Thursday, January 12, 2012

Computing in schools

...Well, Computing in English schools.

So many things I've been meaning to write about but just not finding the time. Couldn't let this one go without comment though. Today, it was widely reported that Michael Gove, the education secretary for England, announced that the current ICT curriculum is "demotivating and dull" and a "mess". (See for example, School ICT to be replaced by computer science programme and Michael Gove to scrap 'boring' IT lessons.)

Computers by amberlynnlane
Computers, a photo
by amberlynnlane on Flickr.
Three comments. One: it's about time. I reported the the extreme grumpiness expressed when Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, spoke at at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in January 2011 (see The creative and digital economy). The grumpiness was not with Mr Vaizey, the techno-savvy auidence was largely in agreement with what he said. The grumpiness was directed at Mr Gove and can be seen in two of the three questions I managed to capture:

Q: Why is there no one from Department of Education here?
Q: Why was technology/computing not mentioned by Gove?
While Mr Vaizey was talking about the "digital economy" and the importance of game design, Mr Gove was talking about Latin and the Kings and Queens of England. In November 2011, when the government finally got around to commenting on a report published in February 2011 (Next Gen - Transforming the UK into the world's leading talent hub for the video games and visual effects industries), there appeared to finally be an acknowledgement of the importance of a Computing curriculum in schools (see for example 'Seismic shift' in computer education), as well as some attempt to make a distinction between ICT and Computing.

Two: I think Mr Gove is still hugely underestimating what children can do with technology. He is quoted as saying:
"...we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch."
Never mind "could have", it is amazing what 11 year-olds are already doing with Scratch! And not just 11 year-olds but children much younger than that too. And as for "simple" have a look what an 11 year-old has already done and tell me it's "simple"!

Scratch Project

Three: In Scotland, we have had a Computing curriculum for over thirty years and have trained and qualified teachers in Computing teachers since the mid eighties but we are not without our problems. We too are seeing falling numbers of pupils taking the subject and see reports of children bored in the early years of secondary school with courses that lack relevance, excitement and challenge. Seeing that there is a problem is important. Knowing how to fix it is trickier. It's something we have been wrestling with in Scotland for some time. I wonder though if English and Scottish Computing education people are talking to each other?

What do you think? How do we develop an appropriate computing curriculum for schools and how do we re-engage the pupils that we have managed to put off the subject? Any thoughts?


John said...

Hi David,
On point 2 There is lot to think about before we can bring scratch from the fringe to the mainstream in primary.
I think the 11 year old would need the support of a teacher who either could use scratch or was happy with pupils going somewhere beyond them AND knew how to show them the resources to help them.
I imagine we would need to think about the amount to time consumed by coding. In my limited experience a good wee idea can hit a problem and fill up the rest of the day/week. If we could get to the point where every pupil had an experience of simple scratch in the classroom for a couple of sessions then the teachers might be happy letting their pupil head into unknown territories.

David said...

Hello John

In terms of full scale roll out - yes, there is some way to go. I think you are right in saying that teachers need to develop more confidence with Scratch and learn to see what it is capable of before it will get more widespread use.

I introduced Scratch to some BEd students yesterday and after playing with it for an hour or so, I think some of them were beginning to see the possibilities - but programming (even with a brilliant tool like Scratch) is a time consuming and fiddly process and if they are going to get confident enough to use it in class, most will need more time and more support.

I think my main concern with point 2 though was the limited nature of Mr Gove's ambition. He seemed unaware of what children, some younger than 11 are already doing with Scratch with little or no support. If his plan to get trained teachers working on an invigorated Computing curriculum is successful, think what pupils will be able to do with support and encouragement.

Mr T said...

Hi David,

Good writeup of yesterday's developments! Regarding point 3, you are quite correct in pointing out that Scotland is not without its' problems. However, it might be worth mentioning that many computing teachers are eagerly working away at ensuring new, exciting, and most importantly relevant courses are being delivered with the implementation of CfE. Indeed, we have a whole unit based around Scratch programming in S2 now, and have long since ditched "boring" ICT content!

Much of the hard lobbying in England has been done by a group called Computing at School who seem to be getting the important distinction between CS and ICT across, and really importantly seem to be succeeding in convincing politicians and school governors that CS is a vitally important part of the curriculum. There's still a long way to go, but it's certainly going in the right direction!

In Scotland too, the former SIoCE has joined forces with CAS to create 'CAS Scotland' - same principles as the main CAS i.e. a grass-roots teacher movement aimed at improving CS education and advocating the subject. I'd encourage all your readers to support this, especially current and prospective computing teachers! Full details of how to join are at

It's starting to look like a good time to be a computing teacher again :-)



Mosher said...

The upcoming National 4 and National 5 certifications at least take some of the ICT out of the Computing certification courses and replace them with actual computing. Of course, this comes at the cost of a variety of courses as we're effectively merging Computing Studies with Information Systems.

Computing needs to be relevant and I think that's been the problem for a while now. The existing arrangements are, to varying degrees, just out of date. They still refer to floppy discs which some of the S3 and S4 kids I teach have never seen except when they're dug out of a filing cabinet for demonstration.

Computing must be a nightmare for the examining bodies as it does move so quickly. What's bleeding edge technology one year is bargain basement tat five years later. From what I can tell, it's unusual for a syllabus to be updated more than once every five years in Scotland and it takes that long to draft them that they're going to be permanently running behind.

The only time we ever mention social media in the class is during informal discussion or covering internet safety with the younger pupils. We shouldn't just be talking about it, we should be using it. And no, GLOW doesn't count.

We are supposed to be teaching responsible use, and this is impossible if we can't use the things we're supposed to be telling the kids to handle responsibly! It's like teaching someone to drive by pointing at a large Tonka car and trying to explain it.

I also think we need to give younger children more credit regarding their intelligence. Scratch is a wonderful resource and I would happily state that 90% of my S1 classes currently using it are loving it. However, I do think that purely text-based programming should be introduced a little earlier, even if it's by "copy and run" methods in the first instance.

That's how I learned to program - aged 8. It's how a huge number of today's software developers learned. Look where it got Bell, Braben and the Darling brothers. Perhaps therein is the differentiation for classes - push those who are getting bored with Scratch into a more mature programming environment sooner.

ICT still needs to be on the curriculum, though, and it needs to be done better. I have pupils in S4 who can't draft answers to questions on a Word document without using obscure fonts with a point size of 28, in pink, with all the text centred. All they've ever used it for is posters.

David said...

Hello Mr T

I think you are right, and I hope I didn't imply that here in Scotland we were in as bad, or a worse state than England. In fact, I think the fact that we have had Computing teachers, with Computing qualifications for some years now puts us in a strong position and means that the sort of grass roots movement you talk about has a real chance to make a positive impact.

Thanks too for the link to CAS Scotland.

David said...

Hello Mr Mosher

I must admit, I'm not sad to see two courses merging back into one. We are a new and relatively small subject and I think having a single course and a single name will help us assert out identity more effectively.

I think the difficulty of accessing the tools/sites we need to is probably the topic for a different post but I like the Tonka toy analogy and my steal it and use it myself!

I think Scratch is brilliant for introducing programming to non-computing specialists and so is ideal for primary and S1/2. I think a case could also be made to continue to use it with pupils studying a Computing course but who are not intending to go onto Higher. But yes, introducing "proper coding" is important for some pupils - I suppose the trick is identifying which pupils are which! As for how you and I (and many others) learned to program back in the day, have you seen any of the stuff about David Braben and the Raspberry Pi? I think it sounds like a brilliant idea.

Finally (what a long comment you left Mr Mosher!) I think there is a danger we could throw out the ICT baby with the bathwater. While I want to make a distinction between ICT and Computing, I have no time for the but-digital-natives-can-do-it-all-already brigade. It think the ICT/Computing distinction is analogous to the literacy/English or the numeracy/Maths distinction. Nobody suggets that English as a subject does not have a role in developing literacy but nor do they suggest that it is all that English should do. The trick, I guess, is finding the right balance and at the moment, I think we need to swing the balance a bit more towards Computing.

Mosher said...

Heard of Pi? I'm checking the website every day so I can order my Model A! One of my hopes is that it can handle a small network server OS, so I could consider using a couple of them to make the Networking option for Higher a possibility.

While the new combined subject may streamline things, one thing I don't like about it is the name. It reads "Computing" and "Information Studies". What are Information Studies? Why not just be honest about the merge and call it Computing And Information Systems, which is essentially what it is?

I'm worried we're making the ICT assumption you suggested. Several years ago, ICT courses were all over the place and pretty much mandatory. When I started my first degree I *had* to attend a series of classes on how to use Word, etc. Attendance was mandatory to pass the first year as a whole. In fairness I ended up *lecturing* the flipping thing when the person on charge was off sick but all the same.

A few years later and every household has a computer so the assumption seems to be that all kids can use them. At this time, it seems the basic ICT courses have all been withdrawn as, well, who needs them?

All well and true, but there's a difference between knowing their way around facebook and being able to craft a structured document or well-laid out presentation.

One thing my PT has suggested is bringing in something like PC Passport as an option for S5 who aren't doing Computing. ICT skills are so important to school leavers these days - irrespective of the industry they're going into - and, frankly, I worry about the ability of some of the pupils we deal with daily.

Peter Donaldson said...

Hi David,

I would agree with Mark's sentiment that now is a good time to be a Computing teacher but only if we clearly convey the idea that Computing is a fundamental discipline with its own set of distinct and extremely useful principles.

A succinct description could be "Computing is the study of artificial and natural information processes and how they can be represented and modelled computationally. Creative use of the skills and concepts developed greatly magnifies the impact that individuals can make in all spheres of human endeavor and should form a meaningful part of every childs basic education."

If you'd like to help get this message out to pupils, parents and others in education and help to improve the perception and the practice of our subject please use the details at and join us.

We look forward to seeing you,
Peter Donaldson

Membership Secretary
CAS Scotland

Mosher said...

Peter - thanks for that. I think I may sign our HT up for it ;)

In a way, I think the new N4/N5 qualifications are helping somewhat as they're stripping a lot of the ICT out. Spreadsheets are being farmed out to Accounting (I believe) where they belong, and Word Processing to Business Studies - subjects where they're actually *used*.

At least we have the benefit of teaching kids how to program from as early as primary school, and formally through Standard and Int2 which makes a laughing stock of the English system - which is only just realising that it may, indeed, be a useful skill. I often wonder what they fill their syllabus with, if there's no programming on there.

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