A new national curriculum for computing is being rolled out in schools which promises, amongst other things, computer programming for five year-olds. But what should children be learning in computing lessons and why? Senior Lecturer John Grey, from Sunderland University, explains.
Most school subjects have been around for a while and we have a pretty good idea of what might be taught in, say, maths or history. There might be arguments about whether it is more important to learn lists of names and dates of kings and queens, or whether children should dress up in leopard skin rugs to see what it was like to be a caveman (or woman).
In maths there is an argument about the merits of learning times tables or, in English, the use of phonics. In these subjects we are more or less agreed on what the subject is about. Computing in school is different. What we call the subject has changed - to computing, information technology or ICT - and so has what is taught.
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Back in the 1980s when computers first appeared in schools there didn't seem to be much thought given to what they should be used for. Actually, to begin with, there wasn't much choice.
The original BBC computers appeared in school with little software other than the programming language BBC Basic. If you wanted the computer to do something you had to write a program to do it. Schools and the BBC encouraged young and older people to code and write their own programmes and often create simple games through a series of TV programmes and a range of computer hobbyist magazines. We were told this was a way to equip young people for life in the coming technological world and a central part of this was the idea that students would develop the skills to solve problems and learn to create their own computer applications.
Time has moved on, the power of computers has increased and their prices have fallen.
Soon business software in the shape of office packages became available for home and school computers. Computing in schools changed to focus on these new possibilities, and the name of the subject changed to information and communications technology (ICT). The subject changed from one in which students learnt about computers and how to write their own programs, to one in which they learnt how to use computers to carry out tasks. ICT could still be seen as a creative activity, but the focus had changed to the use of computers to create things like documents, presentations, or videos rather than computer applications themselves.
Recently though ICT has been criticised. Instead of computers being used creatively by students, OfSTED, the school inspection service, said they were being used by students just to carry out routine, undemanding activities. Students were just learning how to operate word processors, spreadsheets and so on, but were not being challenged to be creative and to develop their own ideas. Some of the exams that students took also came in for criticism for lacking in challenge, and perhaps being an easy way for schools to boost their published results. At the same time numbers of students applying to computing courses at universities were falling, perhaps because of young people's experience of ICT in schools. Worries about the way in which young people in schools were being prepared, or rather not being prepared, for a more technological future prompted Universities, technological companies like Google and Microsoft and companies in the successful UK computer games industry to raise the alarm about the lack of proper computing teaching in schools. The curriculum, it was suggested, was too much about teaching students to use programs and not enough about developing their own ideas.
The new national curriculum which will be taught from September 2014 has been written to meet these concerns. Computing now appears as a subject and in many ways is similar to what was happening when computers first came into schools. All students in secondary school will learn about how computers work and will learn to write computer programs. In primary schools children will also be introduced to programming using simpler graphical-based systems (for example 'Snap' at snap.berkeley.edu ). Putting this into practice will be challenging. Universities are now training student teachers to teach the new subject - it will be a busy time over the next year as schools and teachers adapt to the changes.
Perhaps the biggest challenge though, will be to make sure that the new computing curriculum really does help young people to become creative developers of technology. This will require a new approach to the subject from schools, and in this age of school accountability and league tables, new approaches to how students are assessed in examinations. As over the next year or two as what we mean by computing in schools is redefined, it is important that this new definition of the subject represents a change for the better.