Changes to the computing programme of study – some thoughts

Originally blogged for Switched on ICT (Rising Stars)

As expected, the new Computing programme of study firmly moves the focus from skills in using software to an understanding of computer science and practical experience in coding. Understanding computation and managing information will be of crucial importance to learners growing up in the third millennium, and the knowledge and understanding that pupils develop at primary school is likely to be far more relevant and ‘transferable’ than skills in using particular bits of software, whether that’s PowerPoint or Scratch.

Although there’ll be a short, statutory consultation before the new National Curriculum can take effect, which won’t be until September 2014 anyhow (or indeed September 2015 for Year 6 English, maths and science), what we saw published on July 8 should be seen as the final version, like it or not. For computing, there’s much to like: in the hands of skilful and creative teachers, this document could easily form the core of a rich, stimulating education in computing and the use of digital technology.

It’s interesting to look at the changes since the draft published in February: whilst there wasn’t the same reaction to the computing draft as we, rightly, saw for history and D&T, a number of us expressed concerns in our responses to the consultation, and, as with history and D&T, at least some of these have been acted on.

The ‘purpose’ statement removes much of the repetition evident in the earlier draft, to the extent that the previous focus on computational thinking, ie on computing as a lens through which to understand the world, is now largely obscured. The Royal Society’s approach to the three aspects of computing as computer science, IT and digital literacy is preserved though: I think it’s helpful to think of these as the foundations, applications and implications of digital technology, and an approach to teaching and planning in which these are integrated may have much to commend it.

‘Abstraction’ replaces ‘communication’ in the first of the CS aims. It’s a hard concept, but a fundamental aspect of computational thinking – in part it’s about seeking to represent the key features of a system; in part it’s not worrying about detail. There’s a sense in which the programme of study is like an abstraction of schools’ schemes of work and teachers’ lesson plans. The other aims are unchanged, and it’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the fifth aim from the BCS/RAEng Working Party,

“Can critically articulate the individual, cultural, and societal impacts of digital technology, and know how to stay safe, exploit opportunities, and manage risks”

has not been restored. That’s not to say that teachers can’t aim to do this too, of course, just that they’re not required to.

The attainment target text too is unchanged, and we’ve recently had it confirmed that assessment is to be without levels, although I don’t dount that many teachers (and others) will seek to preserve and develop this approach to assessment, despite the strong arguments against it from Gove, Oates, Wiliam et al. For me, the most exciting developments here are around badges, particularly Open Badges, as a way of providing a granular credential for achievement. A badge for each of the content statements in the programme of study seems an entirely reasonable way to support progression and report on outcomes to parents, secondary schools and HMI.

Looking at the content of the programme of study itself, at Key Stage 1 there’s an interesting addition: “that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions”, which goes somewhat to giving young children the insight that computers are entirely deterministic devices. We’ve moved too from pupils testing their programs to debugging (ie correcting) them – it’s a step up, but far more motivating to fix something than to just spot it’s wrong. As Richard Sennet writes in The Craftsman,

‘it is by fixing things that we often get to understand how they work’.

There’s a metaphor there for the assessment culture in schools, I think.

The previous KS1 requirement, ‘organise, store, manipulate and retrieve data in a range of digital formats’ now becomes ‘use technology purposefully to create, organise, store, manipulate and retrieve digital content’. I’ve argued that the creativity mentioned in the aims for the NC as a whole and for the computing PoS really must be part of the content at each KS, and so it’s great to see it here now.

There’s also more detail listed for safe and responsible use at KS1: we now have ‘use technology safely and respectfully, keeping personal information private; know where to go for help and support when they have concerns about material on the internet’, which are good, sound ‘e-safety’ points, although I suspect that they may have meant ‘web’ rather than ‘internet’ here…

At key stage 2, we again have the inclusion of debugging, see above, in place of the dull sounding ‘generate appropriate inputs and predicted outputs to test programs’, although I maintain that this was an excuse for a little game based learning: we could still get away with that via ‘use logical reasoning to explain how some simple algorithms work’, if we felt we needed the curriculum cover.

I’m delighted that they’ve replaced the daft ‘describe how internet search engines find and store data’, with ‘appreciate how results are selected and ranked’, which is a crucial part of critical digital literacy and part of what we had in the BCS/RAEng November KS2 draft. The e-safety message is also expanded, and now includes ‘know a range of ways to report concerns and inappropriate behaviour’, which makes sense.

Whilst I know there’s still plenty of opportunity for creative projects in digital media within the catch all ‘using stuff, on stuff to do stuff’ statement (as Ian Addison’s Y4 pupil put it) with which KS2 contents concludes, I’m disappointed that this isn’t enshrined as an entitlement for all, as it is at all other key stages, but left to having a good teacher, going to a good school or having the kit and motivation to do this at home. It would have done much to address entitlement and inclusion here by restoring the statement:

“work collaboratively to plan, create, test, and evaluate a range of digital products for a given audience.”

I’ve no doubt that good teachers and schools will do this, but shouldn’t that be something for all? I’d be really interested to know why Mr Gove and Ms Truss don’t think this worth including.

Elsewhere in the curriculum, there’s relatively little attention paid to the way digital technology can enhance learning, and still some preference for analogue forms (pencils, not keyboards; sketchbooks not tablets). The aim remains that of passing on core knowledge, and whilst this is important, I’m not certain that this is necessarily the best possible preparation for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life. Where, I wonder, is talk of developing character, curiosity and confidence?