Posts Tagged ‘Royal Society’
Programming is the start not the end: let’s develop computational thinking and problem solving skills
(N.B. This is the original unedited version of an article published online today in The Telegraph)
I wholeheartedly support the high-profile initiatives to get more children programming, especially as part of the rethinking of the ICT curriculum in UK schools. The publication of the Royal Society’s report Shut down or restart? in January highlighted the unsatisfactory state of ICT education in the UK, recommending that every child should have the opportunity to study the rigorous academic discipline of computer science. With the disapplication of the existing ICT Programmes of Study and the development of a new programme of study as part of the National Curriculum Review in England, we are at an exciting crossroads, with a real opportunity to make computing and technology a key focus of our education system. But if there’s one lesson we should take away from the problems of the past 15 years it is that we must not focus on transient and superficial technology skills. Computer science is not programming (and vice versa) and we should be wary of teaching programming just for the sake of teaching programming, without thinking about why we want to get kids to program.
When Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, tweeted in January that he was going to learn how to program, there were strong opinions expressed implying that programming is not for everyone. This is untrue. One of the reasons that programming is increasingly perceived to be a 21st century literacy in our technology-dependent society is because it is ultimately empowering, developing the ability to manipulate and control your digital world. But the key message is that learning how to program is not the endpoint, but part of the journey of equipping children with the necessary digital skills to solve problems. Our high-level aim should be to develop technology-independent skills and techniques, such as data literacy and computational thinking.
Computational thinking is a way of solving problems, designing systems and understanding human behavior that draws on concepts fundamental to computer science. Computational thinking includes a range of mental tools that reflect the breadth of the field of computer science. Computational thinking means creating and making use of different levels of abstraction, to understand and solve problems more effectively; it means thinking algorithmically and with the ability to apply mathematical concepts to develop more efficient, fair, and secure solutions; it means understanding the consequences of scale, not only for reasons of efficiency but also for economic and social reasons. And this is why it is important to teach computer science in schools: we need to embed principles and theory to develop a deeper conceptual understanding of how technology works and how it can be leveraged to solve problems. There is a quote commonly misattributed to Edsger Dijkstra: “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” — this is where computational thinking fits in, abstracting away the technology.
Hence, there is an important balance to strike between focusing on developing practical programming skills (i.e. being able to write code for a specific task) and embedding a deeper understanding of languages and constructs: principles of programming. We know technology changes quickly, so we need to make sure that when “Technology X” appears, we have transferable knowledge and a deeper conceptual understanding of how it works and how it can be used.
But there are significant challenges ahead in changing the status quo and enthusing and engaging children in schools. Programming is a creative endeavour and offers a tangible way for children to express themselves by hacking, making and sharing. We now have the hooks to use in schools e.g. Raspberry Pi, Arduino, .NET Gadgeteer, LEGO Mindstorms, etc, offering opportunities for embedding computing across the curriculum. But we also have to recognise the importance of developing this deeper conceptual understanding, the problem solving and analytical skills, as well as knowledge of the underpinning theoretical foundations of computing.
So let’s change the focus from just writing code to developing the crucial thinking skills and the ability to solve problems. To quote Jeannette M. Wing, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University: “Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists. To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.“
Computer science touches upon all three of my education priorities: literacy, numeracy and bridging the gap. It equips learners with the problem-solving skills so important in life and work.
The value of computational thinking, problem-solving skills and information literacy is huge, across all subjects in the curriculum. I therefore believe that every child should have the opportunity to learn concepts and principles from computer science.
Indeed, computing is a high priority area for growth in Wales. The future supply and demand for science, technology and mathematics graduates is essential if Wales is to compete in the global economy.
It is therefore vitally important that every child in Wales has the opportunity to study computer science between the ages of 11-16.
This is how Leighton Andrews AM, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education and Skills, opened his keynote speech at the 2012 CAS Wales/Technocamps Conference at Swansea University on Friday 22nd June. It was a clear declaration by the Welsh Government of the importance and wide utility of computer science education. Building on last year’s successful inaugural conference, the 2nd CAS Wales/Technocamps Conference had the bold tagline of “Delivering Computer Science for Wales“.
The Minister’s speech touched upon a number of key issues, highlighting computer science as a key underpinning STEM discipline, recognising the value of learning how to program, as well as the wider educational impact of computational thinking, problem-solving skills and information literacy across all subjects in the curriculum. He also agreed with the findings of the Royal Society’s report Shutdown or restart?, recognising the three distinct strands of computer science, information technology and digital literacy. As part of a broad and balanced curriculum, the Minister reiterated that there should be flexibility in the programmes of study to let teachers deliver a tailored curriculum that best meets the needs of their learners:
I have asked my officials to look at the current ICT Programme of Study at Key Stages 2 and 3 and explore opportunities where computer science may be incorporated within the curriculum.
And more importantly, in response to the headline recommendations of the Digital Classroom Teaching Task and Finish Group to improve digital learning in Wales:
I am pleased to announce today an additional £3m of funding over the next three years to support a range of measures to improve computer science, digital literacy and ICT in schools and colleges across Wales.
While it remains to be seen quite how this money will breaks down, this is a clear Ministerial commitment to promoting and supporting the teaching of computer science in Wales (further to my letter to all state-maintained secondary schools and colleges in Wales in April). There is also a clear imperative for investing in CPD to upskill ICT teachers across Wales to teach computer science:
I believe that provision for continuing professional development for teachers is critical here. The Welsh Government will work closely with delivery partners such as Computing At School and Technocamps to ensure that this CPD programme is well-coordinated and has a significant impact on learner outcomes in digital literacy, ICT and computer science.
I would encourage headteachers to ensure that their school is engaged with Technocamps. I am also keen to promote the Computing At School initiative by encouraging ICT teachers across Wales to take advantage of this excellent free service.
A huge thanks to all of the keynote speakers and workshop leaders who made the 2012 conference a success, especially Technocamps and Swansea University. Check out the Storify of the conference and the Bring & Brag event, as well as images from the day.
This is a significant milestone in government support for computer science education in Wales (UK?), but it all depends on how we progress from here. Will 2012 be the year of computer science in Wales?
In March, the BCS Academy of Computing and Computing at School (CAS) sent an information pack (zipped) to every state secondary school in England, in order to explain the opportunities they would have from September 2012 to develop Computer Science as a rigorous academic component within a reformed ICT curriculum. The supporting materials in the information pack provides comprehensive information that should help head teachers and school governors make the right decisions:
- Covering letter, explaining the current situation and key strategic choices for schools to teach Computer Science;
- A summary of the Royal Society report Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart?;
- Computer Science as a school subject, draws on the experience of CAS and explains what Computer Science is, and why it is strategically important;
- Computer Science: A curriculum for schools, is the CAS curriculum for Computer Science, mentioned by Michael Gove in January’s BETT speech, written by a group of teachers, academics and industry researchers, and endorsed by BCS, Microsoft, Google and Intellect;
- As examples of the wealth of high-quality material that is available to support Computer Science teaching, copies of the latest CAS newsletter and cs4fn magazine.
Alongside the information pack was the announcement of the Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence, to create a network of schools and universities across the UK to advance teaching excellence in Computer Science. Schools that are members of the network of excellence will:
- be offered enhanced and heavily subsidised CPD for a teacher in their school;
- be part of a regional teaching hub for sharing good practice and offering grassroots organised CPD;
- have regular contact with university Computer Science departments to support and inspire teaching material;
- be expected to teach Computer Science at Key Stage 3 or 4 as a catalyst for a renewed Computing curriculum as recommended by the Royal Society, which is benchmarked against the CAS curriculum;
- have opportunities for showcasing their teaching practices and experiences at national conferences;
- be proactively consulted for their views and opinions for future campaigns related to education policy.
The centres of excellence would become part of a national network for establishing best practice and spearheading innovative teaching in Computer Science, with ongoing support from CAS, the universities in the network and BCS. We need key schools spread across the UK to kickstart this initiative; as you can see from the map below (click for a live update), it has already generated a huge amount of interest, with over 400 schools registering interest.
The Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence is open to all schools across the UK — register your interest here* and spread the word; by creating this national network and providing effective CPD for teachers, there is a prime opportunity to have a profound effect on Computer Science education in the UK.
*there will be some flexibility on the 30th April deadline…
2011 was a promising year for computer science in schools, with government ministers (even the Prime Minister) appearing to recognise its importance from both an educational and economic perspective; all in the midst of a uncertain large-scale education review in England. 2012 is shaping up to be just as promising, starting with the publication of the Royal Society’s 18 month study on computing in schools in a fortnight. Computing At School (CAS) have been busy on a number of fronts over the past year, but in particular advocacy at national policy level (along with the BCS Academy of Computing).
However, we have to remain grounded — there is still a huge amount of work to be done (and nothing is yet guaranteed). As well as continuing the policy work, one of the priorities for CAS is to further connect with and support the network of Computing and ICT teachers across the UK, as well as changing the wider public’s poor perception of computer science — into a rigorous, practical and intellectually useful academic discipline (and as a pathway to a wide range of careers). There are also a number of excellent initiatives to support that focus on developing the key skills of computational thinking and programming, as well as genuinely engaging young people with technology: Young Rewired State, Hack to the Future, Apps for Good, Codecademy et al.
— Dr Tom Crick (@DrTomCrick) December 31, 2011
I will be using this hashtag to promote Computer Science in 2012; please use and spread the message!
And why is 2012 especially important? It’s also the Turing Centenary, a celebration of the life and scientific influence of Alan Turing on the centenary of his birth on 23rd June 1912. A number of major events (such as the Computability in Europe 2012 conference) will be taking place throughout the year, with many linked to places with special significance in Turing’s life, including Cambridge, Manchester, Bletchley Park and Princeton. 2012: The Alan Turing Year and the Year of Computer Science.
We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950)
I will be spending next week in the House of Commons, as part of the Royal Society‘s 2011 MP/Scientist Pairing Scheme. This scheme aims to build bridges between parliamentarians, civil servants and some of the best research scientists in the UK; participating scientists are paired with either an MP or civil servant and take part in a Week in Westminster and reciprocal visits back to the researcher’s institution. The Royal Society offers this scheme as an easy way to provide MPs with the opportunity to explore the science behind their decisions; by pairing a MP or civil servant with a leading scientist, both gain an understanding of the work behind the fundamental issues involved in each field. Since 2001, over 150 scientists have been paired with MPs and civil servants.
I’m paired with Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, who has previously taken part in the Scheme. I’ve met with Jenny a couple of times over the past couple of months, so very much looking forward to the Week in Westminster. The scientists have a action-packed schedule, including talks from the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, the House of Commons and House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committees, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee (who organise SET for BRITAIN, in which I took part in 2010) and Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor. We will also spend time “shadowing” our MP, as well as attending PMQs on Wednesday! Overall, I hope the Scheme will give me further insight into how science policy is formed, as well as providing an opportunity for building long-term relationships to share knowledge and expertise with the Government.