Let’s not forget the computing curriculum’s bigger picture: Computational thinking

Computing curriculum is about computational thinking and problem solving, not just coding/programming say education experts

Educators have stressed that the computing curriculum, due to start in September, is not just about learning how to code or program but more importantly is about a young person’s journey in learning the necessary digital skills to solve real-world problems.

At the Westminster Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Preparing for the new Computing Curriculum today, educators argued why it is important not to miss the curriculum's bigger picture: Computational thinking and learning.

The government’s Year of Code campaign has been in the line of fire since its launch in February, but many in the education sector feel the government has missed the mark on the computing curriculum by over-promoting ‘coding and programming’ instead of its overall goal to teach young people about computational thinking.

Clive Beale, director of educational development at Raspberry Pi Foundation, has previously aired his views about the campaign on Twitter saying: "The word 'coding' has been hijacked and abused by politicians and media who don't understand stuff. I give you instead: the #YearOfComputing".

Speaking at the Westminster Education Forum and stressing the importance of computational thinking he said it is important to “think about thinking and if you can use that in the real world then you’re skilled for life.”

Simon Humphreys, co-ordinator for Computing At School (CAS), says there is a “shocking misrepresentation of coding and programming. In some sense the new curriculum is all about the next generation of programming.”

CAS, which has 10,000 members, promotes computer science as a subject, and offers support to teachers.

“Of course you would not expect to teach physics without experiments or a lab, or music to be taught without performances but it is the process that’s important. The goal is the computational thinking that underlines it. Programing is the performing for music or the lab for physics, but it’s not the goal.”

“It’s not just about what the computer can do, but what a human can do. Computers require an algorithm. It’s about the mental model of why we need that algorithm and why it’s important," says Humphreys.

“The success of this curriculum will lie in the hands of the teachers.”

David Brown, national lead for ICT at Ofsted, said like the overall curriculum the computer science curriculum should be “broad and balanced”.

Claire Lotriet, UKS2 phase leader and ICT, enterprise and maths co-ordinator at Henwick primary school in Eltham, agreed. When she first looked at the computing curriculum and compared it to the previous ICT curriculum, she felt uneasy about it because it contained words that had not been included before: “After dropping the curriculum into Wordles I found that words such as programs and algorithms were used heavily, which were not previously mentioned in ICT.

“Computing isn’t interchangeable with coding. Teachers think the new curriculum is coding, that it’s a narrow curriculum and will become an isolated subject that doesn’t fit in.”

Lotriet drew attention to some of the wording in the new computing curriculum.

“KS1 says ‘use technology purposely to create’ and KS2 says ‘use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to design and create’ which to me ‘a range’ is never ending. Keeping the subject open was important to me.”

At KS3 there is no distinction between girls and boys in computer science. They all see it as cool

Steve Daly, Unity City Academy

The curriculum also mentions the importance of e-safety which Lotriet said: “Teaching children to stay safe online is the same as what we teach about ‘stranger danger’ and how to keep your possessions safe. Online safety is also about how to use technology respectively and responsibly.

“This includes the understanding of copyright and how you can’t lift images from a Google search and include them on your own blog. By the end of year six students will know how to be responsible online in terms of intellectual property and I really welcome that in the new programme of study.”

Game skills = life skills

Jo Twist, chief executive officer at the Association of UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) said computational thinking through gaming means learning life skills such as being interactive, problem solving, motivation, learning about cause and effect: “It is about a way of thinking and meta skills.”

According to Twist it is important to encourage young people to make games in the UK. She noted the UK games industry is currently worth £3 billion and $80 billion globally. By comparison, the global music industry is worth $28 billion. She said 55 million hours a day are spent playing games, with most gamers aged over 30, with a 50/50 split of males and females.

Despite an increased interest in games Twist said many adults and children are not aware of a gaming industry in the UK: “I recently spoke at a school and the sixth formers said they had no idea their hobby could be their career – show me how they asked.”

She gave the example of Grand Theft Auto V which was created in Scotland and recently became the fasted selling game in history.

Twist added: “There is a real movement around makers, but the missing part of the jigsaw is diversity. Reaching into kids’ lives and making them realise things they thought might not have been open to them. Only 11 girls got A grades in computing last year.”

Teaching computer science means teaching a very fast changing discipline

Davide Grossi, University of Liverpool

“Both boys and girls love to code” said Twist, drawing attention to Code Club, which has 60% males and 40% females.”

Challenges yet to come

Steve Daly, director of learning, computer science, business enterprise at the Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough, said the academy implemented the computer science curriculum two years ago.

“At KS3 there is no distinction between girls and boys in computer science. They all see it as cool,” he said.

Daly explained that two years ago 20 out of 120 students wanted to take computer science, and now 80 out of 150 want to take the subject.

In terms of challenges with the new curriculum, Daly said he has experienced issues with staff training and finding support teachers. In addition he has been hearing from primary schools that the teachers are “quite frightened of the subject. In the future when they head into KS3 we may find that they haven’t done enough at Primary level.”

Davide Grossi, lecturer and undergraduate admission tutor, department of computer science at the University of Liverpool, said: “Teaching computer science means teaching a very fast changing discipline. We need to prepare pupils to learn tomorrow’s technology to enable a workforce that is active for the next 30-40 years."

About a fifth of our workforce has a technical background and are software developers

Mark Wakefield, IBM

Mark Wakefield, manager, corporate citizenship and corporate affairs at IBM UK, said: “The majority of us did not study the subject at school and don’t have that framework for reference. We are not all going to get it right on day one. I think it is a five to 10 year journey, so give yourself time to embed the curriculum and get the CPD, but it’s going to take time.”

According to Wakefield it is about “the aspiration of young people on a journey to being creators of technology. This may be coders but there is no requisite.

“About a fifth of our workforce has a technical background and are software developers. The rest only need a good understanding and that is where I think this new qualification will probably fit best.”

John Myers, standards division, department for education, said: “There is a great deal of excitement for the new curriculum and schools are realising there is a great deal of help out there for them.”

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