The UK Department for Education has just introduced a radical change in education.It plans to teach "rigorous computer science" to all children from 5 to 14.
The move isn't surprising, but it is important.
The UK adopted a fairly enlightened attitude when the personal computer revolution started, with the BBC promoting its own computer and making programs about learning to program. However, soon after the initial fuss died down, computing in schools was "dumbed down" and computer education became ICT - Information Communications Technology. The argument was that most pupils didn't need to understand the workings of a computer, just how to use one. So attempts to teach programming and the deeper ideas of computer science were dropped and in their place children were exposed to word processors and spreadsheets - mostly Word, Excel and, of course, all running on Windows.
You can speculate that the real reason for the switch to ICT was simply that it was easier to get teachers to teach to the lower level subject. After all, if you can program and understand difficult ideas in computing, why teach when you can earn so much more in industry?
The ICT curriculum continued on until one day some one noticed that it wasn't turning out people with any idea of how computers could be used, let alone how they were used. Some respondents to the 2008 e-Skills study said of the ITC GCSE was:
“so harmful, boring and/or irrelevant it should simply be scrapped”.
Even today's DOE press release is headed:
‘Harmful’ ICT curriculum set to be dropped to make way for rigorous computer science
Well, we all, including Microsoft and Google, are agreed that something had to be done. To quote the education minister:
"As the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, recently lamented, we in England have allowed our education system to ignore our great heritage and we are paying the price for it."
The really amazing thing is that something has been done! Rather then beefing up sport, art or community singing, the government has put its weight behind teaching something difficult - and in this case not everyone likes the idea and those who like it don't think its very practical.
As the minister commented:
"Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum. 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."
So there you have it: teachers are bored; Word and Excel are out; and Scratch is in.
There is also a few bits of silly trendy stuff, like mention of using "3D printers" and so on, but you have to remember that nearly all politicians know nothing of science, math or computing and so aren't really well placed to say sensible things about it. Political statements are usually aimed at the "common man" and hence tend to be trendy even if they ring a bit hollow with anyone who knows a little more.
What really matters is that an example has been set and computer science - understanding computers, how they work and making them do new things - is in. This cannot be a bad thing, but it hasn't stopped many from criticizing the basic idea of teaching children as young as 5 to interact with computers and encounter the ideas of programming. It seems to be a lack of understanding of how broad an intellectual discipline programming and computer science is.
A more realistic worry is that there won't be the teaching expertise to teach the subjects. The education department, together with the British Computer Society, is running a campaign to get new blood to teach computer science with awards of £9,000 to £20,000 to people signing up to the computer science initial teacher training scheme which starts in September 2013.
Of course, this isn't going to be enough and there will have to be extensive retraining for teachers. The government and industry seem very excited by the new opportunities - the teachers less so. The one important point is that with easy to use programming tools like Scratch programming isn't as difficult as it used to be - seeing the intellectual content of computer science and teaching algorithmic though is still going to be difficult but no more difficult than teaching math rather than arithmetic.
The new curriculum comes into effect across all levels of education from September 2014.