The new computing curriculum – some thoughts

Feb 12, 2013

Miles Berry

I wrote recently about the new draft National Curriculum in general, which shows a quite distinct shift from skills to knowledge, but perhaps not quite so far as understanding. Looking now at the new computing curriculum, knowledge certainly takes us in the right direction. I’m sure one of the reasons why ICT has been such a poor experience for so many (pupils and teachers) is that we’ve focussed far too much over the years on developing a set of skills, and not a knowledge of how technology works, less still an understanding of the principles of computation, digital media or information systems.

The skills have been easy enough for many to pick up, but without a more encompassing understanding they tend to be tied rather too closely to particular technologies, resulting to some extent in a learned incompetence, the separation between users and developers and the choice between program, or be programmed [1]{#fnref:1.footnote}.

I should declare a particular interest in the computing curriculum, as I was part of the two drafting groups assembled by the BCS and Royal Academy of Engineering to pull this together as expert advice for the DfE. I did not, however, contribute to the further work which took place on the programme of study after our draft was submitted at the end of November. I do have some serious concerns particularly about what’s been left out of the version published for public consultation last Thursday.

I am, however, delighted to see that there’s a significant amount of computer science on the new computing curriculum. This includes the craft of coding, from KS1 onwards – floor and screen turtles at KS1, Scratch at KS2 and both Scratch and Python or Javascript at KS3 would work well for progression, I’d have thought. A little HTML/CSS would be a useful addition, and whilst this can obviously be included, the requirements say ‘programming’, not ‘coding’. I’ve some hope that children learning about programming, data, algorithms and networks might develop an understanding of the principles of computer science which I see as an essential part of a liberal education in the third millennium.

I’m also pleased that there are aspects of this which look set to develop computational thinking. Notable here are ideas about predicting and testing what programs will do: I’m sure this is meant to be interpreted in the context of children’s own programs, but playing a few COTS games would be relevant to this. There’s also a focus on problem solving: using logic and ideas about systems, patterns (and pattern languages), abstraction and decomposition have wide applications to problems across, and more importantly, beyond the curriculum. If more folk in management grasped these ideas, many an organisation, and many a school, would run more effectively and efficiently.

Honestly, I’m pretty ambivalent about the name. I never liked the term ‘ICT’, as it never seemed to have much buy-in from outside UK school education. That said, I did quite like the way ‘information’, ‘communication’ and ‘technology’ partly characterised the three aspects of the subject that the Royal Society labelled as ‘IT’, ‘digital literacy’ and ‘computer science’, although I know this mapping is very far from exact. Whilst I know many pupils report having found ICT boring, a simple rebranding won’t address this. Windscale and Sellafield. Marathon and Snickers. The new PoS won’t address this either, unless we have at least an equivalent shift in pedagogy and assessment. The rebranding to ‘computing’ does reflect the shift in focus to knowledge of computer science in place of IT skills.

By the way, I’ve been really surprised by the number of folk over the past year who’ve argued that a name change would require primary legislation and was thus out of the question, when a reading of the relevant bit of the 2002 Education Act shows the Secretary of State can pretty much define the contents of the National Curriculum to be what he wants it to be, although he can’t tell schools how long they should spend on each bit, which may be significant here.

Peter Twining, who was with us for the first part of the drafting, and I have both done analyses of what’s changed since between the draft submitted by the BCS/RAEng as a result of the consensus process they led, drawing on the expertise of stakeholders from industry, schools, universities and other representative organisations, and that which was produced by the DfE. You can find his online on his EdFutures Bliki.

Like Peter, I’ve some serious concerns about what’s been left out in the re-draft. Applying the Wikipedia principle of ‘assume good faith’, I’d like to think that at least some of these omissions are honest mistakes, which the DfE will be eager to put right after the public consultation, as the subject contents we have seem in part logically inconsistent with the stated aims, and potentially detrimental to creative industries and individual well-being.

One of the over-arching aims for the new curriculum as a whole is that it ‘helps engender an appreciation of human creativity’. That’s got to be a Good Thing, and this is reflected in the preamble to the computing curriculum, which makes clear that pupils should become able to “express themselves through information and communication technology”, and in the aims, which include ensuring that all pupils are “are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology.” (Emphasis added). Where then is pupils’ entitlement to be taught how to use ICT creatively, to make original content in digital media? Well, it is there at KS3 and KS4

undertake creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals,

create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital information and content with attention to design, intellectual property and audience

develop their capability, creativity and knowledge in computer science, digital media and information technology

It’s just that there’s no mention of creativity at Key Stages 1 and 2. We had statements for this on the draft:

Create, manipulate and evaluate digital content in a range of formats for use by a familiar audience. (KS1)

Work collaboratively to plan, create, test and evaluate a range of digital products for a given audience (KS2)

but, for one reason or another, these seem to have failed to make the cut. Of course, there’s nothing in the National Curriculum which prevents teachers from continuing to teach children to create digital photographs, images, audio, music, animation, video, 3D models and so on. I’m sure many will interpret statements such as

organise, store, manipulate and retrieve data in a range of digital formats (KS1)

select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to accomplish given goals (KS2).

as providing the National Curriculum hooks (not that any are necessary), for these sorts of activities. What we lose here is the entitlement for all children to be taught these things. Given that the creative digital economy isn’t going to be built merely by an army of computer scientists, this seems rather myopic. Whilst Next Gen, rightly, recommended putting computer science on the curriculum, it’s hard to see that the games and visual effects industries will be strengthened by simultaneously eliminating computer graphics, animation and audio in primary education.

Here’s another example of where the push to increase CS has, for now, resulted in a curriculum which is leaning too far in that direction, arguably failing to provide a technological education which has breadth and balance:

Remember that bit in the aims about ensuring pupils are responsible users of ICT? This one word has been added in place of a whole further aim in the BCS/RAEng draft, which attempted to address a more critical digital literacy, developing pupils’ understanding of the implications of computing:

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

Indeed, all the references to criticality in our draft (we had four) were removed from the DfE copy. Other programmes of study are allowed to develop criticality by the way, just not computing.

We did provide language for this in both the KS3 and KS4 content:

Critically evaluate digital content, including its context, provenance and trustworthiness; reflect on the personal, social, economic, and ethical impacts of technology and technological change, and the implications for rights, responsibilities, and freedoms. (KS3)

Manage their online identity, participate in online communities, develop and critically evaluate digital media, and take account of ethical, legal, social, and environmental consequences of information systems. (KS4)

At least the notion of responsible (if not critical) use does get expressed in content at KS1 and KS2, but the above statements for KS3 or KS4 have been removed, leaving no reference to safety, responsibility or criticality. Can this really be on the assumption that they’ll have learnt enough about their online responsibilities by the time they leave primary school? Imagine the Y6 lessons: “Now children, when you’re 13 and can legally sign up for Facebook, please remember to…” To my mind the e-equivalent of putting all the sex ed in primary schools and never mentioning it after the age of 11.

In place of subject content focussed on creativity, responsibilities and critical digital literacy, we do see much more computer science. Some of this is good, so, for example,

use logical reasoning to predict the behaviour of simple programs

is a great addition to KS1, and, as I indicate above, provides scope for a little game based learning.

In the draft we had “appreciate how [search engine] results are selected and ranked”, as part of the Key Stage 2 programme, and I still see this as a crucial component of web literacies. This has now moved up to Key Stage 3, but is replaced in KS2 by “describe how internet search engines find and store data”. I think I could teach the first bit of this – web crawlers, robots.txt, link following etc, but I’d struggle to do the latter justice; I’m really not sure 11-year olds will be quite ready for Bigtable and the GFS, even after all this new CS.

Further additions, all at KS3, include “understand at least two key algorithms for each of sorting and searching”. I see an interview question coming on here… There’s also content on Boolean logic, in relation to program execution, search or database queries, as well as evaluating alternative algorithms (thankfully moved up from KS2 on our draft) and carrying out binary ‘manipulations’ by hand – I wonder if this means more than binary arithmetic?

I think the subject knowledge challenge for both ITT and CPD is manageable for KS1 and 2, although I know others take a less optimistic stance. Subject knowledge at KS3 seems a big step up on what we’ve had; the raised entry requirements for PGCE Computer Science at secondary will help for ITT, but giving current secondary ICT teachers the subject knowledge they’ll need to teach this is non-trivial. Subject pedagogy is another matter, particularly given the absence of creativity and critical digital literacy here, which would have allowed teachers and students to explore the applications and implications of the CS foundations. CS is a rigorous academic discipline, but I suspect it’s best learnt through play, exploration and experiment. I’ve written elsewhere about how we might address some of the CPD challenge through an approach based around teachers making things.

Anyhow, you’re welcome to disagree with me. Do comment below if so. If, on the other hand you agree with me at least that pupils ought to have an entitlement to creating content in digital media at KS1 and KS2 or that pupils should be taught to take a critical and ethical stance to the online world at KS3 and KS4 then please, take a moment to fill in a wonderfully anachronistic Word based form and tell the DfE this, sometime before 16th April.