Mounting the Barricades
29 January 2020
The fourth industrial revolution is already here with technology changing the way we live, learn and work. According to Simon Peyton Jones, chair of the National Centre for Computing Education and Computing at School, it’s time for a different approach to the teaching of computing in the classroom. He summed this up in a recent talk entitled The Revolution of Computing in Schools at the EdTech conference, Bett. Claire Penketh went along to find out more.
Bett, for those of you who haven’t been, is a veritable cornucopia of tech companies vying for the attention of delegates at a huge conference centre, ExCeL in London’s Royal Victoria Dock. Everyone from the big tech giants down to the small start-ups selling robot kits is there with one intention: to show how technology can be used in the classroom.
But Simon Peyton Jones, eminent Microsoft computer scientist and chair of both the National Centre for Computing Education and the teachers support network Computing at School (CAS), was there to spread the word that teaching computing is not only about high tech – it’s about passion.
Simon said that the aim of his presentation at Bett, The Revolution of Computing in Schools, was to inspire teachers: “Primarily I wanted to convey to everyone teaching computing in schools a sense of visceral excitement and educational purpose.
“If teachers and senior leaders truly understand that goal, and subscribe to that educational vision, they will be motivated to learn how to teach this subject well and make it relevant to their pupils.”
Simon set about busting a few myths about computing. One of the main ones is that it’s not all about computers. He quoted the Dutch computer scientist pioneer Edsger Wybe Dijkstra who said: ‘Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes’ and he emphasised the importance of teaching using unplugged methods.
Next on the list was the myth that it’s all about coding. He argued that programming is to computer science what lab work is to physics: it’s absolutely vital, but there's a risk of focusing purely on technological details. A bad outcome would be that all pupils only learn Scratch and nothing else.
And the next myth in his sights was that computer science is not for creative people. He stated there are no limits to what can be created – the main hurdle was the ability to manage complexity.
Not just for geeks
Finally, he exploded the image problem of the subject: “The myth is that computing is just for seriously socially challenged male geeks, the ones who normally wearing sandals.
“But the truth is computer science is an incredibly creative subject – and its applications are creative too – so it is a subject that all children can enjoy.
“One speaker here quoted her student, a young woman, as saying: ‘It’s like having a super-power that is enabling me to be the person that I want to become.’”
And it’s also about jobs – not only in computer science but in the wider world. He pointed out that 70% of new job growth in STEM would be in computing, that almost half of graduates who use advanced computer science skills, especially programming, are in non-STEM fields. And there are not enough graduates to fill these jobs, which are often the best paying.
Jobs and skills for the future
Industry has an important part to play in the NCCE too:“I think we have the opportunity to involve volunteers from industry to come and help the teachers add colour and depth to their lessons, sharing knowledge about the rich and fascinating professions in computer science and the diverse range of jobs that use computer technology.”
Simon added:“I think all children should learn computing in the same way they do the natural sciences. And for the same reasons - to inform their entire life as citizens.
“For quite a lot of young people, it will lead to rewarding jobs. They can use all that knowledge and skills in a variety of professions, not just computing.”
NCCE has the answers
The NCCE aims to make this dream a reality by supporting teachers in the classroom, by providing a national CPD programme for computing subject knowledge, pedagogy and leadership. This program includes free quality-assured resources; certification for both primary and secondary school teachers and bursary funding for state-funded schools and colleges in England to take advantage of the programme.
Resources for teachers
In the audience was a teacher, Greg Cox from Devonshire Primary School in Sutton. He has a background in computing and came to find to out more about the NCCE:“The biggest challenge I’ve faced is training staff in my primary school to teach computing effectively.
“We have excellent primary school teachers – they teach Maths, English and Science well. But with this new subject – the teachers haven’t been trained to deliver it.”
It’s that gap in knowledge that the NCCE was set up to fill and Greg went away happy:“At the moment we are using resources which I’m not a great fan of. I’ll look at the resources supplied by the NCCE and I’m hopeful that this will give me something to work with.”
And as for his own experience about teaching computing, Greg said: “In Maths, pupils answer the question and get it right, whereas in Computer Science they’re being creative and coming up with their own solutions, including some I hadn’t thought of. That’s more exciting and it’s why it’s a subject that all children should have a solid grounding in.”
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