Teachers and academics fear the new computer science curriculum is too broad in some of its requirements, causing concern for how some teachers may choose to interpret its content.
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During the Westminster Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Reviewing the new Computing Curriculum recently, teachers, academics and industry experts aired their views on the new syllabus, raising alarms that if the new curriculum is misinterpreted it could be as unsuccessful as the ICT programme it is replacing.
Ian Addison, ICT coordinator at St John the Baptist Church of England primary school in Hampshire, said interpretation of the new computing science curriculum worries him: “The word data is a boring word. It’s not just Excel, but it’s audio, video, ebooks, etc.”
Addison referred to the curriculum which says: “Learn a variety of skills on a variety of tools to reach a variety of goals.
“Or basically means use stuff on stuff to do stuff. As a teacher, it is saying you can do anything you like. The curriculum does not just have to be interpreted as ‘data’. Schools are driven by requirement. How can we deliver a curriculum that is more fun and engaging? It’s ok giving teachers ideas on how to teach it; however some teachers might do it and some might not,” he added.
He questioned what children want to do?
“They want to learn game design, movie-making, publishing to the world (on websites). My job is to let them know what is out there and to make it creative. Primary school is fun.”
Do we really need to teach algorithms at key stage 1 (KS1), before children have even learned to read or write?
Carsten Trinitis, Technical University of Munich
Carsten Trinitis, senior scientist, department of informatics at Technical University of Munich, in Germany asked: “Do we really need to teach algorithms at key stage 1 (KS1), before children have even learned to read or write? We don’t teach this in Germany until the age of 10."
Trinitis is also a full-time professor for distributed computing at the University of Bedfordshire. He added: “I didn’t get my first computer until I was 16, yet I still managed to become a computer science professor. Do we really need to teach children computer science from the age of five?”
Miles Berry, chair, Naace and subject leader, ICT education at the University of Roehampton said it is important to give children their space and respect what children are capable of: “Young people spend time in a space which adults find difficult to supervise and understand.
“Kids are good content gatherers and good at staying in touch – for instance through Facebook. We are in need of not just a skills-based curriculum, but an understanding-based programme.”
Teacher training and informal learning
Genevieve Smith-Nunes, computing and software development at Sussex Downs College, in East Sussex, said teachers need to feel secure in their teaching, so continuing professional development (CPD) is necessary for computer science staff.
She said: “Creativity depends on how creative you are as a teacher. And practice makes perfect. It requires a lot of self-learning. With all the changes that take place in technology, can the curriculum keep up? No, but expose students to the changes.”
Miles agreed by adding: “There is not enough teacher training out there, so get out and start learning yourself. It works for the children, so it must work for teachers too.”
Several audience members agreed with what the panel’s enthusiasm but questioned what can be done about the fact that the majority of schools do not allow an open network. Miles stressed how important it is for a school to unlock and release its technology, so children can learn.
More on IT skills
Addison agreed: “I’m lucky that my school has allowed an open network. We can access any website, so I’m very lucky there. Ray Mears taught my children how to live outside. We couldn’t afford to have him in obviously, so we watched him on YouTube and went outside to try for ourselves.”
However, Trinitis drew attention to how an open network can be a distraction for students: “Think about having a WLAN in a lecturer room. You are all probably checking your email in here as I speak.”
Ian Livingstone, life president of games creator Eidos, said: “The internet is like London – a wealth of information. It has its sewers, but we know where they are.”
STEAM not STEM
An idea discussed during the forum was the notion of STEAM not STEM – including art to the traditional science, technology, engineering and math as part of the EBacc.
Livingstone said digital creativity is not just about games or consumer: “It’s about a country creating digital products.”
“It should be thought of as a digital Meccano. Art and science combined and included in the EBacc.”
John Harris, chairman of the Corporate IT Forum Education and Skills Commission and the vice-president for global enterprise architecture at AIMIA agreed with Livingstone and said he is excited about the idea of STEAM not STEM.
He said from a non-technical industry perspective there is definitely a skills shortage.
Ray Mears taught my children how to live outside. We couldn’t afford to have him in obviously, so we watched him on YouTube and went outside to try for ourselves
Ian Addison, St John the Baptist Church of England primary school
“Businesses are not just looking for programmers or service support. The Holy Grail is people that understand both the business world and the tech world. There are lots of technical people that do not work in IT – times are changing. We need to be more vocal as an industry,” said Harris.
On utilising gaming in education, Livingstone added: “Gaming can be used in a positive way – only 5% of games are 18+ rated. Games can be used as training tools for the armed forces, for example. Due to negative press around gaming, parents do not always see the industry as a valid career path.”
Quoting Albert Einstein, Livingstone said: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
'We are teaching children to read but not to write'
According to the Eidos founder, due to the current education system children can play games but not make them: “We are effectively teaching children to read, but not how to write.
“It’s not the teachers’ fault, but we want children to make as well as use applications and for computer science to become the fourth science - to make this the age of digital enlightenment.”
Miles said in his opinion the term “digital literacy” is a contentious one: “Literacy means to both read and write.”
Livingstone questioned teaching coding, which is basically teaching a new language. He stressed that this should not be taught through formal exams and the learning of algorithms.
“I hope the EBacc doesn’t become a three-hour exam with questions such as, who invented the web? I don’t care. Good for a quiz night, but not for getting a job. I need people who can code. Show me you can code and I will give you a job,” he added.
Steve Beswick, director of education at Microsoft, UK said the creativity aspect is important: “We still believe that things like Excel need to be taught, as many jobs still need this skill and it should not be forgotten.”
Meg Hillier, MP for Shoreditch (Tech City) who chaired the forum said it is important that computer science is not viewed as "a dry and separate subject.”
Changes won't happen over night
Not present at the conference, but passionate about the subject is Emma Mulqueeny, founder of Rewired Reality.
Rewired Reality helps brands solve tech problems and develop concepts by enabling businesses to access developer talent and ideas at a lower cost.
On the subject of computer science, she said although the new curriculum is encouraging it will take at least a decade to the get teachers interested and coming through the system: “It’s one thing to have enthusiastic teachers, but the teaching skills are necessary.”
She added: “It is important that children learn there is not a magical world in the internet. For example Google Search. They need to learn that a human decided the answer for them, based on the criteria and algorithm generated by a human. This can therefore be open to human error. Once they understand this concept, they can learn to do it themselves.”
Mulqueeny explained that she sees many poly-coding young programmers at events, due to the fact that they learn bits of code when they need to solve a particular problem: “We work on problem-based projects, so the young programmers seek the code they need for that particular programme.
"This can include more than one type of code. They don’t go out and think I’m going to learn Ruby today. It is informal learning and part of the problem they are trying to resolve.”