Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Children of the code

I read with interest today that many are worried the new initiatives around teaching computing in schools, which include a new national college for digital studies and a new GSCE in computer science, might be causing a few teething problems that leave some children disadvantaged. As usual the issues arise where the rubber hits the road, there aren't enough specialist teachers trained up to cope with such a monumental shift in emphasis and schools with one eye on the results league tables are only pushing a minority of pupils (who are good at maths) into computing subjects meaning that everyone else gets very little.

As someone who campaigned for better and earlier computing education (i.e. from age 5) I am delighted that there is progress and high-level support from Government but I think the approach currently being taken might have some scope to be even more impactful.

It's clear that not every pupil can or wants to have a pure computing qualification, it's the same age-old difference between pure and applied science, not everyone wants a degree in Chemistry, some of us preferred to take the Chemical Engineering track and from the point of view of skills shortages in UK PLC we need both. So I don't think an overemphasis on a pure Computing qualification (although this is undoubtedly easier to measure) is the only way to go. Sure, offer it to those with aptitude and interest but for most people we need a slightly different more "applied" approach.

I was sitting with my 10 year old daughter the other day doing some maths homework (fractions) and thinking how laborious it was, paper based and deadly dull, more like learning by rote, i.e. very similar problems over and over again. Instead of simply cranking out the answers I got her to dictate a little pseudo-code solution to the generalised problem of adding and subtracting fractions; we then wrote a little program together that implemented this solution and I installed it onto her iPod (for the cool factor). Doing this really drove home the underlying method (it forced her to articulate it very precisely, which is much more likely to stick) and also made the experience much more interesting for her. It wasn't necessary that she understood all of the aspects of the coding or deployment etc. in order to "get it" hopefully the interest gene has been stimulated sufficiently for her to want to learn more. i.e. we saw how you can use a programmable general purpose machine (i.e. a computer) to solve real-world problems, it also boosted her street-cred., when she showed her mates the app (colours, fonts and background images of pets played a big part) - never a bad thing if it can be weaved into education in my limited experience.

It's this aspect of "application" that I think is missing from current computing education thinking; it's not the ICT teachers that need support it's the maths, science, art and design teachers that need to incorporate computer based learning and (more importantly) problem solving into their own subjects, after all this is a much better reflection of the real world these kids are destined for where computers will be cheap and ubiquitous; the winners will be the ones that can exploit that to their advantage in whatever field they choose.

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