There's more to computing than coding!

This is a guest blog by Mark Chambers, chief executive of Naace who warns that coding has been given too much emphasis in the new curriculum.

There are currently many exciting projects around coding in schools, and it’s been great watching children getting involved with computing both within the classroom and in extra-curricular groups. It’s quite evident that a number of teachers and students in the classroom are motivated and enthused by the creation of gaming projects, application development and even the solving of coding conundrums for their own sake – just because we can.Mark Chambers 01.JPG
However, the number of teachers and students engaged with computing is still small and significantly smaller than those who used to engage with digitally creative projects involving the broader ideas of ‘Information Technology’. It is my argument that we have “thrown the baby out with the bath water”.
The direction of thought that branded ICT as “bad” is well documented with anecdotal evidence such as, “my child was subject to endlessly tiresome Microsoft Office activities”, dominating any discussion that politicians and industrialists had with the education community. The subsequent development of the Computing Curriculum was intended to specifically redress this situation with the strong feeling that by introducing more explicit Computer Science all would be well. This decision and political endorsement was followed by an injection of millions of pounds of public money to upskill our teachers in Computer Science.
Yet the reality is that there are huge gaps in the provision of sufficient high quality professional development that would improve the experience of young students. Indeed, if Information Technology was taught badly (the original argument for changing the curriculum), then nothing has been done to alter this fact apart from “moving the goal posts”. There is no national commitment to improving the teaching of Information Technology or Digital Literacy and the private sector provision which used to exist is being destroyed in the face of publicly subsidised but narrowly focused Computer Science training.
Unsurprisingly, schools have picked up on the importance of Computer Science and are understandably leaping at the opportunity of having volunteers from the parental community or from industry delivering the subject. However, many are also demonstrating an attitude that suggests they feel this provision is enough and that consequently the timetabled Computing Curriculum can be made a lower priority. Two thirds of the Computing Curriculum is in danger of both poor teaching and perhaps even disappearing from our schools. This abdication from developing digital creativity is shocking and will significantly impact our competitiveness as a global economy, with UK plc rapidly falling behind in the creative industries.
My argument is not that Computer Science and specifically the glamorous “coding” is unimportant; but actually that there is far more that must be considered. There are a number of skills and competencies enshrined within the Computing Curriculum that are capable of providing young people with a varied, imaginative and creative learning experience, equipping them for higher education and employment in a much more balanced way than simply being able to repeat code.
What unites all three strands of the Computing Curriculum is a focus on “Making”; solving problems to a purpose and for an audience. For a couple of years, Naace has been developing the Third Millennium Learning Award and some associated tools to support schools in developing their pedagogical approaches when making effective use of technology. This project has shown us that when students are offered the opportunity to experience problem-solving using digital tools in an increasing complexity of circumstances, they can achieve amazing progress and outcomes.
There is a significant danger that too much of the touted practice in Computer Science is artificial, abstract and removed from the involvement of real problems and real people. Indeed, I recall with distinct clarity one strategic meeting on the development of the Computing Curriculum where the participants remembered with great fondness their days of copying code from books and magazines. For me this recollection was a personal nightmare; what I recalled was the opportunity to use building blocks, short cuts and libraries to design and make the solutions I was looking for. Why reinvent the wheel when what I need to know is how to select the right one and fit it correctly to the other components of the car to get it moving safely and effectively from A to B?
The problem with the previous approach to the Computing subject was as much the way it was taught as the skills pupils learned, which are now being neglected. These skills, such as e-safety, using search engines effectively and online communication, may lack coding’s glamour but are an essential part of learning to use technology. Coding is important, but not everything under the sun is coding. It takes the development of a variety of digital skills and knowledge if we want students to use technology, understand how it works, solve problems effectively and communicate those solutions to clients. Students who can do this will be in high demand in employment and will drive the future success of our economy.