Considering the Danish Informatics Curriculum: Comparing National Computer Science Curricula

July 12, 2021 at 7:00 am 6 comments

Michael Caspersen invited me to review a chapter on the Danish Informatics curriculum (see a link here). He asked me to compare it to existing school CS curriculum with which I’m familiar. That was an interesting idea — how does anyone relate curricula across diverse contexts, even between nations? I gave it a shot. I most likely missed, in that there are many curricula that I don’t know or don’t know well enough. I welcome comments on other CS curricula.

The Danish Informatics curriculum is unique for its focus on four competence areas:

  • Digital empowerment which describes the ability to review and critique digital artifacts to ask where the strict demands of a computational system may not serve well the messy world in which humans live.
  • Digital design and design processes which describes the ways in which designers come to understand the problem domain for which we design digital artifacts.
  • Computational thinking and modeling which describes how data and algorithms are used to construct digital solutions and artifacts.
  • Technological knowledge and skills which describes the tools (e.g., programming languages) and infrastructures (e.g., computer systems, networking) used to construct digital solutions and artifacts.

I am not familiar with any curriculum that encompasses all four competencies. I’m most familiar with elementary and high school curricula in the United States. Each US state has control over its own school system (i.e., there is no national curriculum) though many are influenced by recommendations from the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) (see link here) and the K12 CS Framework (link here).

In the United States, most computing curricula focus on technological knowledge and skills and computational thinking and modeling. The former is important because the economic argument for computing education in schools is the most salient in the United States. The latter most often appears as a focus on learning computing skills without programming, e.g., like in the CS Unplugged activities from Tim Bell at the University of Canterbury (link).

Modeling is surprising rare in most state curricula. Calls for modeling and simulation are common in US mathematics and science education frameworks like the Next Generation Science Standards (link), but these have influenced few state curricula around computing education. Efforts to integrate computing to serve the needs of mathematics and science education are growing, but only a handful of states actively promote computing education to support mandatory education. For example, Indiana has include computing learning objectives in their state’s science education standards, in order to develop more integrated approaches.

I don’t know of any state curricula that include digital empowerment nor digital design and design processes. These are critically important. Caspersen’s arguments for the Danish Informatics curriculum build on quotes from Henry Kissinger and Peter Naur, but could also build on the work of C.P. Snow and Alan Perlis (the first ACM Turing Award laureate). In 1961, Snow and Perlis both argued for mandatory computing (though at the University level). Perlis argued that computing gave us new ways to understand the world. He would have recognized the digital design and design processes competency area. Snow warned that everyone should learn computing in order to understand how computing is influencing our world. He wrote: “A handful of people, having no relation to the will of society, having no communication with the rest of society, will be taking decisions in secret which are going to affect our lives in the deepest sense.” He would recognize the concerns of Kissinger and Naur, and the importance of digital empowerment.

The Danish Informatics curriculum is unique in its breadth and for considering the social aspects of computing artifacts and design. It encompasses important needs for citizens of the 21st Century.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Brett Becker  |  July 12, 2021 at 8:34 am

    Very interesting! The Irish (senior high school) specification has a similarly broad and holistic approach heavily highlighting design, modelling, and societal issues. Empowerment is also mentioned in the specification although not as heavily. From the introduction of the specification (link below):

    “Computer science is the study of computing and algorithmic processes. Leaving Certificate Computer Science includes how programming and computational thinking can be applied to the solution of problems, and how computing technology impacts the world around us.

    The specification is constructed into 3 strands, whose learning outcomes are interwoven. The 3 strands are:

    Practices and principles
    Core concepts
    Computer science in practice

    Students will learn:

    The practices and principles of computer science, such as computational thinking, computers and society, and creative design
    How to analyse problems in computational terms and understand concepts such as abstraction, logic, algorithms, computer systems, data representation and evaluation
    Programming languages and how to read, write, test and modify computer programs
    The process of designing computational artefacts such as web pages, digital animations, simulations, games, apps and robotic systems
    The ethical, historical, environmental and technological aspects of computer science, and how it impacts the social and economic development of society.

    The role of programming in computer science is like that of practical work in the other subjects—it provides motivation, and a context within which ideas are brought to life. Students learn programming by solving problems through computational thinking processes and through practical applications such as applied learning tasks.

    The Leaving Certificate Computer Science specification is designed for all students. It applies to many aspects of students’ lives and is therefore relevant to a wide range of student interests. It is situated within the context of senior cycle education.”

    Link to specification: https://www.curriculumonline.ie/getmedia/d73af6e3-b4e5-4edb-a514-6383e2306a4b/16626-NCCA-Specification-for-Leaving-Certificate-CS-WEB-v4.pdf

    The subject is not-mandatory. In Ireland the only mandatory subjects are Mathematics, English and Irish (with few exceptions). The subject of Computer Science is optional for schools to offer, and for students to take. However, those who do take it have it count as an official subject to be examined, and therefore it counts/contributes towards college/university entry, etc.

    Official counts are hard to come by and schools are being added every year. I estimate ~150 schools and >2,000 students will be taking the subject from this September. The pandemic has impacted this to some extent, like everything else.

    Keith Quille and I co-authored a textbook based on this curriculum. The TOC for that is below. Although design is not mentioned in the title of a chapter, it is dealt with throughout. Modelling has a chapter (12) as do society (13) and ethics (14). Although we wove AI into the title of 13, it is also heavily addressed in 14.

    Getting started with Python
    micro:bit
    Analytics
    HTML and CSS
    A brief history of computing
    Computer systems
    Computational thinking, algorithms and data representation
    Software development
    More about Python
    JavaScript
    Databases
    Modelling
    Transforming society: Improving lives, AI and machine learning
    Ethics and computing

    Reply
  • 2. Brianna Wilkinson  |  July 12, 2021 at 10:24 am

    Very interesting to hear about the different priorities folks are making within CS curricula around the world!

    I think that some states that had technology standards before the CS K-12 Framework was published have retained some topics they had already established. For example, Massachusetts has a “Computing and Society” strand that seems like it aligns with the Danish digital empowerment area (https://www.doe.mass.edu/stem/standards.html). And Tennessee has a strand called “Analytical and Innovative Thinking” that focuses on design process (https://www.tn.gov/education/instruction/academic-standards/computer-science.html).

    Reply
  • 3. timbellnz  |  July 15, 2021 at 9:30 pm

    New Zealand has “Designing and Developing Digital Outcomes” as one half of its Digital Technologies curriculum (the other half is “Computational Thinking for Digital Technologies”). There’s quite a bit around design processes in there, and the two can cross over when students are designing a program. https://nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz/The-New-Zealand-Curriculum/Technology/Progress-outcomes#collapsible2

    Reply
  • 4. Lynley  |  July 26, 2021 at 3:59 am

    Thanks so much for this information – very timely as Im currently neck deep in my literature review for my PhD. Glad to see Tim has suggested the NZ curriculum. Have you checked out the Australian curriculum also? There are two components to this; (1) Design and Technologies and (2) Digital Technologies.

    Reply

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