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A year in the making

ET Editor Rebecca Paddick asks the roundtable, after 12 months of coding in the classroom, is the computing curriculum proving successful?

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | August 14, 2015 | Secondary

Contributors:

  • Simon Humphreys, National Coordinator, Computing At School
  • Ruth Sivarajah, Deputy Headteacher at Langafel CofE Primary School
  • Miles Berry, Author of Rising Stars ‘Switched on Computing’
  • Lauren Hyams, Head of Code Club Pro
  • Gemma Sharland, Primary School Teacher and Computing Coordinator
  • Clive Beale, Director of Educational Development, Raspberry Pi Foundation

➙ It’s been almost one year since the computing curriculum was introduced in primary and secondary schools. Have the past 12 months gone as expected? Were there any challenges you didn't envisage?

Simon Humphreys: Introducing a new subject into the curriculum is a major challenge, especially for teachers and school leaders, but whilst the new programme of study has a clear strand of computer science it does not abandon the creative skills nurtured by the previous ICT curriculum. Two of the four aims explicitly concern the purposeful use and application of technology, computer science and ICT are symbiotic and should not be treated in silos. This is one of the challenges we face in schools. To read the press one might think the new curriculum is to give our children coding skills that will equip them for the jobs of the future, the new curriculum is not a ‘coding’ curriculum! If delivered well the new curriculum will make a material contribution to the future knowledge economy but saying computing=coding is like saying natural science=labwork. If the new curriculum ends up being little more than programming it will have failed.

The challenge for the teachers is great, but there are many hundreds of schools who have adopted the new curriculum, provided resource to help teachers access the professional development they require and consequently are seeing the subject embedded in a balanced curriculum. This has not been easy and the key factor reported is time. Time to learn from other teachers, time for self-study, time for training and professional development.

 "To read the press one might think the new curriculum is to give our children coding skills that will equip them for the jobs of the future, the new curriculum is not a ‘coding’ curriculum!"

Ruth Sivarajah: Out of all the subjects in the new curriculum, computing was initially one of the most daunting. Staff knew that they would need to upskill themselves in order to deliver the curriculum effectively to the children. However, some areas have actually been more straightforward than first envisaged. 

I personally have enjoyed learning new techniques such as how to create panoramas and use scratch. Some of the new challenges included using the new terminology correctly such as: algorithms. It has also been a challenge to remember training from courses that have been attended due to the depth of knowledge needed to teach the curriculum! We also needed to order additional resources such as; Raspberry Pi, cameras and Lego kits to name a few in order to deliver the curriculum.

Miles Berry: In primary, the response has exceeded the expectations of many of us, with primary teachers up and down the country doing great work to get children coding with Scratch and other platforms. Students have also been able to develop their understanding of the internet and provide the foundations of computational thinking, due in part to the successes of schemes such as Switched on Computing, Barefoot Computing and QuickStart. The picture in secondary schools is more mixed, I think, with many doing outstanding work and others struggling to recruit or retrain the staff needed to teach this unashamedly ambitious curriculum.

Gemma Sharland: Schools have needed to adjust quickly to the new curriculum expectations, and many schools are still searching for the best way to deliver the new content. Whilst I believe that many teaching professionals have accepted that the changes to the computing curriculum are positive and required, it will naturally take some time for them to feel confident in teaching new principles and associated vocabulary.

The school I teach in has adapted really well to the changes, the children and teachers are enjoying the addition of coding and we have used a scheme of work which is well balanced and easy to use. It will, of course, take us some time to develop a completely effective assessment system, to achieve the best pedagogy appropriate to computer science and to fine-tune our planning. We are currently in a stage of ‘trial and error’, exploring new possibilities and seeing if they will work for us. Computing, as a ‘new’ subject, is certainly the beginning of something wonderful, however, it will need research and refinement for it to be implemented to its maximum potential.

Clive Beale: I think it’s fair to say that no one actually knew what to expect. Computing is effectively a brand new subject at Key Stages 1 to 4 (and has only been offered at GCSE since 2010). This change from ICT to computing happened very quickly and gave rise to this very different and technically-focused subject that very few ICT teachers were trained to deliver. The challenge was always going to be getting teachers up to speed with the new programme of study and giving them the basic skills to start teaching computing. 

➙ From your experience, what has the education sector learned over the last 12 months, and how has it changed?

Simon Humphreys: We’ve learned that we need to help each other. After all, we are asking them to do something that they have never been asked to do before. In the past the DfE would have stepped in with a major teacher training programme. But not this time. So our task is this: to encourage, support, equip and train our existing ICT teachers to deliver the new POS with confidence and enthusiasm. By 'our' task, I mean the entire professional community: teachers, universities, IT professionals, software developers, publishers, training organisations, and so on. Although the term is now out of fashion, it’s a big society thing. CAS is part of that effort, running CPD programmes like QuickStart Computing, the Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science, and Barefoot Computing.

Ruth Sivarajah: That the curriculum is actually harder for teachers to learn than it is for the children! There has been a lot to learn in a short space of time. Top-of-the-range equipment is needed to teach the curriculum effectively when there isn't always the money to do so.

Miles Berry: In terms of computing, there's been a clear message about 'computational thinking': the concepts such as logic, algorithms, decomposition, abstraction and generalisation which form a golden thread running through the computing curriculum. 'Coding' is a means to this end, rather than an end in itself: a minority of pupils will find themselves programming in their future careers, but most, if not all, will face occasions when computational thinking will help them to solve problems or understand systems. 

Gemma Sharland: At first, everyone was putting a lot of energy into the addition of computer programming and the other important elements of computing were perhaps put slightly aside as schools were getting used to the most dramatic change in technology learning. Over the 12 months, at least from my personal experience, this has become a lot more balanced and whilst programming still holds as a focus, there is now equal weighting given to other elements of computing. Coding has been a fantastic addition to the programme of study, and will help children to gain control and creative joy in using technology, however, the other aspects of the new curriculum need to remain a solid feature of children’s technological learning. 

Clive Beale: Schools are beginning to see that computing is an exciting, useful and relevant subject but increasingly there is a realisation that there’s no easy fix and that it’s going to take time to implement it in the curriculum. I suspect that it won’t settle down properly for several years as the first Key Stages to learn computing move up though the system. Only then will computing be an established subject.

➙ How have schools reacted to the change? Have they been onboard with it? Do you think they’ve embraced the changes and coped well 

Ruth Sivarajah: We have fully embraced the new computing curriculum. We've also learnt not to stop the good practice we had before. There is still a place for some of our favourites such as using mathletics to enhance maths teaching and learning across the school.  We have coped well but would benefit from more funding to allow us to have more of the resources that we need. Fifteen computers for 290 children just isn't quite enough! We would like to fully embed computing across the whole curriculum and need more resources to do this.

Miles Berry: In those areas of the country, such as Islington and Havering, where there's still highly effective local authority support, the response from schools has been fantastic, with some great targeted CPD and some really creative projects underway. Elsewhere, it's a mixed picture I think: there are many schools and teachers who've risen to the challenge, developing and implementing highly effective schemes of work for the new curriculum, but others where computing, and indeed the other foundation subjects, has been marginalised, often due to school leaders' perception that Ofsted are only interested in maths and English, rather than the statutory obligation to provide a broad and balanced curriculum.

"Fifteen computers for 290 children just isn't quite enough! We would like to fully embed computing across the whole curriculum and need more resources to do this."

Lauren Hyams: From our perspective, we think schools have reacted positively to the change, and have participated in many different CPD initiatives including our teacher training programme to make sure that every child has the opportunity to learn to code.

Clive Beale: Most teachers we have talked to have been very positive about the changes once they understand what is involved. The media and politicians have made a huge red-herring of coding (“Coding is the new Latin”, “All kids should learn to code” and so on). If you don’t program this is pretty worrying, it’s a scary message. But of course computing at this level isn’t really about coding – it’s about problem solving and collaboration and creativity. 

➙ And what about the students, are they engaging with their new subject?

Simon Humphreys: Yes – when being given the opportunity to do so. One indicator might be the take-up of students for GCSE computer science, from schools we have surveyed we are seeing the numbers increasing from 9,114 in current Year 11 to 16,518 in current Year 10. This is a significant increase.

Ruth Sivarajah: Pupils are excited about their learning and fully engage in this subject. They adapt and pick up concepts quickly – it is actually good to see them learning new skills. In the old curriculum there were often many children who knew it all already! 

Lauren Hyams: We’ve seen from our after-school code clubs running outside of the curriculum that children are extremely engaged in coding and programming. Many students are already confident in using our Scratch projects because they have used the program in their computing classes, and our volunteers who run clubs often report back to us how much children enjoy creating new things and experimenting using code.Schools will develop policies that are meaningful, alive and evolving – rather than collecting dust in a filing cabinet somewhere! 

Gemma Sharland: Absolutely! The students in my school have completely engaged with the new computing curriculum. When I conducted a short survey across all year groups, a large proportion of children stated that computing is their favourite subject and every single child asked was positive about the introduction of coding to the subject. The fact that lots of programming knowledge can be taught through playing and creating games means it is naturally stimulating for children.

When teaching ICT from the old curriculum, children were often already proficient in the things we were teaching and lacked motivation in creating ‘another PowerPoint’. Now, computing has become a subject where they learn new and exciting things through exploration, play and discovery.

Clive Beale: I’ve yet to come across a student who doesn’t respond well to computing, it’s accessible to all abilities and ages. As long as coding is done in a context and with a specific purpose – make a game, write music or set up a wildlife camera for instance – then the engagement tends to be immediate and long-lasting.

➙ Do teaching professionals now consider the skills the curriculum teaches are important to the future career prospects of children?

Simon Humphreys: An elementary understanding of computer science will equip all our pupils to make informed choices in their digital world, and this is important not only for the minority who will become the software engineers of the future, but also those who will become plumbers or lawyers or salespeople. Computing develops a child’s capacity to think in distinctive new ways. 

Miles Berry: The new curriculum is more focused on developing understanding than it is in equipping pupils with particular tech skills as such, so that students will be able to make good use of (and think critically about) the technology that will be around after they leave school. Whilst few, if any, will get jobs programming in Scratch, many will find themselves doing some programming at university and beyond, and most will find that an understanding of how programs are written and how computers operate and communicate will be very useful. 

Lauren Hyams: Many teachers now understand that computational thinking provides children with key skills in problem solving, communication, collaboration and sharing, planning and designing. Our aim is that teachers have the knowledge and confidence to inspire their pupils with the desire and ability to pursue digital making. These skills will be useful to children's future hobbies, schooling or career. 

Gemma Sharland: Most teaching professionals value the fact that technology has a huge role to play in the current and future workplace. Recently, technology-based jobs have seen a shortage of appropriately skilled applicants, leaving a gap in the industry which the new curriculum will equip our children to fill. The new curriculum is broad and balanced, giving focus to important aspects of computing including programming, multimedia, data handling, digital literacy and e-safety. A child who is competent in these elements will acquire a range of relevant and useful skills to utilise in a variety of careers, not limited to just tech sector jobs.

➙ From what we’ve seen over the past 12 months, what changes can we make going into the next academic year to ensure students get the most out of the new curriculum? What could we be doing better?

Simon Humphreys: The key is for the importance of computer science for all pupils to be taken on board by all Head Teachers and senior leadership teams.

We teach physics because we live in a physical world; we teach chemistry because we live in a chemical world. And we believe that is so important that we teach it to every child including the majority who will not become professional scientists. We need to teach the fundamental principles of computer science as these underpin our digital world. Arthur C Clarke famously remarked that any form of sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It is deeply damaging if our children come to believe that their sleek computers are essentially magic: powerful, but under someone else’s control. We want them to create as well as consume, to understand as well as to use. This may be idealistic, but is also realistic. As Douglas Rushkoff put it, the choice is simple: program or be programmed.

"It is deeply damaging if our children come to believe that their sleek computers are essentially magic: powerful, but under someone else’s control."

Ruth Sivarajah: We feel more prepared going into the curriculum for the second year and have learnt what went well this year and what changes we need to make to do an even better job next academic year. 

Miles Berry: Firstly, making sure that every school is teaching computing as part of a broad, balanced curriculum, and that qualifications such as GCSE computing are offered in every school to every student who'd like to pursue them. I'd also like to see that schools teach the whole of the computing curriculum – there's much more to computer science than 'coding', and there's much more to computing than just the computer science bits. Whilst I welcome the renewed focus on the foundations, it's also important that pupils can apply technology to solving problems, and consider critically the implications of technology for themselves and others. 

Lauren Hyams: Ensuring that teachers have the confidence and resources they need to effectively teach the computing curriculum is key. We are working with partners such as Google to offer free training sessions across the country for both current and trainee teachers, so that we can help to support them and give them confidence in their abilities to continue to tackle the curriculum, as well as inspiring their students that coding is a useful and exciting skill to have!

Gemma Sharland: From my experience, there are many teachers who continue to feel unconfident with the changes to the computing curriculum. Programming, in particular, is one area where teachers feel they lack the appropriate skills and knowledge to deliver effective lessons. One way to combat this is to ensure that teachers are offered relevant professional training. Another is for schools’ computing coordinators to offer examples of planning, or schemes of work, which teachers can follow or adapt until they feel more certain of the content. Knowledge of computing vocabulary and awareness of a range of apps, programmes or devices which help to teach computing skills is essential for teachers to enable them to deliver the new curriculum to its highest potential.

Clive Beale: More and better support for teachers in terms of CPD, resources and peer support particularly at Primary level. This is unlikely to come from government, whose response to date has been inadequate, so it’s up to third parties and the schools themselves to continue to do these things. 

Like this roundtable debate? Read another edtech discussion here.

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