Interview for Vives

May 31, 2017

Miles Berry

I was recently interviewed by Aad van der Drift for the Netherland’s Vives ICT education magazine, in advance of a visit to Utrecht to keynote at I&I’s conference. Here’s the English version of our Q&A - Dutch translation in the current edition of the magazine and on Aad’s blog.

You are a welcome guest at various educational meetings. This obviously has to do with the (free) books you have written. Can you briefly tell us something about yourself?

There’s been lots of interest overseas in England’s introduction of computer science into its national curriculum, and it’s been my honour to play a part in designing and helping to implement this.

I spent 18 years working as a teacher, including three as a head teacher. In 2009 I moved into higher education at the University of Roehampton, taking on a role in training the next generation of outstanding teachers. My role now allows me to get involved in quite a range of other activities, so I serve on the management boards for Computing At School, the British Computer Society’s Academy of Computing and the Computer Science Teachers Association. I was part of the team who developed the English national curriculum for computing, and have been involved in quite a lot of the projects since then, aimed at developing teachers’ knowledge of computer science and their confidence teaching this.

Why and for who did you write these books?

Unlike every other subject we teach in English schools, computing is one that teachers themselves never studied when they were at school. Whilst there are computing teachers, in both primary and secondary school, with degrees in computer science or previous experience in the software industries, in England, these are in a minority, and so we’ve a subject knowledge gap when it comes to teaching computer science. Many of the projects I’ve been most directly involved with have aimed to fill that gap. We start from the premise that great computer science education demands knowledge of how to use technology, how to teach, and the subject itself. We’ve assumed that teachers already have the first two of these, but lack the latter.

Most, but not all, of these projects have been for the British Computer Society, in particular its Computing At School group - which now has over 26 thousand members, including many beyond the UK.

The books are free to download, with what purpose?

Whilst the UK government has stepped back from directly providing schemes of work or continuing professional development for computing, it has been generous in funding others to engage in these vital activities. One of the conditions of this funding is that any materials produced be released under the UK’s ‘open government licence’, which is broadly comparable to the Creative Commons attribution only licence. I’ve long been an advocate of both open source software and open education approaches, and so I was delighted that the Department for Education grants made it possible for these materials to be downloaded and adapted by anyone at all.

In the Netherlands digital literacy gets more and more attention in recent years. What do you mean by digital literacy?

The term is a highly contested one, so this is a good question! For the English computing curriculum, we followed the Royal Society’s lead in identifying three interlinked elements to computing education: computer science, information technology and digital literacy. It’s helpful to think of these in terms of the foundations, applications and implications of digital technology. I’d identify digital literacy as being primarily concerned with young people’s ability to think through the implications of existing and future digital technologies for their lives and for society more generally.

Particularly for hard coding and programming you are working hard to give them a place in English education. What is the difference between them.

I see programming as a somewhat broader term than coding. Writing a computer program can be thought of as a two-step process, firstly understanding the problem how to solve it, then (and only then) translating that idea of a solution into a language so formal and well-specified that even a dumb machine can follow the instructions or rules - this is the language of code. So for me, programming = algorithms + code. Can you teach one without the other? Yes - there’s certainly a place for teaching children to think of systematic and automatable approaches to soling problems, and there’s also a place for introducing them to the specific vocabulary and grammar of particular programming languages, but I think the two really do work beautifully well together - the coding gives a practical purpose and means of testing algorithmic thinking.

At what age should children start coding, and why?

Early, but not too early. The range of tools and toys available now for teaching programming make this really quite accessible to children in primary education, from age five or six up. I think there are good reasons for introducing children to programming as part of their general, primary education: whether for good or ill, computers seem likely to play an important part in the world these children are growing up into, and I’d rather the next generation thought of computers as things they can take control of, and had a good grasp of how they work and how their software gets made. Starting early(ish) means we can take a long run-up to some of the more challenging ideas of CS, acquiring some fluency with computer languages and mastery of the underlying concepts. Starting early also means we’ve more change of making CS a far more inclusive domain that at present, where gender, socio-economic background and ethnicity remain significant factors in recruitment to CS degrees and the industry.

Coding seems a boring subject, however, experts indicate that it appeals to creativity. How do you feel about this?

Coding in school is only boring if its not being taught well! I think we’ve learnt that context does matter when it comes to computing education. Picking motivating, interesting and socially relevant problems is more likely to result in success than dry, academic exercises. Games programming and computer-generated animation remain popular areas, but it would be wrong to limit programming in schools to just these: there’s so much scope for creative computing in algorithmically generated art and music, in image and audio manipulation, in data analysis and the digital humanities and in working with online services and the ‘internet of things’. I’m hopeful that as pupils’ (and teachers’) coding skills develop, we’ll see some really creative applications of these across the whole breadth of the school curriculum.

What role do you think is reserved for head teachers and curriculum developers in order to give digital literacy a place in education? Do you think it should be a separate subject or as part of other subjects

I don’t think there’s any doubt that pupils’ skills in using digital technology are now almost as essential for learning and life as literacy and numeracy. Whilst many young people are enthusiastic adopters and willing tinkerers with the technologies they have access to, I think there’s a vitally important role for educators, including school and curriculum leaders, to play, in providing some drive for pupils to learn to use these more creatively, and more critically. Given the role that digital technology plays in our lives, and is likely to play in the future, I don’t think it’s enough just to be able to use these tools well. Schools also ought to ensure that all pupils have some grasp of the underlying principles on which these things are built, and that they can think through the long term consequences of their, and our, use of these tools. In education systems where schools enjoy much autonomy over their own affairs, head teachers can take a decisive role in developing and implementing their own programmes for a rounded education in computing, combining the elements of computer science, information technology and digital literacy, and indeed exploiting connections between computing and the other subjects of the school curriculum.

I think it’s perfectly possible to integrate digital literacy and information technology with the other subjects taught in schools, and there are some good arguments for doing so. Computer science is different though - there are strong connections with some other curriculum subjects, most obviously mathematics, but there seems a sufficient clarity to the academic discipline (and a need for teachers’ specialist subject knowledge) for it to deserve specific provision on the timetable, in the same way that physics and music typically do.

What will be the future for digital literacy in the Netherlands, you think?

A bright one, I’m sure. I’ve no doubt that your young people, just like ours, will continue to explore, experiment and engage with all the opportunities with which digital technology presents them. I’d hope though that schools here, as in England, would look beyond this though: recognising that computer science in general, and programming in particular, provide an excellent way to develop what we have come to call ‘computational thinking’ - a way of looking at problems in such a way that we can make use of computers to help us solve them; that is where we’re perhaps less interested in particular solutions than in robust and efficient methods to solve a whole class of similar problems.

Which are the most important lessons learned in the UK if it is about computing in school and which we can use in the Netherlands?

There are a number of things we’ve done quite well: we’ve kept the specification of our curriculum very brief (it’s less than four pages), we’ve made it an entitlement for all pupils, from primary education onwards, and we’ve tried to ensure a balance between the different elements of computing that I’ve discussed above. That said, a more strategic approach would have seen more preparatory work done into working out how best to teach this new subject, and significantly more funding for the development of teacher training and continuing professional development, as well as for producing resources to be used by teachers and pupils. Assessment of pupils’ learning in computing remains a thorny subject, and there’s also a need to think about how we can rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of the changes we’ve made to the curriculum.

Much is gained through ensuring all the different elements of curriculum line up, but there also comes a time when you just have to roll up your sleeves and get on with things!