Computing heritage at risk
On 6th August 2011, Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, delivered the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, and with it a ruinous assessment of the UK education system’s provision of ICT and computer training. In his speech he expressed shock that computer science was not being taught as standard in schools and lamented that the country which invented photography and TV was limiting innovation, teaching children only about the use of software rather than how it was created, resulting in a loss of what he referred to as Britain’s ‘computing heritage’.
Nor was his voice in isolation. Increasing criticism from businesses such as Microsoft highlighted an ‘IT gap’ as they struggled to find people with appropriate skills in technology and programming. In 2010, The Royal Society began an inquiry into computing in schools that led to the publishing of the report Shut down or Restart? that found, amongst other things, problems in the delivery of ICT in schools, often focused only on digital literacy due to the majority of teachers having little or no knowledge of computing. The Guardian newspaper began a Digital Literacy campaign in 2012 ‘to upgrade computer science, IT and technology teaching in schools’. And individuals, education establishments and businesses everywhere started devising how a new and improved curriculum might look, often placing increasing importance on computer science and children learning programming and coding skills (see Martin Saunders, Computing at Schools, Teacher Network, The Observer’s open letter to Michael Gove).
And so the Education Minister Michael Gove responded. In a press release in January 2012 he referred to Eric Schmidt’s comments and described the ICT curriculum as ‘children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers’ and scrapped it, placing the responsibility of what and how to teach computer science with the teachers and making ICT provision part of the National Curriculum review. He called on universities and businesses to create their own curricula. The Royal Academy of Engineering and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, constructed a draft proposing that not just digital literacy but also basic programming should be taught to children from as early as 5 years old and right the way through primary school (click here for a copy of the draft).
What resulted from this freedom to curriculum design was an explosion of blogs, coding clubs, apps and other software that aimed to offer creative and engaging ways to teach computer science:
- The Raspberry Pi, a cheap
credit card-sized computer designed expressly to support the teaching of programming for children. (For ideas on Raspberry Pi and how it can be used click here.)
2. Scratch is a free online programming language to teach children language associated with programming and coding. By creating their own animations and games children learn how to create software rather than just using it. For an example of Scratch being used to create a game click here
4. Big businesses also got on board. BBC launched a campaign to ‘get Britain coding’ and Google have collaborated with Raspberry Pi, funding workshops for teachers on how to use them in the classroom and recently producing free software to enable users to learn about Java, HTML and other aspects of coding
National Curriculum 2014
It should have been no surprise therefore when, in September 2013, Michael Gove released the new 2014 curriculum for ICT, changing its name to ‘Computing’, and placing greater emphasis on computer science. In the Purpose of Study section of the new curriculum for Computing, it indicates quite clearly a drastic move away from the old style ICT and digital literacy, stating:
The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work, and how to put this knowledge to use through programming
(DfE 2013, p.178)
Children in Key stage 1 are expected to learn about algorithms and how they are used to control devices in the world around them through programming, and that these programs follow a set of instructions that have to be exact and ‘unambiguous’ and explore what happens when these instructions are incorrect. (For a comic illustration of what an algorithm is, see the clip below):
Using this knowledge of algorithms they are then expected to create their own programs and be able to debug them. For an excellent example of this being taught in primary school, watch Phillip Bagge’s class programming him to make a jam sandwich:
In Key Stage 2, children are expected to display an even greater depth of understanding;
design, write and debug programs that accomplish specific goals, including controlling or simulating physical systems; solve problems by decomposing them into smaller parts
use sequence, selection, and repetition in programs; work with variables and various forms of input and output
(DfE 2013, p.179)
And again, evidence of what this is can be seen in various forms throughout Scratch, which offers the chance to view the inside of the programs for yourself (click on the picture below) and get an idea of the kind of computational thinking involved.
It’s possible to see within the curriculum that digital literacy is still considered to be important, including the ability to use technology appropriate to the task and to be able to look critically at different types of digital media, and e-safety is prominent throughout KS1 and 2, but these have definitely taken a back seat in favour of children becoming programmers and learning about this from an early age.
Why teach children to code and program?
The importance placed on children being able to code and program and the support that this has had from a variety of sources cannot be denied. But why is this indepth knowledge of computer science considered necessary? Is it just to fill the skills gap as identified by Microsoft and create an army of programmers?
In a word, no. As well as learning programming skills and how to take your computer apart and fix it, there are also the soft skills and thinking that are learned that can be applicable to daily life.
Creativity is a word that is used a lot when referencing the new computing curriculum. By teaching children different programming languages we are allowing them to be not just software users but to become designers of digital technologies. Through online communities such as Flowol and Kodu, children can take their imagination and realise it in the form of visual games and online tools. Programming provides a digital freedom of expression and the tools to represent yourself how you want in what is fast becoming a world where people only meet, collaborate and innovate with each other online. And look what can be created once you become started:
Obviously, not everyone who learns how to program will become the next Mark Zuckerberg but there are other skills that you gain. Reference is also made to Computational Thinking i.e. the ability to reason logically, follow a sequence, in essence to think like a computer, a style of thought process highly relevant in the subjects Maths and Science but also applicable to simple activities in our daily lives e.g. cooking a meal and ensuring everything finishes on time (parallel processing).
The debugging of programs also requires a high degree of problem solving, as children have to diagnose and then correct mistakes in their own programming, perhaps when using a BeeBot in KS1 or making changes to their video game in Scratch in KS2.
But lastly, the classroom is supposed to reflect the outside world and provide children with the necessary skills and knowledge to live successfully in it. The outside world is one where digital technologies dominate every aspect of our lives and it’s important that children are given the tools to be able to understand and also influence how they are created and the effect that they have on us. Here Sir Tim Berners-Lee talks about the future of the internet and the importance of children’s involvement through programming.
The difficulty comes not in deciding whether to teach computer science but how and, most importantly, if current teachers have the necessary skills and understanding to teach the next generation of programmers. General media (TES blog, Telegraph), a rise in the creation of courses, both free and costly, on how to teach computing, and a plethora of guides created by institutes and organisations such as Computing at School [pdf], the Association for Information Technology in Teacher Education [guide], and soon the Codeacademy’s website of resources, would seem to suggest that this is not going to be an easy subject to teach.
But there are lots of examples on the web of teachers confidently or at least willingly teaching computing and using digital technologies cross-curricula and it’s important that as teachers we start using the professional community we are part of, through Twitter, Facebook, following recommended blogs, Teachers’ Media, TES and professional forums for ideas and support as we embrace this subject. To begin go to Teaching and Learning: The place of digital technology in the classroom for ideas and a critique of ICT in the classroom.
DfE (2013), The national curriculum in England: key stages 1 and 2 framework document, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/260481/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_11-9-13_2.pdf, accessed 19th November 2013