Years ago, when I was growing up in Motherwell I was a massive fan of my local town’s football team. Like many other fellow fans I used to get disheartened as each Saturday we played to paltry crowds, whilst fellow townsfolk departed in their droves to attend matches played by both of the much more popular Rangers or Celtic. This didn’t deter me or many fellow fans from continuing to support Motherwell, but each season we watched our attendance figures dwindle as increasing numbers of ‘fairweather’ fans who craved a team that was far more successful (and winning trophies) switched their allegiance to their ‘Old Firm’ team of choice. You might be wondering what that has got to do with the teaching of computing and ICT in our schools, but I see it as a perfect metaphor for how the subject has come to be in its current state.
Although for years many secondary schools like my own taught a broad ICT curriculum which would include digital literacy, programming, simulation, history of computing, e-safety etc, many chose instead to concentrate on the IT equivalent of the ‘Old Firm’: the use of Microsoft Office applications. Such use of popular software was condoned by school senior leadership and was driven by a need to gain what was seen as returning easy results for relatively little effort: the OCR Nationals being the main culprit.
As a result, it took a certain amount of single-minded determination for Heads of ICT to continue to teach a variety of IT-related activities instead of resorting to a curriculum dominated by Excel, PowerPoint and Word activities. In fact I want to take this opportunity to applaud every single colleague who showed such doggedness, because if your experience was anything like mine then it cannot have been easy to justify such decisions to your SLT.
Count the costs
I guess a backlash was inevitable, the teaching of such shallow skills was never going to be tolerated forever, but I never thought it would be so swift and wide-ranging as has been the case over the past couple of years. I completely support the change of emphasis from a student’s need to know exactly what button made text right justified, to them learning how to control a robot using the code they’ve written on screen.
The majority of the teachers now responsible for teaching the new computing curriculum are the same individuals who taught ICT in the past and I think the support they have been given is nothing short of a travesty. Although CAS has done a phenomenal job to support such teachers, their funding was wholly inadequate for the provision of training on a national level to around 20,000 teachers. It is no wonder then that so many computing teachers still feel vulnerable about the teaching of this subject for the coming year.
I have many reservations about how we have found ourselves in the current situation, but I believe that it is retrievable.
For one thing, teachers and schools have to stop being dazzled and bewitched by a need to ditch a broad IT curriculum for one which is wholly centred on coding. If we are not to do a disservice to the current generation of school students, then I believe that schools need to play to their strengths and coding will not be a strength of the majority of schools.
Trying to cram ‘coding at all costs’ into every school’s computing curriculum has led to an overreliance on superb organisations like Code Club, and this is dangerous because it is an unsustainable model by which a school abdicates its responsibility adequately to train its staff. It has been of great concern that £25,000 grants have been available for recent graduates to train as computing teachers, yet those who taught ICT for years were given no such financial incentive to upskill to the necessary level required for examination courses in computer science.
Keep ‘em keen
I had the privilege of recently attending MineCon – the world Minecraft convention – and somewhat ironically, under the new ownership of Microsoft it is just possible that this software may save the day as far as computing at KS3 is concerned. The conference was predominantly comprised of young people, and if we can tap into their knowledge of and enthusiasm for this tool and make use of this to help them to understand the wider principles of computational thinking, then it is possible that computing could finally be the subject we want it to be. Minecraft is the true epitome of the old teacher’s adage that ‘students know more than me’ – but let’s exploit that for a change; let’s encourage students to teach their teachers how something works for once without teachers feeling vulnerable.
There is some scepticism about the need to train a generation of coders. Renowned programmer and trainer Jason Gorman (@jasongorman) has summed it up on Twitter by saying “Programming is the new literacy, and that’s why we’re investing less than the cost of an Egg McMuffin per teacher in training”. He adds “...I’m far more concerned about the (lack of) support – especially funding – for teachers in delivering the new computing curriculum as Maggie Philbin’s Digital Britain report correctly identifies, the budget for schools computing needs some zeros adding to the end. I’m also deeply concerned by the complete lack of coverage of basic programming good habits in both the curriculum and clubs approach”.
So there you have it, if professional programmers like Jason have come to such a conclusion then we must not think we have a ‘happy clappy club’ where everyone in industry is applauding what is happening in schools in the guise of computing.
If precautions are not taken within a few years, students will be as bored with the computing curriculum as they were by learning PowerPoint and its ilk. Let’s make sure this does not happen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Drew Buddie is Chair of Naace (www.naace.co.uk)