The Computing PoS

May 01, 2013

Miles Berry

Originally published in Teach Primary

Although we’ve only seen a draft of the computing programme of study at the moment, there’s every indication that we’re in for some big changes in what primary school children are taught about computers.

The name of the subject changes, from ICT to computing, reflecting a shift in emphasis in the contents of the programme of study. It would be a mistake to identify ‘computing’ solely with programming, as there’s clearly still a place for IT and digital literacy here, although perhaps not on an entirely equal footing.

Whilst it’s true that we’ve had programming on the National Curriculum right from its inception, there is a greater focus on this now, with a lot more detail specified (despite Mr Gove’s earlier assurances that he would only specify the minimum core knowledge, allowing schools to develop their own curricula beyond this). Thus, for example, Key Stage 1 pupils are to be taught what algorithms are, and Key Stage 2 pupils to use use sequence, selection, repetition and variables in the programs they write.

The biggest change though is the move from a subject which has often focused solely on developing children’s skills in using computers to one which seeks to develop their knowledge of how digital technology works, and the insights which computer science brings to an understanding of all sorts of systems. If, and it’s a big if, teachers can rise to the challenge of this ambitious new curriculum, we can look forward to a generation of children able to explain how programs do what they do, to understand the difference between the internet and the web, and to have a grasp of how Google creates a list of search results and puts them into order. Furthermore, they should be able to take the problem solving toolkit and insights which computational thinking offers and apply these to situations elsewhere, in and beyond the curriculum: to break problems down into smaller parts, to look for patterns as a way of solving broad classes of problems, to focus on what matters rather than unnecessary detail, and to look for simpler, faster ways of getting things done.

Many of those calling for these changes argued that the computing curriculum should be about making rather than using, or about creating rather than consuming. This switch is emphasised in the preamble and aims for computing. I think though that the DfE might have gone further with this. Whilst there’s ample opportunity here for pupils to be taught to create their own computer code, there’s no entitlement, in the draft, for children to be taught about making things in other digital media, such as text, presentation slides, digital photography, audio, animation, video or 3D modeling. That’s a shame. I know children with ready access to tech outside school will have a chance to acquire expertise in these areas, and many teachers will, thankfully, continue to teach this, perhaps as part of ‘organise, store, manipulate and retrieve data’ (KS1) or ‘select, use and combine a variety of software on a range of digital devices to accomplish give goals’ (KS2). Without creative work in digital media as part of the statutory entitlement, this key area is left to chance, the digital divide deepens and the balance of the programme of study looks to have shifted too far off centre.

To teach the new programme of study, I think we have to acknowledge there’s now a need for lots of professional development. I would hate to see this done in the way we’ve done too much technology CPD in the past. Far better to take this shift from user to maker and apply that to the CPD challenge too: what better way for a teacher to learn to program than by creating interactive resources to use with a class? What better way to get to grips with the programme of study than to start writing your own scheme of work and lesson activities? Similarly the move from skills to understanding is one teachers, as lifelong learners, ought to embrace. I think the community will help here, but books like Peter Bentley’s Digitized and John Naughton’s From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg would make great holiday reading. The bigger challenge for some of us will be about changing how we teach, rather than what we teach. Seymour Papert’s insights from the 80’s, that we learn best through making, are so relevant to this new curriculum, and I’m sure that our focus needs to be on developing curiosity, creativity and confidence, and certainly not on rote learning or endless Scratch worksheets.

Finally, teachers and schools must keep in mind that the National Curriculum is (and always was) there as a minimum entitlement, not as the complete specification of all a school should teach. To ensure breadth and balance, and to prepare their pupils best for the opportunities and challenges of later life and learning, schools must look beyond what might well far too narrow a conception of technological education in the third millennium.

The above is © Teach Primary 2013, all rights reserved. It is reproduced here with permission.