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Youngsters in the US and UK go back to school this month. What can they expect to learn about the world of algorithms, programs and code and who will teach them?
Over the last few years there has been a growing demand for computing to be taught in schools. The impetus for this comes largely from the fact that the United States, Britain and many other parts of the world are facing a growing skills gap unless the education system delivers suitably qualified graduates:
This chart was produced at the start of its campaign by Code.org, the high profile non-profit the promotes the idea:
"Every student in school should have the opportunity to learn to code"
Code.org's statistics are impressive - there have been over 40 million participants for its two main beginner tutorials and double this number if you sum together all the tutorials produced under its auspices. These were produced primarily for Computer Science Education Week, held at the beginning of December when schools are encouraged to include CS in at least one lesson. While CSEdWeek originated in the United States in the last couple of years, thanks to Code.org's publicity drive, it has become a global phenomenon.
But what is needed goes beyond attention to coding and Computer Science in short bursts and as something special. What is really required is a sustained program of that is part of the normal educational system.
Computing in the classroom
The recently formed Digital 5 (D5) group of leading digital governments, whose founder members are Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK is also committed to the principle of "Teach children to code" as part of its Charter.
The D5 nations intend to work together to develop:
computing classroom resources that are intellectually challenging and develop creativity
ways to assess how good children are likely to become at using computational thinking
support for teachers so that they become more confident and enthusiastic about computing
initiatives for improving participation of girls into computing
ways to address cultural issues that could affect the introduction of computing into schools
Currently England is the only country to have computing as a statutory subject for all children from age 5 to 16, something that came into effect in September 2014.
The Department for Education's National curriculum in England at the primary level (ages 5-11) states;
A high-quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world. Computing has deep links with mathematics, science, and design and technology, and provides insights into both natural and artificial systems. The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work, and how to put this knowledge to use through programming. Building on this knowledge and understanding, pupils are equipped to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of content.
The aims of the national curriculum for computing aims to ensure that all pupils:
- can understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science, including abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation
- can analyse problems in computational terms, and have repeated practical experience of writing computer programs in order to solve such problems
- can evaluate and apply information technology, including new or unfamiliar technologies, analytically to solve problems
- are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology
Putting principle into practice at Key Stage 1 (5, 6 and 7 year olds) are expected to be taught to:
- understand what algorithms are; how they are implemented as programs on digital devices; and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions
- create and debug simple programs
- use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs
- use technology purposefully to create, organise, store, manipulate and retrieve digital content
- recognise common uses of information technology beyond school
- use technology safely and respectfully, keeping personal information private; identify where to go for help and support when they have concerns about content or contact on the internet or other online technologies.
At Key Stage 2 they build on this foundation by being taught to:
- design, write and debug programs that accomplish specific goals, including controlling or simulating physical systems; solve problems by decomposing them into smaller parts
- use sequence, selection, and repetition in programs; work with variables and various forms of input and output
- use logical reasoning to explain how some simple algorithms work and to detect and correct errors in algorithms and programs
- understand computer networks including the internet; how they can provide multiple services, such as the world wide web; and the opportunities they offer for communication and collaboration
- use search technologies effectively, appreciate how results are selected and ranked, and be discerning in evaluating digital content
- select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information
- use technology safely, respectfully and responsibly; recognise acceptable/unacceptable behaviour; identify a range of ways to report concerns about content and contact.
As part of their secondary school education, pupils will be taught to design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems and understand several key algorithms that reflect computational thinking. They will be expected to use two or more programming languages, at least one of which is textual and understand how computer hardware and software work together.
Training For Teachers
When this English computer science curriculum was announced in 2013, many people expressed the worry that the teaching expertise required to teach it wouldn't be available.
One of the initiatives to remedy the shortage of qualified teachers, the BCS Certificate in Computer Science Teaching, comes from the British Computer Society's Computing At School organization, CAS. and provides professional recognition of teaching competence in the computer science elements of the new computing curriculum.
According to CAS:
Teaching computing requires a good understanding of computer science as it is taught in school as well as the development of appropriate skills. The certificate provides professional recognition for this. Working towards the certificate helps teachers who do not have formal teaching qualifications in computing but need to demonstrate competence in order to progress and gain recognition. It also helps to consolidate and extend existing skills and support work in the classroom.
The first cohort of teachers to complete the evidence-based certificate did so following a largely independent route but now additional support to help teachers develop the skills needed is being provided with online courses run in small groups.
Another worry expressed by many teachers who have been called upon to deliver the curriculum is that their pupils know more about computing than they do as discussed by both a teacher and a Key Stage 6 pupil in this video:
The survey from Microsoft and CAS referred to in the video revealed that 68% of teachers felt that their knowledge was inferior to that of their pupils have a better understanding of computing than they do while 47% of pupils thought their teachers need more training.
The response to this problem was an the production of QuickStart Computing training toolkits at both Primary and Secondary level comprised of videos and pdfs. As Miles Berry, who figures prominently in the QuickStart toolkit explains, it is:
designed to fill the gap between what teachers know about using technology and what the new curriculum expects in terms of developing pupils understanding of computer science.
A significant point about the problems faced by teachers with the introduction of the National Curriculum in Computer Science is expressed by Computing At School's Mark Dorling in the introductory video in the Secondary toolkit. He refers to the recency of the discipline, which he puts at the last 60-70 years compared to the thousands of years for say maths, and the fact that it hasn't been taught in school for the about last 20 years - so computer science teachers have some catching up to do!