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?


  1. One thing I found on an outing, is that there is often not a lot to see. An ISP is just racks of routers and switches and people behind monitors. To learn what is happening they end up back in class.

    I was so excited to show students the virtual tour of Google. But they were bored stiff and stopped watching halfway through.

    I also find students so exam conscious that will only watch a movie if it is in the exam.

    Are there any good animations on how computers work?

    • That is why I think we need to plan these outings to include various options and work with the businesses to provide a ‘tour’ that continues to stimulate teenage minds (yes, I know, mission impossible!)

  2. Matt, I agree wholeheartedly with you. Perhaps a way around the costs dilemma would be to video your trips ( and anyone else who manages to go) and share these. At least we get a vicarious trip – better than none! Perhaps it could be part of a PAT project? Something along the lines of creating and advertising field trips for the public? Students could be sent in groups to different depts with different briefs? In taking the video and editing it, your students will relearn what they saw and this could consolidate knowledge while also opening them up to what other groups saw and documented?

    • Very good ideas there. I intended to film and blog about every field trip taken, so watch this space!

  3. If you are near Universities – that would be your first stop. In my experience the Computer Science Depts are really helpful and can share so much of value.
    Link up with local IT and networking commercial companies and aske them if you can be present when they do their next installation – laying cables etc – would also make an interesting experience.

    I think you have made a very valuable point about the “real world” and I am definitely going to tackle something like this next year. I took my IT Grade 10’s to PE NMMU last term and it certainly inspired them – worth the 3 hour trip from Knysna! Also what a helpful and inspiring Computer Science department.

    • Thanks for the input there Lex, I shall be contacting Wits and UJ for next year and probably Pretoria as well.

    • Good day,
      I have taken students to universities before – I had worked at Stellenbosch University a few years earlier and they were very willing to show us around. We say lots of flashing lights and yellow fibre optic cables but this kids did not really relate to what they saw.
      I realise that we had most of the kit we say at SUN right in our own school. We then started having “outings” to the server room. This they found much more meaningful for them because we could tell them what each component did where at SUN it was far more “black box”.
      For a number of years, I used a local Wine Estate as the basis for the PAT task. They had to produce something that would assist the estate which had restaurants, wine sales, tours and a guest house. This made the project so much more tangible for them.
      They all went on work shadow in Grade 11. Before they left I prepared them to look for IT systems where they were working and they had to come back and tell the class about them and suggest ways to improve what they were doing at the business. I also piggy-backed off outings that the geography and economics departs ran as questions about how IT was being used in these businesses.

  4. I am in. I was keen to try some flipped classroom teaching for various sections next year and this would be a great way to get going. Ill chat to our IT service provider, they supply and run many IT departments at schools as well as companies. I’m sure that they would be happy to accommodate us. I don’t, unfortunately have any grade 11s next year but will tag along with grade 10 or 12. Sure I also have some students with parents in companies that would help.

  5. Matt I love the road trip idea. Problem for me is that you do not see alot with these(It kids benefit more than CAT kids) . I have used funny quircky youtube vidoes.(Takes ages to find the good ones.). The kids seem to love the videos and our marks this term went up with average 7%. Small increase but a good start.

    I think sometimes kids these days are scared to be wrong and do not ask questions. They would like to know the answers from the get go. We do quizzes which I create online and kids answer them. I also use a suggestion or question box. I get all the questions that kids are too scared to ask and they write it without their names and we have every week a suggestion box answer day

    • Thanks so much for the input Louis, some nice ideas there. Finding good videos does take time. I’m going to try the field trip idea next year and see what I can organise. Perhaps even having a day where industry pros come to the school to talk about the stuff we learn about perhaps…

    • No need to do this from scratch – I am sure you have many “retired” devices that can be used for a strip and rebuild project. If you document the process you have a web site taks right there.