New UK curriculum: Five-year-olds to learn programming and algorithms
I haven’t read the new framework myself yet, but the press coverage suggests that this is really something noteworthy. I do hope that there is some serious assessment going on with this new curriculum. I’m curious about what happens when five year olds start programming. How far can they get? In Yasmin Kafai’s studies of Scratch and in Amy Bruckman’s studies of MOOSE Crossing, almost none of the younger students ever used conditionals or loops. But those were small studies compared to a national curriculum. How much transfers forward? If you do an abstract activity (programming) so early, does it lead to concrete operational reasoning earlier? Or does it get re-interpreted by the student when she reaches concrete operational? And, of course, the biggest question right now is: how can they get enough teachers quickly enough?
The new curriculum will be mandatory from September 2014, and spans the breadth of all four ‘key stages’, from when a child first enters school at age five to when they end their GCSEs at 16. The initial draft of the curriculum was written by the British Computer Society (BCS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering in October 2012, before being handed back to the DfE for further tweaks.
By the end of key stage one, students will be expected to ‘create and debug simple programs’ as well as ‘use technology safely and respectfully’. They will also be taught to, ‘understand what algorithms are; how they are implemented as programs on digital devices; and that programs execute by following precise and unambiguous instructions’.
Not everyone is happy about the new curriculum. Neil Brown has a nice post talking about some of the issues. He kindly sent me a set of links to the debate there, and I found this discussion from a transcript of Parliament proceedings fascinating — these are all really good issues.
First, on professional development, the Minister made the point that some money was being made available for some of the professional development work. Does he feel that it will be sufficient? There is a serious issue about ongoing professional development throughout the system, starting at primary level, where updating computer skills will be part of a range of updated skills which all primary teachers will need to deliver the new curriculum. It is also an issue at secondary level, where it may not be easy but is possible to recruit specialist staff with up-to-date computing skills. However, if you are not careful, that knowledge and those skills can fall out of date very quickly.
Secondly, what more are the Government planning to do to attract new specialist computing staff to teach in schools? It is fairly obvious that there would be alternative, better paid jobs for high-class performers in computing. They may not necessarily rush into the teaching profession.
Thirdly, can the Minister confirm that the change in name does not represent a narrowing of the curriculum, and that pupils will be taught some of those broader skills such as internet use and safety, word processing and data processing, so that the subject will actually give people a range of knowledge and skills which the word “computing” does not necessarily encompass?
Fourthly, the teaching will be successful only if it is supported by sufficient funds to modernise IT facilities and to keep modernising them as technology changes. The noble Lord made reference to some low-cost initiatives in terms of facilities in schools. However, I have seen reference to 3D printers. That is fine, it is just one example, but 3D printers are very expensive. The fact is that, for children to have an up-to-date and relevant experience, you would need to keep providing not just low-cost but some quite expensive technological equipment in schools on an ongoing basis. Will sufficient funds be available to do that?
Finally, given that computing skills and the supporting equipment that would be needed are increasingly integral to the teaching of all subjects, not just computing, have the Government given sufficient thought to what computing skills should be taught within the confines of the computing curriculum and what computing skills need to be provided with all the other arts and science subjects that people will be studying, in all of which pupils will increasingly require computing skills to participate fully? Has that division of responsibilities been thought through? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
We just had the ECEP Day at the Computer Science Teachers Assocation (CSTA) Conference on July 14, where I heard representatives from 16 states talk about their efforts to improve computing education. Special interests, where do state legislators have to be involved, what does “Computing” mean anyway — all of the states reported pretty much the same issues, but each in a completely different context. The issues seem to be pretty much the same in the UK, too.