Computer thinking for the future

Miles Berry explains computer science may not be a feature in every pupil’s future, but the skills gained from learning will still hold importance

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?

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.

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

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.

Whilst few, if any [children] 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.

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

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 under way. 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.

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

By placing computer science on the curriculum, it’s become an entitlement for all pupils (in local authority schools, at least), rather than just the preserve of a geeky or academic few. This is very positive, but brings its own challenges. By making the learning curve for programming very gentle, starting with Bee Bots or their like, then a few years of Scratch in primary schools before students are introduced to text-based programming in Python or something similar, teachers can do much to ensure all their students are engaged with and achieving in computing, whilst allowing plenty of scope for the brightest and best to work independently in co-curricular provision.

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

The new curriculum is more focussed 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.

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?

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. 

Miles Berry is the Principal Lecturer of Computing Education at University of Roehampton and author of Rising Stars ‘Switched on Computing’ resource.