Computing – moving forward with a content model

Before looking at the detail of what content is required in any curriculum, and consequently any qualification derived from it,  it is important to consider its  purpose. I want to cover some broad areas of my thinking in this post before moving on to detailed PoS in the next. So bear with me a while.

Put simply, why will students be studying the subject? In any cohort of students there are a number of reasons:

Firstly, for most students (up to KS3) the reason they start the study a particular subject area is that the curiculum requires them to. For example, no student can decide they are not going to study Maths up to the age of 16. For Computing it looks like this will be the case for students up to the end of KS3, and possibly KS4. The programme of study will be compulsory(-ish) for all students. There are many reasons that a subject is compulsory in a curriculum, one of them being that an understanding of the subject (even at a basic level) is necessary for the student to be able to effectively engage with and be productive in the wider society when the leave education.

For another group of students they will be studying the subject because they enjoy it and it present a change to them from their other subjects. They may also realise that the subject can be helpful in their other studies. Of course, they have to study it anyway, and get from the subject similar benefits as those in the previous group.

Finally there is a sub-group of the second group – those who enjoy the subject and intend to study it further, to A-Level and beyond. This is a complicated group as for many years now we have had both Computing and ICT A-Levels, with the vast majority of this group studying ICT in some form (20,632) compared to Computing (3,809).

One of the more confusing issues here is where is the demand for jobs going to be. I’m talking here about jobs for which a Level 3+ qualification in Computing is a requirement. If we look at the Nesta NextGen report* which looks at the need for additions to the computer games and visual effects industry we can see that the numbers of graduates from relevant courses is currently less than 2,000 of whom less than 1,000 are specialist programmers. The report is a plea for better prepared graduates as well as greater numbers. It is also true that the games and visual effects industry are not the only one who require computing graduates. However, given the numbers quoted it seems unlikely that the third group above will need to expand by anything near 10-fold. I remain unconvinced that programming will be very high in this country in the next decade. The jobs will be at the next level up, analysts and system designers. The big area of expansion is in user experience (UX) human-computer interface (HCI) designers. HCI designers in particular require skills other than pure computing.

Numbers aside, the NextGen report is a must read for anyone working in this area, providing essential background to the industry needs of the subject and more information about what skills employers think are hard to find in graduates (SPOILER – they’re not technical skills).

Working in a computing based industry is not the only place that computing knowledge will be required. To a certain degree everyone is going to need it just to function in society. Many, if not most, jobs will also need some level of capability in order to be effective.

Then there is the issue of students being digitally literate enough to use technology to assist them in their learning. This is not so much the ability to use a spreadsheet to create graph in maths but to develop appropriate knowledge curation skills.

So, in a typical year group of around 700,000 students we have fairly small group who will be taking computing through to A-Level, University or directly into the workplace (working in a context where a Level 3+ computing qualification is essential) even if we get the increases that everyone recognises we need. Unfortunately (as ever) we won’t know which particular students these are until they have already been through eight years of compulsory education.

What does this mean for the content of the subject. In an ideal world the content would be focused so that it matters to all the students. However we have to recognise that this is not always possible. This particularly affects the balance of the content. In the Computing PoS it might mean that in KS1-3 there might need to be a greater emphasis on digital literacy and Using & Applying Technology than Computational Thinking and Computer Science as the former strands will be more directly useful in the lives of all students, whilst the latter will be of more value to those continuing with the subject. On the other hand we have to recognise the undoubted benefits that all strands have for all children. This balance is difficult as we don’t know which child is which.

There are also issues of when students are ready to study certain parts of the curriculum. As any one who has taught maths will understand the idea of teaching Boolean Algebra and Non-base 10 arithmetic at KS2/3 will present interesting challenges.

Which brings me on to programming.

Many students already do programming in their ICT studies at both primary and secondary. They do this in many ways, using Logo and Scratch, or Lego MegaStorms. There is Kudo and Kinect. There is PHP and Python programming going on every day. However, in the main these are not mainstream activities across the whole cohort. With notable exceptions they tend to be “club” based activities for a few students. And if we are to make the kind of change envisaged by the NextGen report this is not enough.

If we want programming to be taught as anything other than a discrete activity then there is going to be a considerable CPD overhead. At KS1/2 the issue (without intending to offend anyone) is going to be one of breadth not depth. By this I mean that we are talking about getting across the basic principles of programming (sequences of instructions, basic loops, variables) rather than any deep understanding of object oriented programming or the MVC architecture. This with be able to be done using, for example, Scratch (which does of course introduce objects) and other visual programming approaches. This also lowers the depth that teachers have to understand the subject. This is not to suggest that many don’t or that most couldn’t. The issue here is time and money. 20,000 primary schools and sufficient CPD to be able to programme in, say, PHP. Do the math!

At KS3 we would expect some students to start to develop the skills to write their own code, so the depth of knowledge of the teacher is going to have to be deeper. Still, 3,500 secondary schools. Thats a lot of CPD in terms of both time and money. Surely the aim here is that every school has at least one class of computing students at KS4, where they would be moving predominantly to the Computer Science and Computational Thinking Strands. That’s a lot of teachers.

To digress a little into training teachers. Now I know there has been a grant of £2,000,000 to facilitate this CPD, using a Master teacher model. This sounds like a lot. I have to say, having being involved with the development, management and delivery of a number of high profile national CPD programmes, this is unlikely to be anywhere near sufficient. From what I understand of its structure it is also trying to be too ambitious in attempting to cover all schools. Such a programme either has to be global and fully funded, or it has to be commercial with a workable partnered business model (even if it is spawned off of a grant funded seed program). If it is not then other (commercial) CPD models will spring up to fill the gap. This may not be the optimal result in the short term, where a quality assured and coherent programme is essential.

Digression over

So here’s the content model I would adopt:

KS1/2 – Heavier on the DL and using and Applying, introducing the CS and CT through visual/game/toy based systems 9covering the key principles in an academic fashion.

KS3 – Towards to a half/half model, with a move towards textual programming and deeper programming principles.

KS4 – More or less completely CS and CT, with DL issues addressed as they arise in that context.

In the next post I’ll be looking more closely at what a detailed KS3 PoS might look like, what tools would be needed and the impact that will have on CPD and resourcing.

* NextGen – Livingstone & Hope

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