Top of the computer class: Stuart Swann

pi-top’s Stuart Swan concludes our series wherein industry experts discuss four years of the computing curriculum

Stuart Swan is Learning Experience Designer at pi-top

Almost four years since its implementation, do you feel like schools have adequate resources and skills to fully realise the computing curriculum?

Adequate resources and adequate skills do not necessarily go hand in hand. There are many very well-resourced schools, in terms of hardware, which have teachers who feel unprepared and deskilled. On the other hand, there are some very confident, talented and highly skilled teachers in both primary and secondary working in schools whose budgets cannot stretch to adequate resources. In my experience, schools are often looking for resources that reduce barriers to learning, both for their students and their teachers.

What schools really need to focus on are their learning goals, both in computing but also across the curriculum, and then look for technology that will support and enhance those goals.

The other major consideration is professional development. Schools must understand that in order for any technology resource to have an impact on learning, teachers will often need some form of training. Without this, and a plan for implementation and sustainability, schools will be faced with the age-old problem of great resources gathering dust in a cupboard.

With the shifting digital landscape, do you feel any knowledge gaps are emerging that the curriculum does not fulfil?

The curriculum itself has transformed from what was a very detailed, prescriptive hefty tome (the QCA ICT Curriculum) into something that can fit onto a couple of sides of A4 and which is open to interpretation. This has presented some challenges around support, but has also allowed teachers to interpret and implement the requirements to suit their own students and curricula.

The three general areas of computing (computer science, digital literacy and ICT) are all represented in the curriculum requirements. I would suggest that there is a leaning towards computer science, and that many primary schools have interpreted this as teaching coding as a discrete subject, with the rest of the requirements being weaved into the wider curriculum. This is a ‘gap’ that I would like to see closed. In his seminal work Mindstorms, Seymour Papert argued that computer science and the use of computers was integral in the transformation of learning across the curriculum – that coding could, and should, be learned in the context of other subject areas.

Schools need to look at how their wider curriculum can be supported by computer science, and a good way of approaching this is by exploring robotics, physical computing and the concept of learning by making. Through coding for a purpose, students and teachers are able to see and explore these connections. Of course, this brings us back to resourcing…

By not integrating computing deeply across disciplines we miss opportunities for significance and for meaningful learning.

What are the central staffing challenges around the computing curriculum?

In primary, it is around teacher confidence. Some schools employ a dedicated computing teacher to deliver lessons across the school. While this undoubtedly addresses curriculum targets, it is not a sustainable model unless other teachers take this as an opportunity for their own professional development.

In secondary, there is a lack of computer science teachers. These gaps are being filled by anybody from ICT to business studies teachers, who have little understanding or skills in this area, and this is causing huge issues.

How can schools work to address the gender gap in computing subject enrolment?

It is paradoxical that coding was invented and advanced by women (from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper and beyond) and yet so few girls are choosing computer science in their options. Perhaps if more girls knew of these pioneering women, they might be more inspired by the subject.

Another idea is to go back to how the use of technology and computer science is used to support other curriculum areas, from primary into secondary. It can be the bedrock of STEAM and making. Seeing how these siloed subject areas can work together and be underpinned by computer science may open the door not just for girls, but for other students who may not think computer science is for them.

“Schools must understand that in order for any technology resource to have an impact on learning, teachers will often need some form of training.”

Do you feel the current exam-led coursework-supporting approach is the best weighting for this subject?

Computing is, by its very nature, a practical subject. Any testing or assessing of a student’s competency should reflect this. Subject knowledge is not enough though. We also need to see how students approach a problem, how they communicate and collaborate and how they use these essential 22nd-century skills in their work. Having a piece of paper that says they know how to code is not enough. What they do with that knowledge – what they use coding for – is far more telling and far more purposeful for these students going forwards.

How do you feel the UK’s computing curriculum measures up against other countries’ efforts to digitise their emerging workforce?

I do not think that simply digitising an emerging workforce is the way forward. To digitise just means doing what we have always done but possibly more efficiently, or faster. These are not the skills that are going to enable our students to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution. We need students who are given the opportunities to learn by making, through collaboration and failure, and there are very few curricula that allow for that.

Most countries – like the UK – feel like they should do something about computing, but the people writing these requirements are too often outsiders, foreigners speaking an unfamiliar language. So computing gets bolted on or turns into a kind of check-box endeavour. By not integrating computing deeply across disciplines, not as a separate subject, but as a tool for exploring and working in every subject, we miss opportunities for significance and for meaningful learning.

pi-top: raspberrypi.org