Some teachers are addressing this well, but by and large there does seem to be an engagement problem in too many computing lessons. This isn’t new. Back in the days when Ofsted was HMI (1989), the inspectorate reported that many experienced computing as ‘dry, dull and unexciting’. Before the switch from ICT to Computing ten years ago, Michael Gove complained of “Children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers”. Whilst there’s much less Excel taught these days, I think the problem of boredom remains. Data from the Wellcome Trust suggests that pupils’ interest in computing drops off during secondary school - 75% find it interesting in Year 7, but only 38% still do in Year 11. This is despite the enthusiasm that pupils show for using digital technology outside of school - from social media through gaming, to creating music, photography and video.
It’s worth improving this. Firstly, so that young people have a better time of it at school, making computing lessons more enjoyable. Pupils who enjoy their computing lessons are going to learn more, are more likely to carry on studying this for qualifications, and are less likely to present challenging behaviour, making these lessons more enjoyable for teachers too.
What can be done to make computing lessons more engaging? It’s worth exploring both what we teach and how we teach it.
The national curriculum programmes of study provide a minimum entitlement for all, but they can be interpreted very broadly and impose no limits on what can be taught. Over the years since the curriculum was introduced, and partly as a result of the narrow focus on theoretical aspects of computer science at GCSE, there has been disproportionate time spent on things like system architecture, binary arithmetic, Boolean logic and network protocols even at Key Stage 3. Wouldn’t it be better to use the all too limited subject time to give pupils a broader experience of the subject? Yes, this should include programming - as Simon Peyton Jones put it, “Without programming, computer science would be a dry, theoretical husk of a subject”. It can also include some introductory data science, some creative work across a wide range of digital media (including music, video, animation and games), as well as the sort of critical digital literacy which would equip pupils to make sense of, and contribute positively to, an increasingly digital world. Remember that GCSE and A Level specifications are about what gets tested, not what can or should be taught.
Beyond this, it’s worth thinking about how the content of the curriculum can be more relevant. Look for ways to make connections with the latest developments in technology, making use of the latest tools; helping pupils develop their knowledge of and skills with emerging areas such as generative AI, virtual reality and robotics; and addressing issues such as bias in training data, the harms of social media and cyber threats. Alongside this, think about how the curriculum can better reflect pupils’ own interests and experiences, and pay more attention to their own identities and cultures. Look for ways to make connections with the real world, through the use of real data, real tools and real problems.
What we know about effective teaching applies to computing as to other subjects, so fundamental ideas like linking new knowledge to existing knowledge, breaking content down into manageable chunks, modelling through worked examples, reducing extraneous cognitive load, and providing opportunities for pupils to practise and apply their learning are all important. Mastering new knowledge and skills is itself engaging.
Remember that this is a creative subject, having at least as much in common with the pedagogies of art, music and design and technology as it does with those of mathematics or science. Seymour Papert’s great insight was that pupils learn best when they are engaged in making something: that they make something in their head through making something in the world. Creative work motivates and provides context and application of learning. Computing is about studying in order to build. Make time for meaningful, extended projects for pupils, in which they’re actively engaged in making artefacts as well as connections, where they have at least some choice over what they make and the tools they use, and where they can share their work with others.
Recognise the importance of collaboration in computing. Beyond school, programming and other IT projects demand team work and careful coordination, and some experience of the problems and opportunities that this brings can prepare pupils for higher education and employment, as well as making the subject more engaging. Why not let pupils work together on creative projects, exam questions and challenging problems? Pair programming, a development method in which two coders work together sharing the screen, keyboard and mouse, with distinct ‘driver’ and ‘navigator’ roles, is an effective approach in real-world software engineering, and helps in the classroom too. There’s nothing in the current practical programming requirements for OCR which requires the work to be done individually.
There’s a difference between how novices and experts learn, and it’s safe to acknowledge that for most curriculum content most pupils are novices. Thus they’re likely to need more support, more scaffolding, more worked examples, more modelling, more practice and more feedback than an expert would. However, some pupils already have, or quickly develop, a degree of expertise in the subject, and their ongoing engagement comes through adapting teaching approaches to take this into account. Encourage independent learning: there are excellent online resources that a well-motivated pupil can access for themselves, set challenging problems, and provide opportunities for community participation and leadership.
I don’t think engagement is a binary thing - there are degrees to this. For pupils to learn in class, there needs to be attention as a minimum, but beyond this, work to see pupils increasingly committed to their tasks and to the subject. Help them become persistent learners and technologists, reluctant to give up in the face of problems. Adapt the curriculum, and your teaching, so that they see meaning and purpose in their learning.Share