Computational thinking

Whilst there is still a consultation underway for the new National Curriculum, I think it is fair to assume that we should not expect to see too many major amendments coming out of it. My focus here will be on the ICT/Computing programmes of study. This will the first of a number of posts about Computing, as I attempt to steer this blog back to where it was originally intended.

A (very) quick recap. The BSC and RAE were asked to convene an expert group, which drew up a revised NC draft. This then went into the DfE and was substantially changed (see here) to give us the draft which you can see here. It is also worthwhile to read Miles Berrys’ comments on the new draft here.

So we have a draft. Possibly it will change, but I think the emphasis for amendment will be elsewhere within the curriculum rather than with a “Cinderella” subject like ICT. Or Computing, as it seems we must now call it.

Readers of this blog (herehere, and here) will know that I have never been of the view that the current PoS is the dry, PowerPoint dominated desert that its opponents would have you believe. Nor are ICT lessons the dull places put forward by the likes of Eric Schmidt and others (who should really have visited a few ICT lessons before speaking). Having said that, the new PoS will require many to up their game, which is why I want to stop looking at the draft in a negative “it doesn’t have this” or “we were already doing that” way, and start viewing it as the opportunity that it is.

The new PoS raises many challenges and before anyone gets too upset about the “up their game” comment above let me say who I think will really have to up their game.

Firstly it is the Awarding Bodies (ABs) who need to make substantial changes to their understanding of ICT/Computing (ok, that’s the last time I’ll use that wording – from now on, Computing). I used to tell my A-Level ICT students to remember that the exam specs were written five years ago by people who had probably never worked commercially with ICT, or if they did it was five years before that. This explained why they had to give answers about, for example, Magnetic Tape back-ups. It also explained why for many years the project mark scheme was based around the development of an Access database. The difficulties I had with the board and moderators explaining that a web-based solution also involved “computing” and “programming” and relied on the “information life-cycle” is a whole other blog. Its not that I don’t have some sympathy with them, its just that I don’t have  a lot. Computing moves fast. Its not like maths, where the school level knowledge base has remained the same for 400 years. It changes literally day-to-day. But if we could make the adjustments in the classroom with limited resources, then the ABs, with their commercial resources behind them, should have been able to do so too.

The change to computing has brought further difficulty into this area though. There was always an issue that prevented the development of a good Computer Science GCSE, which was what would you put in it that that wouldn’t be in the A-Level. This issue is now exacerbated and I don’t think is anywhere near a good resolution. I’ll say more about that later.

Secondly, and this is the one that will get me a kicking, those in schools who see the subject as yet another to be studied “across the curriculum”. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of learning in context. However, whilst it was possible to argue (wrongly, in my view) that the entirety of the ICT NC could be delivered across the curriculum it is very obvious there are great difficulties involved in teaching programming across the curriculum. I would go so far as to argue that any SLT who proposes such a thing has clearly not understood the issues involved.

Thirdly, and whilst I’m down from the previous kicking, teachers. This is complicated. Having organised a number of national conferences for ICT teachers I yield to no-one in my admiration for their abilities. The issue is that there are not enough of them. Yes, it has been possible to teach ICT without any specialist background in the subject, and up to now that has been ok. An ICT department could work with one specialist HoD who managed a smorgasbord of teachers from different subjects, providing an excellent experience for students. With Computing, this is not going to be possible. There will be CPD providers who tell you if you send your teachers on a one day course they will come back as computing teachers. Well, they’re lying. So the nature of the Computing department, and consequently the teachers in it, has to change. And the answer isn’t as simple as “we’ll move the ICT department into the Maths faculty and change the name to Computing – job done”.

Finally, the students. As with other subjects the range of capability of students in Computing is vast. At the one end we have the 17 year old App entrepreneurs who are way ahead of their teachers and at the other we have students who can’t use formulae in a spreadsheet. There are so many reasons for this and I don’t intend to go through them all here. What I will say is that I think that Computing will improve this. Why? Because its more focussed. The weakness of the ICT NC is that it had the capability of being a very bitty experience, particularly when delivered across the curriculum. A bit of Word with one teacher here, a bit of Excel with another there, and fairly soon you have a confused student. Where students have to up their game  (and it will be job of teachers to help them with this) is to understand that Computing is not just the time of the week that they do interesting things with Turtles. There is a valuable and coherent subject to study here. There are many “whys” to be learnt here, not just “hows”. This is going to require a degree of seriousness about the subject from students that has not always been there for ICT.

So, how do we make all this better? I’m going to start at the end. The qualifications that are created have to be better than we have ever had before. If we take the draft KS4 PoS on its face value this is going to be hard. Here it is in its entirety:

All pupils must have the opportunity to study aspects of information technology and computer science at sufficient depth to allow them to progress to higher levels of study or to a professional career.

All pupils should be taught to:

  • develop their capability, creativity and knowledge in computer science, digital media and information technology
  • develop and apply their analytic, problem-solving, design, and computational thinking skills.

Yes, that’s it. It can be a bit of a surprise the first time you see it. It presents a number of challenges:

  • How do you turn this into a KS4 scheme of work if you want every student to study Computing (which I am taking to include some of the content of  a”traditional” ICT curriculum)
  • How do you create a full GCSE from this which both provides an accessible qualification to a wide range of students and prepares students to progress to A-Level or other L3 qualifications.
  • How do you train sufficient numbers of teachers to deliver this curriculum
  • How do you enable the typically locked down networks in schools to provide a programming platform.

Whilst I have looked at this from a very secondary (and indeed KS4 perspective) similar arguments and issues flow all the way through the system from KS1 upwards. The additional issue is that for many years secondaries will be working with students who have come through from a primary ICT curriculum and presenting them with a secondary Computing curriculum. The implications of this cannot be understated. However, my experience is mainly secondary and I would not presume to say my suggestions will automatically translate to primary. That won’t stop me making comments about primary and hope that they will be listened to in that light.

I have raised here a load of questions and my apologies if you were expecting them all to be answered before you finished reading this post. That’s not possible and any attempt to suggest otherwise would rightly enable you to hold me up to ridicule. This is the first of series of posts on this topic. In subsequent posts I will look at each of these issues and try to provide more answers than questions, and I hope that you’ll see the questions themselves as useful. The first will look at that whole school scheme of work and what it might contain.

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3 thoughts on “Computational thinking

  1. Great analysis….I agree with all the points you raise.

    If the Toshiba,and many other industry responses are any indication, I expect the current imbalance between CS (overemphasis) and IT and Digital Literacy will be addressed? I live in hope!

    The major challenge Mike is one of current workforce development and teacher education.

    My candid advice to the Minister is that these reforms are undeliverable without a significant investment in cpd.

    Finally the underhand way the BCS/RAEng behaved by ignoring the work of the 40 people on the drafting groups has created a lot of anger and mistrust and this needs to be addressed.

    So my rallying call to arms is

    “Rebuild consensus,create a cohesive response and increase momentum of cpd”

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

    1. Thanks for your comment Bob.

      Its a bit like the old joke.
      Man 1 – “How do you get to the Bakers Arms?”
      Man 2 – “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

      Well, we have to start from here. This is the NC we are going to get and we have to recognise the positives and subvert the negatives – as it ever was. With the original NC it was subverted to enable the development of programming within all key stages (despite opinion to the contrary). This one will have to be subverted to enable the continuation and development of a strong digital literacy strand.

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