More than coding

If the new curriculum ends up being little more than programming it will have failed, says Simon Humphreys

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?

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 purely 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 = lab work.  If the new curriculum ends up being little more than programming it will have failed.

The challenge for teachers is great, but there are many hundreds of schools who have adopted the new curriculum, provided resources 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.

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

We’ve learned that we need to help each other. After all, we are asking teachers 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 programme of study 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. Computing at School is part of that effort, running CPD programmes like QuickStart Computing, the Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science, and Barefoot Computing.

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

The engagement and support for the new curriculum has been patchy.  In many ways this is not a surprise, schools set their priorities and for some, computing, at the moment, is not a high priority – other changes introduced to the National Curriculum at the same time have taken up their attention.  In Computing at School we have over 1464 member schools, (536 primary, 968 secondary) of which 516 are designated as Lead Schools (220 primary, 331 secondary).  These lead Schools have all made space in the curriculum for computing, they have supported their staff by providing access to professional development and they are also supporting other schools in their local communities.  As one teacher commented: 

“The biggest difference I have seen this year … is that there is a sense of wonder from the students. A level of engagement that goes beyond PowerPoints and spreadsheets. It’s a wonder that encompasses how things work, rather than how to use them.” (SA,  Denbigh High School, Luton)

The key lies with senior leadership teams.  Where they are supportive and understand what that means for their staff the subject is being adopted and students are benefitting from it.

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

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 have seen the numbers increasing from 9114 in current Year 11 to 16,518 in current Year 10.  This is a significant increase.

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

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. Moreover, computing develops a child’s capacity to think in distinctive new ways, known as computational thinking. As Seymour Papert, the father of Logo, wrote:

“The child programs the computer. And in teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think. The experience can be heady: thinking about thinking turns the child into an epistemologist, an experience not even shared by most adults.’ 

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?

The key is for the importance of computer science for all pupils to be taken on board by all headteachers 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.

Simon Humphreys is the National Coordinator of Computing at School, which is supported by BCS, Microsoft, Google, Ensoft and CPHC.