Nick Gibb, the minister for school reform, describes the new curriculum as one that will make England’s education system the ‘envy of the world’. For computer science education, there’s a good chance that he’s right. Whilst many countries teach programming in high schools, the entitlement for all pupils from five up to be taught computer science has very few precedents; English schools really are leading the way here, and there’s global interest, including from the likes of Finland and Singapore, in how we’re approaching this. That said, English computing teachers can still learn much from examples of some of the best practice elsewhere.
In the US, MIT has have been at the leading edge of computing education from the very early days. Seymour Papert’s work in the 70s and 80s casts a long shadow. The Logo programming language that he co-developed gave many children their first experience of programming, and it remains a great introduction to text-based programming. Whilst much Logo programming focuses on drawing shapes, and it is indeed a great tool to get pupils exploring geometry, there’s much more to the language than this. Papert himself saw Logo as being more about giving children tools to think with, and for getting them thinking about thinking. You can try Logo yourself online.
One of Papert’s former students, Mitch Resnick, now heads MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten, the team responsible for Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu). This is a building-block based programming language, a bit like Lego, but for programming rather than building, with good support for working with graphics and sound. Although it was originally designed for use outside the classroom, it’s the ideal platform for introductory programming courses, and has been taken up with enthusiasm by teachers in England and across the globe. Because there’s hardly any typing needed, pupils can concentrate on implementing the ideas of their algorithms as code rather than remembering the particular syntax of the language. Scratch is great for creating animations and simple games, both of which seem very motivating for pupils, but it’s also a powerful environment for mastering many programming concepts. There’s a vibrant online community, with over six million Scratch projects shared online, some great curriculum materials and now a ScratchJr app for key stage 1 pupils on the iPad: this looks set to be a really creative toolkit for young children to make their own scripted animations.
New Zealand schools teach computer science at secondary school level. Taking some inspiration from the view that ‘Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes’, Tim Bell, Professor of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Canterbury University in New Zealand, and his team at CS Unplugged have produced some practical class-based lessons that focus on developing understanding rather than specific skills. There are some great activities to choose from, such as Modems Unplugged, in which a message is hidden in the pitchof a song, using high notes for 1 and low notes for 0 in a binary text code, and the challenge of ‘Santa’s Dirty Socks’: how quickly can you find the offending item in 1024 identical, wrapped presents?
Similarly, Computer Science is an option for pupils in Years 10-12 in Estonia, but recently the ProgeTiiger initiative has introduced after extracurricular clubs from Year 1 upwards. Younger pupils work with Kodu, Microsoft’s free DIY 3D game development studio. Game programming is appealing to many young coders, and Kodu offers a highly accessible introduction to this. Older pupils might work with Lego Mindstorms robotics kit – which adds another level of challenge, but also provides some useful insights into the hardware side of digital technology – there’s more to computer science than algorithms and code. Pupils in Estonia also have the opportunity to try their hand at web development and design: these are incredibly useful skills, which the new English curriculum perhaps doesn’t include enough of.
Beyond school, in US higher education, there’s much interest in introductory CS courses, such as Harvard’s CS50 (currently Harvard’s most popular course with their own undergraduates) and Berkeley’s Beauty and Joy of Computing. What’s really interesting is seeing how these and similar courses are being developed for students still in high school, as Advance Placement (AP) courses in the principles of computer science, emphasising that important as coding is, it’s the ideas of computational thinking which really matter for non-specialists. It’s worth saying that many of these courses are available online for free as ‘MOOCs’ (try searching https://www.edx.org/ or https://www.coursera.org/), which could be great professional development for teachers with the time to extend their subject knowledge, or indeed for particularly able or motivated students.
While the new computing curriculum is allowing England to make significant advances in terms of technology education, by looking as what is being done in other education systems across the world we can get a clearer idea of how best to approach the teaching of computing in our schools. With the fast pace of change in technology, and the global nature of digital communications, it is more important than ever that our pupils take their place in a global network of young learners, set to become the computing pioneers of the next generation.
Originally published in the November 2014 edition of e-Learning Update. © all rights reserved.Share