Ever since Eric Schmidt of Google expressed his shock at UK children not learning computer science, there has been a flurry of activity to introduce programming to children at an early age. This includes Education Secretary Michael Gove’s abolition of the existing ICT Programme of Study in favour of a more rigorous and challenging attempt to teach computer science, especially programming. It is an admirable point of view that we both strongly support. But before we all go overboard, there are a couple of essential questions:
1) Does the plan align with what research tells us about teaching children programming, why we are in favour of it, and what we might expect from it?
There have been nearly 50 years of development and research dedicated to finding ways for non-programmers to program. In 1967, Seymour Papert and his colleagues at MIT invented Logo, a language that was good for kids – and this at a time when the only thing one could do with a computer was to program it.
But as Papert said, a language that is only good for kids is not good for kids! He meant that programming languages are powerful ways for people to build understanding, access to formal systems of thought (like mathematics), which are essential ways for people to express their ideas about the world, and to make sense of it. That’s why programming is important: not just to increase the supply of programmers (important) or to introduce to everyone what is under the bonnet of the systems that power our society (essential), but to introduce the power of computational thinking.
2) The DfE announcement of “around 50 scholarships worth £20,000 each” is accompanied by the granting of permission to top universities and schools to provide new Computer Science teacher training courses from September 2013, tough requirements for Computer Science subject knowledge for new teachers, and training “around” 500 teachers in Computer Science through a new “Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence”. BUT, does this new plan adhere to the design principle well loved in the computer science labs of our undergraduate days: KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid?
This useful little principle is a valuable reminder that most systems work best if they are kept simple and therefore simplicity is a key design principle. In order to keep things simple designers need to understand what problem their design is addressing. So are we clear about what is wrong with computer science and ICT in schools now and more importantly are we all clear about exactly what we want learners to be able to achieve as a result of studying computer science? Do we want to skill up the new workforce for the UK’s games industry, or encourage a new generation of engineers and computer scientists, or do we want to encourage young people to make rather than take their technology? This question should drive the way we train our teaching workforce and simplicity should be the watchword for the systems we design to deliver a solution.
A simple and useful truth is that 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. With a computer, learners can put their computational thinking into action. A focus on computational thinking will better equip learners to use their understanding effectively and to learn how to apply a range of computing tools. Ensuring that all UK students develop good computational thinking would be a clear and simple answer to the question of what we want students to achieve.
There are no short cuts to a solution. The key to being able to design the necessarily simple system for training the teaching workforce is to fully understand that workforce, the context in which teachers teach and learners learn (both inside and outside the classroom or lecture hall), and the constraints under which they operate. The real power of KISS is the way that it highlights the need to think about how the system you are designing might break down, to identify the tools and processes that will be available to mend things when they do go wrong.
We must therefore ask: has there been enough input into this new system design from teachers and learners to ensure that the new measures are simple enough to be easily mended when inevitably things don’t work quite as they should?
To see how learners and teachers really want to “hack” the education to meet their needs come along to the Re-Designing our Education Education Hack Event on November 16-17. Or you can see the results at the London Festival of Education on Saturday, 17 November.