The last few tweaks

Sep 16, 2013

Miles Berry

So here we are at last. Almost a year ago, a small group of us met in London to brainstorm ideas and consider rough ‘straw man’ drafts for a new programme of study for ICT in the National Curriculum – on Wednesday of last week (11/9/14), the necessary statutory instrument was laid before parliament and the website updated with the final version of the National Curriculum for 2014. Peter Twining has documented much of the process, as have Bill Mitchell for the BCS and Mirandanet’s Christina Preston.

I blogged about the February and July drafts for Rising Stars at the time, so what I’d like to do here is look at the last few changes between and the statutory version. Peter’s recent ‘bliki’ post shows what’s changed. As he says, the changes are relatively minor, as one might expect at this late stage of the day, but it’s worth looking at each of these.

The preamble refers now to computational thinking and creativity in its opening sentence, and for me this lies at the heart of why computing matters and how it can justify its place on the timetable. Digital technology makes possible so much creative work, as well as providing a means for that work to be shared with a global audience, and, whilst it’s easy to focus on the new CS bits of the curriculum, please let’s continue to provide meaningful opportunities for pupils to work creatively in the digital domain, at all key stages. Computational thinking is very ‘in’ at the moment; I think rightly so as this moves our focus from the craft skill of coding, important as that is, to the far more fundamental, long term useful ability to think like a computer scientist, even if their eventual career choice is something quite different.

Computational thinking, though, is a far from unproblematic term. Jeanette Wing’s 2006 article is a good starting point, and Google have a helpful page about this, where they identify core components of this as algorithms, decomposition, abstraction and generalised patterns: it’s not hard to see the influence of these ideas on the programme of study, with algorithms a still somewhat controversial element at KS1, decomposing problems at KS2, and decomposition via procedures or functions and state/behaviour abstractions at KS3. Whilst these are certainly part of the computer scientist’s or software developer’s toolkit, there’s perhaps more going on than just these things when they come to tackle new problems or design systems – Resnick and Brennan, of Scratch fame, have an interesting paper in which they revisit computational thinking, breaking this down into concepts, practices and perspectives – it’s worth a read, and I think there’s plenty of scope for developing pupils’ computational concepts and perspectives as well as practices in the new PoS: whilst these concepts, practices and perspectives can (and should) all be learnt through practical experience of programming, but I think our teaching needs to go beyond the ‘this is how you use Scratch’ or ‘this is how you use Python’ if we’re to do justice to the noble ambitions expressed here.

It’s also nice to note that the preamble makes explicit (again) that computing provides a unique lens through which to understand natural and artificial systems: this is partly the idea of computer science as the zeroth science, but it’s also another way in which we can think of computing across the curriculum – so many interesting things in the physical and social sciences, as well as the arts and humanities, are amenable to study through simulations and models in a way which would be (almost) impossible without digital technology.

The aims remain unchanged and reflect, like the preamble, the Royal Society’s distinction between computer science, information technology and digital literacy, or foundations, applications and implications if you prefer.

No change to the attainment target, nor was any expected. The DfE have followed the advice from Tim Oates, Dylan Wiliam and others to abolish and not replace levels. I think many schools are still under the impression that Ofsted will be expecting progress to be measured in levels, despite the DfE’s assurance that

Ofsted’s inspections will be informed by whatever pupil tracking data schools choose to keep.

The picture is a bit different for English, maths and science, by the way, where the old programmes of study, attainment targets (and thus levels) are phased out more gradually, disappearing for good in summer 2015. Interestingly, the picture is also different for pupils with SEN, for whom P-Scales should still be used as the attainment target if their achievement is at that level. Unsurprisingly, there are no P-Scales for Computing, so I guess we use the ICT ones?

So, on to the curriculum content.

In Key Stage 1, the only change is a re-wording from ‘concerns about material on the internet’ to ‘concerns about content or contact on the internet or other online technologies’. Emphasising inappropriate contact is sensible here, and I guess ‘other online technologies’ must be to bring mobile phone networks and school LANs within the scope of the requirement, although the distinction seems quite a subtle one. Or perhaps this is just a civil servant’s, or minister’s, confusion between the web and internet.

I was dismayed that the February draft missed any explicit reference to creativity in KS1 and KS2; the July draft restored a creativity statement at KS1 and now, at last, creative work beyond coding returns as an entitlement for pupils in KS2. The wording though lacks eloquence and elegance, and is perhaps the result of hasty re-drafting at this late stage. The statement reads:

select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information

I like the sound of ‘designing and creating content’, and this was what was missing from the July draft. I’ve no problem with ‘designing and creating programs’ either, although this is repetition of earlier statements. I think ‘designing and creating systems’ is ambitious for Key Stage 2, but I guess it depends what you mean by a system, and system-level thinking is, on balance, a welcome addition: I think it moves us some way on from what we had previously though. I’m also happy about ‘accomplishing given goals’, as that seems an essential part of design discipline. What I’m less clear about is how ‘programs, systems and content’ distributes over the list of required goals, ‘collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information’. Designing and creating content that presents information is great, and good, old school ICT, but designing and creating programs that evaluate information? Isn’t this into the realm of AI? I’m not at all sure what’s meant by this, or if it’s possible to teach this to KS2 pupils, or indeed how you might do this short of using machine learning, such as EdX’s marking engine for essays. In practice, I’m sure most of us will interpret these statements fairly openly. The statement would have been better drafted as three quite distinct requirements:

  • select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices
  • design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals
  • collect, analyse, evaluate and present data and information

Put like this, it makes sense, and is the basis of some really nice interesting creative and analytical work which would stretch KS2 pupils but not be impossible for them. My guess is that this is what was meant, but it’s a shame it’s not what they actually wrote.

The ‘e-safety’ statement has been tweaked a little: there’s reference to recognising acceptable/unacceptable behaviour, and again a focus on reporting concerns about content and contact, and I note it’s now possible for U11s to report concerns about abuse online directly to CEOP.

In Key Stage 3, the binary and Boolean related statements have been rolled together, with a little clarification of the uses of simple Boolean logic as those pertaining to circuits (somewhat surprisingly) and programming, but not database or search queries, although of course these are permitted. Although it’s not a change since the July draft, I see that AND, OR and NOT are non-statutory examples of simple Boolean logic; no doubt schools will relish the freedom to teach all of this logic using just the functional completeness of NAND.

Specifying the programme of study is, of course, the easy bit. There are many challenges ahead:

  • translating this into a scheme of work at school level,
  • identifying the best resources for teaching this,
  • making sure CPD for this as both an entitlement and a responsibility,
  • developing, and ensuring recruitment to, ITT courses, and
  • making sure that the way we teach this does justice to such an interesting, challenging curriculum rather than repeating the mistakes from too much of the past ICT teaching.

These are far from insurmountable, and I’m optimistic that teachers and the wider community will rise to meet all of these.

Originally blogged for Rising Stars as New National Curriculum for Computing