Tag Archives: England

The Times: “Program or Be Programmed”

A lot of computer science in The Times today: a full-page article on page 3 entitled Play the game, but write the software too (£), a four-page pullout on learning how to code, as well as the following leader (£) on page 2:

Program or be Programmed

The best time to start learning the language of computer code is now

void draw() {
    background(255);
    stroke(0,0,0);
    line(0,0,60,hour());
    line(0,0,120,minute());
    stroke(255,0,0);
    line(0,0,180,second());
}

The world divides into a majority of people for whom the preceding four lines are meaningless and a minority for whom it is clear at once that, given the right breaks between them, these lines will create on your computer screen a simple clock.

For the majority, the world of software is a built world that, like a city, helps us to organise and to consume. But it has been built by others. For the minority, software is merely a curtain that can be pulled aside to reveal a wild world of confusion, trial and error, but also of potentially unlimited creative and commercial potential. It is time for Britain’s schoolchildren to be granted access to this world.

For a brief period in the 1980s, British schools and universities punched far above their weight in the production of graduates who spoke the language of computers. This was partly a legacy of Britain’s pioneering role in the fundamentals of computer science and partly thanks to the BBC Micro, which appeared in most schools in the country but required a basic understanding of code for even its most basic functions.

The Micro generation went on to dominate the creative side of the computer gaming industry, but mainly in other countries. Since then Britain’s top three universities for computer science — Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, London — have kept their rankings in a global top 20 predictably dominated by the United States. But for a wasted generation, computer science in schools has languished at the expense of something else entirely.

As Michael Gove lamented in a speech in January, the national curriculum’s vision of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) had atrophied to little more than a primer in the use of Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. What pupils got, if they could stay awake, were simple skills that conferred little competitive advantage and in most cases could anyway be self-taught. What they needed was a rigorous but rewarding grounding in code as a foreign language.

At the Education Secretary’s invitation, industry has produced a blueprint for a new computer science curriculum. It would start early. By the end of primary school, pupils would be able to build an app for a mobile phone. By 16 they would be able to write a program to solve a Sudoku puzzle. By 18, if they took computer science at A-Level, they would be able to write the code to guide a van along the shortest route between two points on a digitised map.

Under this scheme, coding would start at 7. Its advocates say this would produce, eventually, the number of computer-literate graduates that British employers need; equip all pupils with the ability to compartmentalise and sequence their thinking as coding requires; and reflect the new reality that no rounded education is complete without an introduction to programming.

It is a compelling case. Some schools may respond that they cannot possibly have enough qualified teachers ready for a curriculum by 2014, when the successor to ICT is due. That is no reason to push back the deadline. It is a reason to speed up the necessary training. That clock on your computer screen is ticking.

While it has been widely reported that industry have taken the lead on developing the new ICT Programme of Study in England, this is not quite correct. It has been coordinated by the BCS and the Royal Academy of Engineering on behalf of the Department for Education, with input from key stakeholders across education, academia, government and industry. They may have been indirectly referring to Computer Science: A Curriculum for Schools, the CAS curriculum which has been endorsed by industry and the examination boards.

N.B. The Times also cleverly demonstrated that programming is non-trivial, by inserting a couple of typos in the code fragment at the start of the article…

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Expert Panel report on the National Curriculum review

Yesterday, the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review released its report: “The Framework for the National Curriculum“, alongside a written ministerial statement by Michael Gove.

I have a huge interest in the outcomes of the National Curriculum review in England, primarily through my work with Computing At School (CAS), but also its impact on education policy in Wales. With the BCS Academy of Computing (the learned society dedicated to advancing computing as an academic discipline), CAS submitted a response to the call for evidence in April 2011; one of the main aims was to highlight to the Department for Education that computer science is a rigorous academic subject distinct from digital literacy and for it to be considered separately from ICT in the National Curriculum review. This letter to Michael Gove in June 2011 from the BCS and high-profile tech industry leaders further reinforced the strategic national importance of computer science to industry and the UK economy.

Here are two key snippets from the Expert Panel’s report (page 24):

Despite their importance in balanced educational provision, we are not entirely persuaded of claims that design and technology, information and communication technology and citizenship have sufficient disciplinary coherence to be stated as discrete and separate National Curriculum ‘subjects’.

We recommend that…Information and communication technology is reclassified as part of the Basic Curriculum and requirements should be established so that it permeates all National Curriculum subjects. We have also noted the arguments, made by some respondents to the Call for Evidence, that there should be more widespread teaching of computer science in secondary schools. We recommend that this proposition is properly considered.

This has come a week after a rather damning Ofsted report on ICT in schools, which says that only one third of secondary schools achieve ‘Good’ or better at teaching ICT. There is clearly still a lot of work to be done to ensure that we are developing the appropriate level of computational skills in schools (irrespective of what the subject is called), but this statement from the Expert Panel is certainly a positive step (although “We recommend that this proposition is properly considered.” is a bizarre turn of phrase, with little commitment). I am also concerned that embeddding ICT across the curriculum has been attempted before, with little success.

Let’s see what the Royal Society’s report says in January.

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