foot here. A fellow colleague said it used to be called “operational knowledge”. I think that that term is  a much more suitable term because it sums up what we teach. However, that means we have to change how we teach it! AND, we need to change how our learners experience it!

Consider this

The paradox of the young job seeker.
You need a job to get experience. No-one will give you a job, because you don’t have experience.

Let’s relate that to our CAT learners now.

The paradox of the young CAT learner in school.
You need to explain real-world applications of hardware and software management while you’re still in school. You have no experience of real-world applications of hardware and software management, because you’re still in school.

Do you see the problem?

Time to connect

I try to explain to my students that knowledge and experience go together like ice-cream and waffles! You can’t have one without the other. Understanding is the key. Understanding comes through knowledge married with experience. Knowledge alone does not mean that understanding has taken place and you’re just having waffles without any ice-cream (which, in my opinion, is just awful!). We need to disconnect students from the text and images found in books/tablets and get them into real-world environments where they can actually see, hear and touch the the technology we talk about.

It means getting the students out of the computer lab…yes, outside of the classroom!

The proposal

Data centre

I propose field trips for CAT students. I propose contacting some businesses in your area and asking them to get the IT department to sponsor a trip for your students to see everything we talk about. Let the students get some experience themselves in a real-world scenario. Allow them to walk from floor to floor, office to office, tracing network cables, looking at the IT department’s sacred space of Tech Support and after hours gaming marathons! Let the students analyse the printers being used by the various offices and employees. Let them see what phones everyone uses, how their email works, what are the company’s IT policies and what ethical dilemmas are faced by managers and IT admins. Take them to Data centres, ISP’s, the JSE IT dept, banks, doctors offices, hospitals, the vet, the corner store, shopping malls, clothing stores with e-tags on their merchandise…etc.. Let the students run a department for a day with all the technological in’s and out’s that go with it (you’re scared now aren’t you?).

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Get the students out of the class, into the real world to see exactly what it is we’re teaching and preaching about every day! Then, my hope is, that some of the concepts we teach from the textbook will no longer be relegated to head knowledge and rote learning but rather, because of actual engagement with that wonderful thing called experience, some knowledge would be transferred into the realm of understanding and practical application.


Everything I have written sounds great on paper. I am, however, quite familiar with our friend called Reality! Many schools do have have the finances, transport, time, schedules, staff availability to even attempt what it is I am proposing. Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to this ideal. It is, still, just an ideal idea. The curriculum itself is so packed already that a lot of teachers battle just to fit everything into each term, nevermind the whole year! So what is the answer? I don’t know. But, I am willing to try and find out.

Next year (2014) I will be scheduling a few trips out to various locations for my CAT students to allow them to ‘get their hands dirty’. I will focus on my Grade 11’s first. I think Grade 10 might be too early, and Grade 12 too late. I might try a trip with the Grade 10’s but probably for something that will inspire them and give them something to look forward to in Grade 11.

Where to from here?

I need:

  • Ideas
  • Suggestions
  • Input
  • Possible businesses to visit/research
  • Any teachers willing to collaborate and go on a joint venture together perhaps
  • Technology-related businesses that may want to sponsor or host visits

Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts?

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