Lessons from abroad

Apr 26, 2016

Miles Berry

There’s a global movement to teach children to code, and through this to give them the tools for solving problems and understanding systems that computational thinking offers. England is leading the way worldwide through including computer science as part of its national curriculum from primary onwards, and there seems ever increasing numbers of countries that are following in our footsteps, or at least taking a keen interest in what we’re doing here. There’s much that’s happening elsewhere that we can learn from – other countries are responding to this opportunity, and tackling this challenge in quite different ways, and I’d like to explore some of these here.

Extra-curricular opportunities

Even where computing hasn’t made it onto national curricula, there’s much interest in supporting provision beyond the school curriculum. It’s easy to forget that Scratch itself started in the context of provision outside school, with Resnick’s Computer Clubhouse work, which always had a focus on otherwise underserved communities, and I’d argue that most exciting and innovative Scratch projects are coming from individual Scratchers and Scratch Studios rather than school or classroom projects. Coder Dojo, Code Club and Apps for Good operate internationally, and there’s global interest in products such as Raspberry Pi and the BBC Micro:Bit. I’m sure we were right to include computing in the statutory curriculum as this enshrines ideas of entitlement and inclusion, but I don’t think this should be at the expense of extra-curricular opportunities. No one gets to Carnegie Hall just through going to class recorder lessons: similarly, whilst our computing lessons open up CS to many who would otherwise not have studied this, those who are destined to be the software engineers and computer scientists of the future ought to be getting involved in the maker movement, taking some MOOCs, developing apps or games, going to hackdays and other things that are unlikely to feature in the provision made by schools.

Early Years

Emma Goto and I wrote about the importance of laying the foundations of computational thinking through the Early Years Foundation Stage in the previous edition of Switched On, but, for me, the most exciting work in this area is Linda Liukas’s inspiring Hello Ruby project in Finland. Hello Ruby, the book, was funded via Kick Starter: it’s a beautifully illustrated children’s story about Ruby, who loves learning and hates giving up, and her quest to collect gems in a fairy-tale world populated by snow leopards, penguins, fire foxes, androids and Django and his pet python. Linda doesn’t attempt to teach pre-schoolers to code through the story (thankfully), but she does get them thinking in an unmistakingly computational way.  There’s a companion website, at www.helloruby.com, with some brilliant, play-based ideas such as a cut out and keep computer (cheaper even than a Pi Zero!), and stick on power buttons to link everyday objects (at least in a child’s imagination) into the internet of things. Diane Levine is running a session at Roehampton’s Festival of Computing looking at how we might draw on these ideas at home. Linda has also been helping with the development of Finland’s new computing curriculum, which comes into effect in September – check out the support materials she’s produced at koodi2016.fi (probably using Google translate if you can’t manage the original Suomi)


Whilst there are plenty of schools in the UK that are working with robotics and other aspects of physical computing, I worry at times that we ought to have placed more emphasis on this in the curriculum. Elsewhere, there seems much more emphasis on this as a vital part of computing education: ProgeTiiger in Estonia fund 80% of the cost of robotics kits for elementary schools there, there’s similar generous funding for robotics projects in Portuguese schools, both primary and secondary and robotics plays an important part in extra-curricular computing in Singapore and South Korea – often going way beyond the sort of line-tracing / path-following projects we see at home. Back home, there’s been more interest in this of late, with the new WeDo 2.0 from Lego,  a number of Raspberry Pi powered robots and OhBot’s robotic face (which links nicely with Paul Curzon’s famous facial expression unplugged activity). Dot and Dash captured interest at BETT, with a default programming language that owes more to finite state machines than block based coding. Kitronik have developed a BBC micro:bit powered robot kit, and the BBC are about to launch a new series of Robot Wars: it would be great to see some school teams enter this. That said, much of this seems a step up from moving cats around a screen, and some targeted CPD might be useful here.

Online training

The challenge of training teachers to teach computer science, when they themselves never learnt any, isn’t unique to England. The locally distrusted, face to face, teacher-led model that CAS has championed has much to commend it, but there are times when it might look a bit ad-hoc compared to other approaches. I don’t doubt that a significant proportion of the $4 billion promised by President Obama to support CS for All in the states will be spent on training and professional development for teachers. In terms of teachers’ own subject knowledge, the most significant contribution is undeniably the MOOC (massive open online course) movement, with very high quality teaching materials made available for free online by prestigious universities, alongside facilitated online communities and assessment. Many of these can offer much for teachers wanting to learn more computer science than just that needed to teach the course – MITx 6.00.1x, introduction to computer science and programming using Python, Berkeley’s Beauty and Joy of Computing and Harvard’s CS50x are all quite brilliant general introductions, pitched at first year undergraduate level. The latter two now exist as ‘advanced placement’ courses for US high school students, and could be a viable option for a sufficiently motivated student who finds herself in a school without a CS teacher. Microsoft are bringing a teacher version of CS50 to London in May – see bit.ly/cs50ldn.

None of the above should be taken as a criticism of how we’re going about things back home, but as some interesting, alternative perspectives on what is a worldwide movement. These are such exciting times, not just for us and our pupils, but for teachers and students across the globe.

Originally published as Global computing: learning the lessons from initiatives abroad in Switched On, the Computing At School newsletter, Summer 2016