Some thoughts on CS CPD

Jan 16, 2013

Miles Berry

I’ve been in a couple of interesting meetings this week, both with teachers’ CPD high up the agenda. This certainly seems a priority for many as we move to a position with far more computer science in schools’ ICT.

The landscape has undoubtedly changed, partly due to the withdrawal of large swathes of government from this territory (gone are National Strategies, the role of local authorities is diminished and there’s no longer funding for teachers to study for masters), but also because of the vibrant online communities and networks that are so easy for teachers to use – blogs, Facebook, Twitter, the TES and Guardian communities are so accessible, and so useful. Technology mediated personal learning networks have transformed CPD for many: this is as much about the development of the profession as professional development – it’s so easy for teachers to share their ideas and resources now, in a way which would once have been impossible.

Getting buy-in from others to ideas lies at the boundary between innovation and creativity: there are many of who can and do teach creatively, far fewer who are genuine innovators in the sense that others take up their ideas and make them their own. David Hargreaves’ insights here are useful: he wrote back in ’99 about the ‘tinkering’ teacher an ‘an individualised embryo of institutional knowledge creation’, making the point that knowledge or innovation transfer was “most easily achieved when a teacher tinkers with information derived from another’s professional practice.” This seems to be exactly what we now see in so many online networks.

I was impressed that the coalition’s education whitepaper, The Importance of Teaching was supported by a summary of evidence in support of this, The Case for Change, even if some of the research was used somewhat selectively. It states:

“Collaborative professional development is more strongly associated with improvements in teaching and learning… [it] appears more likely to produce changes in teacher practice, attitudes or beliefs and in pupil outcomes.”

This really isn’t much of a surprise, and seems hardly unique to teaching. If we’re willing to accept the notion of teaching as a craft, then the sort of apprenticeship and development common to other craft domains ought to work as well for teaching as they do in these domains. In such domains, a community of practice model is commonplace, with the route to mastery from legitimate peripheral participation being characterised by increasingly significant contributions to increasingly complex projects. Professional development for software craftsman is integral to the process of making new code: yes there’s a need to learn new knowledge and skills, to acquire new understanding, but time and time again this comes back to making things with others. This is just one of the reasons why participating in open source projects is such a good training for software craftsman. But if for software developers and other craftsmen then why not also for teachers?

Yes, I think there’s going to be a great need for teachers to acquire new subject knowledge and pedagogic content knowledge for teaching programming and other aspects of computer science; indeed I’d agree that this is probably the biggest challenge facing CAS now. Yes, there is a place for traditional courses, and for high quality self-study resources (ranging from MOOCs and OERs from premier league universities through to interactive tutorials). But perhaps there’s also a place for a more collaborative approach to CPD in which teachers learn together through making things together: what better way to learn programming than by, er, programming? This needn’t be from scratch (or Scratch) either: it might not suit the purists, but hacking around with a few open source modules seems a pretty good way in to picking up a little PHP or javascript. What better way to learn how to teach CS, something, interestingly, which Sue Sentance’s CPD survey suggests teachers are more interested in than learning CS, than through working together with others on a scheme of work, a set of learning resources or a text book chapter?

The new, slimmed down programme of study is a long, long way from a scheme of work: I think there’s a great CPD opportunity here for ICT teachers to sit round a (real or virtual) table and code up a scheme of work to implement the functional requirements of the PoS.