This week, in the UK, The Royal Society released a report emphasising the lack of teaching of computing in English schools, since the change of the curriculum in 2014. The 2014 change shifted the focus on ICT as something we use, to computing – something to work with. The priority shift was monumental, as the emphasis was now on coding and computational thinking, whereas the functionalities of using technology were pushed into the background. All very well and good, but the teaching profession wasn’t truly prepared for this shift as the complexity and detail required in the new computing curriculum demanded a different skill set, leaving many schools unable to offer the subject. To add further context, any private school or academy is not obliged to follow the National Curriculum (within England) and can focus on subjects and skills which offer a rounded education to their pupils, suited for their locality.
Evidence gathered from The Royal Society showed that “pedagogies for computing in schools remain less developed than those for other subjects”, and that “the provision of the subject at GCSE was sporadic”. Recommendations from the report suggest a push to realise the ambition of recent curriculum and qualifications reforms, to improve gender balance in computing, and ensure there is a strong supply of computing teachers entering the profession.
Although admirable, and credit needs to be given to the construction of this report, there are some fundamental obstacles that, for me, will see little change in the coming years to shift the focus of attention (and investment) into the computing curriculum:
Firstly – The current political climate within the UK, and many other global territories is far too distracted on other issues of self-preservation, divisive policy exchanges, and economic pressures to give ‘computing in schools’ the necessary attention or funding. Political rhetoric is just that, and until stability becomes assured, then concentration on such matters can be ensured. Until then, we’re kind of in a state of limbo.
Secondly – Computing is not a global educational subject comparison priority. Governments are investing in reading, mathematical and science skills globally, and the reason for this is the infamous PISA table comparisons. The priority is to climb up the table as much as possible, and until computing is placed within that focus, then no government will invest heavily in the subject. When you think of it, most of the tech experts have been dedicated and passionate about computing and building technical marvels from an early age. Their skills have been developed individually, and they have gone on to college or university where they met people of similar persuasions and now they are where they are. You cannot tell people what their passions are – but you can nurture and guide individuals who may have an inclination to develop their skills.
Fourthly – For a teacher, their passion is teaching, and their knowledge in a subject is well developed. One computing teacher told us about how he watches his colleague’s faces glaze over when delivering staff meetings promoting new software. The technical ability of teachers is varied, with some individuals struggling to turn on a computer, whereas others embrace any new development, constantly thinking how they can utilise the tech in teaching and learning. Until there is a seismic shift in attitudes, leadership and an understanding of relevance, this roadblock will always be there for some individual teachers. As accountability measures focus on getting results, this is where teachers will focus their attention on, which is completely understandable. The attention and investment should not be focused on new teachers entering the profession, but opportunities should be also offered to experienced teachers to take a sabbatical and become proficient at teaching computing, as the knowledge of classroom practice is also critical.
Fifthly – Computing is not for all. People excel in some areas more than others, and the skills demanded in computing will not suit all. However, the finished products and opportunities are applicable to individuals in different situations. Therefore, the underlying understanding of how software is development should be understood, as well as the complexity of algorithms, that impact so much on our daily technological lives. At the current pace, this progression is not likely to diminish any time soon, so developing a sound understanding of the systems at play is essential to help inform future decisions. Embedding a knowledge and understanding of the main principles of computing systems is essential, and the start of this process can (and should) begin in the primary setting. Indeed, there are an impressive array of innovative learning resources now available, but I will refer you back to the last bullet point in relation to teacher confidence and weariness.
Let me conclude. The issue around the gaps in Computing teaching and learning are well documented, and The Royal Society has rightly highlighted some of the greatest obstacles in placing the subject at a similar level as the sciences, mathematics or literacy skills. I have not addressed the gender issue raised in the report, as a good infrastructure in place will attract the greatest learners, no matter what their gender is. Computing has to be a subject that challenges, resonates and becomes relevant to students, teachers, politicians and society. Even though society is ever reliant on technology on a daily basis (just look at how compact and portable devices have now become), not all members have the same knowledge, understanding and accessibility as others, and it is the responsibility of us all to make sure the technology and computing skills are used for the benefit of all, not the few.