Crowdsourcing the curriculum

Don’t speak too soon, but there’s a chance Education Secretary Michael Gove’s speech at the BETT show on Wednesday – where he announced the Government would be scrapping the current ICT curriculum in September – could be the catalyst for a fundamental transformation in UK classrooms that touches not just computing, but every part of the curriculum.

Unusually for a Coalition initiative that involves cutting something, this one has received almost universal welcome – albeit with some qualification (no pun intended). There is widespread agreement among educators, industry, policy-makers, pundits and pupils alike that the current system isn’t working. It is failing to inspire and nurture tomorrow’s coders and computer engineers, but it’s also largely irrelevant and off-putting to the bulk of students who aren’t technically inclined.

Not until they’re 16 can pupils opt to study the more relevant (but by no means perfect) Computing A-Level, by which point most have already been turned off from pursuing the topic by years of tedious ICT lessons on how to create a spreadsheet or search the Internet.

The argument is well-worn. Last year’s Livingstone-Hope Next Gen report on how to revitalise the UK video games industry said it; industry bodies such as the BCS, Institute of IT and e-Skills UK have said it; Google chief Eric Schmidt said it, and today’s report from the Royal Society, Shut Down or Restart?, says it too.

Gove promised the Government would give schools the freedom to develop their own approaches for integrating computing across the curriculum as well as the freedom to take advantage of the many high-tech learning resources now available (e.g. the growing number of free online lessons available via the likes of O2 Learn and Khan Academy, and the emergence of ultra-low-cost programmable computers like Raspberry Pi). The minister also wants to see new computer science courses that reflect the fact computing is a “rigorous, fascinating and intellectually challenging” subject.

Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for smartphones,” he said.

But, in what could provide a much-needed fillip for David Cameron’s widely derided Big Society idea, the Government isn’t prescribing a set course, but is instead seeking broad input to develop the new approach – from anyone and everyone who wants to contribute. As well as consulting experts and giving schools the freedom to experiment, Gove said: “I’d also like to welcome the online discussion launched today at and using the Twitter hashtag #schoolstech. We need a serious, intelligent conversation about how technology will transform education – and I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say.”

And Schoolstech is by no means alone in driving discussion. Last night, for example, newly-formed independent think tank The Education Foundation held a timely gathering of experts and interested parties to thrash out The Future of Technology and Education at its ‘Learning Lab’ in London’s West End. The event featured presentations from high-tech cheerleader and Bletchley Park campaigner Dr Sue Black, Next Gen report co-author Ian Livingstone (also the man behind Eidos, the company that gave the world Lara Croft); and senior Government policy advisor Rohan Silva.

Sue Black – who has also recently started the <goto> Foundation, a non-profit organisation to promote computer science – thought schools could be making much more of the UK’s colourful computing history to inspire boys and girls alike to pursue the subject, citing figures like Alan Turing, Tommy Flowers, Dame Steve Shirley and Tim Berners-Lee. Other delegates agreed, with one pointing out that IT could do with a populist, media-friendly champion to promote the discipline, much as Professor Brian Cox has done for physics.

Ian Livingstone, meanwhile, welcomed the Government’s support for his recommendations, but noted the one key element missing from Gove’s speech was a recognition that the UK needs to value the arts as much as the sciences – and end the artificial division between them. There needs to be much more in the way of teamwork and cross-disciplinary initiatives in schools to allow the UK’s natural creative flair to shine through, Livingstone thought.

“It’s ridiculous that kids have to choose between art and science,” he said. “They are joined at the hip.” For example creating a video game involves animation, graphics and thinking up creative plots.  As another delegate pointed out: “Coding is artistic and art is technical.”

There was skepticism among some in the audience about whether such changes were ever likely to come about. After all, politicians are by and large much better at making visionary speeches than they are at realising those visions. Giving schools the freedom to do what they want clearly won’t work if they have insufficient resources and expertise. For example, the Government must make good on its commitment to ensure teachers have the relevant training and skills. Others felt teachers needed to be freed from the demotivating bureaucracy of league tables and excessive paperwork before real change could take hold.

However, Rohan Silva thought the  “evolving, organic, open source” approach outlined by Gove would prevent the ‘”leaden hand of Government” becoming an obstacle to real change. He also claimed the need to end the arts/science divide was “on the agenda of the most senior people in government”.

Personally, having seen a raft of exciting high-tech and online educational initiatives and ideas emerging from the grassroots over the past few years, I’m broadly optimistic that those passionate about IT and education really can help to kick-start a revolution in UK classrooms.

We need to replicate the same sense of excitement and creative possibility around computing that those of us of a certain age felt when we began programming our Sinclair ZX81s, Spectrums and BBC Micros 30 years ago. That revolution sparked the entire computer games industry right here in the UK, of course. Okay, we’ve let things slip somewhat since, but just imagine what we could do with today’s technology if we put our collective minds to it. Imagine, then make it so.

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