The press has been buzzing with features and commentary on the challenges and opportunities of computing in schools. John Naughton in the Observer outlined a manifesto for teaching computer science in the 21st century, and Janet Murray in the Guardian celebrated the enthusiasm of a new generation of coders in schools.
So what has started this surge in interest? Education Secretary Michael Gove was partly responsible when he sent England’s “rusty” ICT curriculum to the scrapheap in his speech at the British Education and Training Technology (Bett) show, but he was fanning a flame that was already burning. Gove described ICT in schools as a “mess” and called for a new approach in which ICT would remain a compulsory subject at every stage of the curriculum, but without the existing Programme of Study.
Bill Gates turned up the juice to when he when he said it was more important for children to understand computer programming now than it had been in his youth. And Google chairman Eric Schmidt suggested that England had allowed its education system to ignore its “great heritage” and that we were now “paying the price for it”.
A range of influential reports also raise concerns about computing in school, for example: the Royal Society report ‘Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart?’; the Next Gen report by Livingston and Hope for Nesta; the Naace report entitled “The Importance of Technology”; and the Ofsted report on ICT in schools. There is clearly a consensus that some sort of change is needed, and an energy and enthusiasm to drive the necessary changes.
That however is where it gets complicated. Are we clear and agreed about exactly what is wrong with computer science and ICT in schools today? It is not all doom and gloom, and even Mr Gove recognises that “some ICT teaching in schools is already excellent”. What do we want learners to be able to achieve? Do we want to prepare students to take up a career in a computer related industry or to be able to use their technology in an intelligent manner and adapt it to meet their needs?
Right now a lot of attention is focused on making sure young people take part in computer programming. But It is the understanding and development of computational thinking that is fundamental to how we equip young people to mould their technology according to their own desires, rather than being moulded through their technology by the desires of others.
Computational thinking can revolutionise the way we think and the way we express what we think. The skills of computational thinking can be taught with or without computers, by exploring how processes work, looking for problems in everyday systems, examining patterns in data, and questioning evidence. The computer is what enables children to put their computational thinking into action.