The Royal Society wants every UK Child to learn Computing

January 13, 2012 at 8:15 am 8 comments

The Royal Society’s report on “Computing in Schools” was released yesterday, and it makes broad and significant recommendations.  Much of the report is focused on preparing teachers for a rigorous computer science curriculum, and on creating an infrastructure in schools where computing is available and maintained. The report is frank and honest about the challenges of implementing a rigorous computer science curriculum in schools.

I am most excited for what the report recommends about the curriculum.  The overall goal is “Every child should have the opportunity to learn Computing at school.”  The specifics include:

  • Every child should be expected to be ‘digitally literate’ by the end of compulsory education, in the same way that every child is expected to be able to read and write.
  • Every child should have the opportunity to learn concepts and principles from Computing (including Computer Science and Information Technology) from the beginning of primary education onwards, and by age 14 should be able to choose to study towards a recognised qualification in these areas.

Given the lack of specialist teachers, we recommend that only the teaching of digital literacy is made statutory at this point. However, the long-term aim should be to move to a
situation where there are sufficient specialist teachers to enable all young people to study
Information Technology and Computer Science at school. Accordingly, the Government should put in place an action plan to achieve this.

“Statutory” courses (and the report goes into some detail about what “statutory” means and why they make that recommendation)! Computing for everyone!  Think about what you could do in science, mathematics, and business classes if you could assume that everyone knew something about computer science from age 14.  Maybe Seymour Papert’s vision of computing being used to create a “Mathland” could finally be realized in the UK.  Think about how higher education computer science would change if you could assume several years of introductory computer science already.  Here in the US? Well, we’ll always have drills and drafting tables.

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This is CS in K-12: Career & Technical Education Debating the ‘Flipped Classroom’ at Stanford

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  January 13, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Drafting tables are already gone in most US schools, replaced by CAD. And a lot of high schools have classes in using CNC tools. That is the sort of change that the UK schools are proposing: digital “literacy”, not computer science.

    Quite frankly, I think that the US would benefit more from required shop classes than from required CS courses. Having everyone capable of operating a drill and a screwdriver would do more to bolster US engineering than having everyone able to write a simple loop.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      At first, yes, UK schools are expected to abandon the ICT curriculum and adopt a “digital literacy” curriculum. But the Royal Society report, and the statements from the Government, say that the goal is to move towards rigorous Computer Science for all students.

      I was referring to the catalog that I scanned, which does sell drafting tables. That’s still part of career and technical education in some states.

      More shop classes might bolster engineering. Mightn’t more computer science bolster all of STEM?

      • 3. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  January 14, 2012 at 12:19 pm

        My betting is that they abandon ICT, put together a feeble literacy curriculum, then stop there, ending up worse off than they are now. The British governments of the past decade have not had a good track record in supporting improvement in education.

        Better computer science classes would bolster STEM, but more badly done computer literacy classes would not. If you are going to teach rather minimal skills, I think that shop gives you more useful learning for the time spent than computer classes do.

        On the other hand, I’ve not followed this advice in the education of my son. He’s been programming since 4th grade, but the only power tools he’s learned to use by 10th grade are a drill press, a scroll saw, and soldering iron.

  • 4. Mark Miller  |  January 14, 2012 at 8:43 am

    I can see one possible positive outcome from this. Perhaps you are anticipating something similar. I got an idea, after reviewing some videos made recently by Ted Nelson, that probably a large reason why a lot of people haven’t been able to get his ideas about new media is that they hadn’t spent time learning some ideas from computer science. With this knowledge one might be able to draw together concepts of information as a collection of ideas, and thoughts, and that relationships can be built between them in a meaningful way, without tying them down to a single, page-based image of how a narrative or exposition is constructed.

    My optimism is tempered, though, by my own memory of my CS education, which nailed things down pretty firmly about what a computer is (von Neumann machine), and the shallow, rote “math” concepts I was given to learn. Granted, I think that would be an improvement over the common experience of computer education now of just teaching how to use Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. I just think students deserve better than what I had. I can tell you from experience I’ve had to unlearn quite a few statically imprinted concepts I learned through the traditional CS curriculum to get where I am now in my thinking on the subject. The profession could save students a lot of time, and spur innovation in the field if it would be careful not to rehash the curriculum of the past.

    As for creating a “mathland,” again, my optimism is tempered by my experience. Even when Logo was very popular in schools, most didn’t get the “mathland” concept. If it, or something like it, was *not* made part of a CS course, but was instead part of a math course, *then* maybe there would be a chance for it, as math teachers might see its potential better. I’d guess that CS teachers would primarily be interested in teaching programming, and would only use such a tool for that purpose, and miss what’s powerful about it.

    So…I guess what I’m saying is hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Sorry to end on a down note, but I don’t think it’s unwarranted.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  January 14, 2012 at 11:46 am

      Mark, I share your pessimism that the UK will be successful in teaching all of their students about computer science — at least in the short/medium term. We don’t know how to provide the professional development, successfully (i.e., with some measure of quality, above Alan’s threshold), to large numbers of teachers. The design of computing infrastructure in schools is guided by principles more about keeping graffiti off walls and school desks than they are about providing access and flexibility.

      But they’re trying. Their national scientific body (Royal Society) has come out with a statement advocating rigorous computer science for all. Their Department of Education has called for the elimination of a poor curriculum and advocates for creating a new computer science centric curriculum. I don’t see the US National Academies making similar statements, nor have I seen the US Department of Education advocating for computer science in all schools. The UK is showing far more political will than I see in the US to improve the state of computing education. Having the will doesn’t mean success, but it does an important step towards success. That’s what I see as exciting.

  • […]  Based on Neil Brown’s excellent response, I suspect that it’s the UK “Computing at Schools” effort that is leading to this question.  If you’re going to define a computer […]

  • […] process that started with the Royal Society’s report on the state of computer science education in UK schools has now resulted in a new draft program of study, available for comment. It’s interesting to […]

  • […] The Royal Society wants every UK Child to learn Computing ( […]


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