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How teachers are coping with technological changes in the curriculum

PUBLISHED: 15:45 01 September 2015

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

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New government policy states every child needs computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world. So how are teachers coping with this seismic change in the curriculum? Sally Bailey reports

Originally published in A+ Education South East Autumn 2015

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There was a time not so long ago - well, in 1990 - when computer science in schools was a shiny new subject on the national curriculum.

At our all-girls’ independent school, there was a flurry of pubescent excitement as four bulky BBC Micros, the size of a modest semi, arrived in our newly-designated computer lab.

This space had been home to the sixth form common room, so I and my 15 classmates were cock-a-hoop at the older girls’ eviction, and the prospect of what we saw as a total doss of a lesson once a week.

Very few of us had been within spitting distance of a PC, let alone had one at home.

And so for months, we girls crowded round these four, beige beasts, grappling with indecipherable blue and green writing on convex screens. Basically, typing in rude words - and deleting them before the teacher could lob a chalky board rubber at us.

By the time we’d finished our school career, I’m not sure any of us were any the wiser.

Back then, computer studies was taught largely by teachers from other disciplines with a free period: ours was a woman from remedial maths.

By 1996, these computer science lessons became ‘information technology’, with a bit of design technology thrown in. By 2000, it had become ICT.

Five years later, ICT was badly failing our children since most now had computers at home and were proficient with the technology: by teaching them basic software skills, we were teaching them to suck eggs.

Now it’s come full-circle again, thanks to Michael Gove’s dictat - one of his more popular ideas, teachers insist - that the old-school syllabus was “so harmful, boring, and/or irrelevant it should simply be scrapped”.

In the three years that followed, an entire new subject has come to fruition: computing.

It encompasses many of the old Microsoft Office-based ICT skills; problem-solving; process; competent use of pro-grammes. But now, alongside this, both pupils and staff must get to grips with coding, algorithms.

The aim is to use “computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world”, government policy dictates.

“Computing has deep links with mathematics, science, design and technology, and provides insights into both natural and artificial systems,” its national curriculum document reads.

At every level, from Key Stage 1 upwards, pupils must understand and apply the fundamental principles and concepts of computer science, including abstraction, logic, algorithms and data representation. They must be able to analyse problems in computation terms, evaluate and apply IT to solve problems;

It’s been a seismic change for teachers, who have been forced to rethink the way in which they deliver lessons, and an equally monumental shift for pupils who now concentrate less on how to open an Excel spreadsheet, and more on how their tablets work; how to build an app; how to design a game. By 2009 there were no GCSEs in computer science. By 2013, every exam board had one.

So what does the new curriculum mean for pupils - and parents?

Does it mean pupils will be more employable, with better problem-solving skills?

Does it have ancillary benefits - enabling them, for example, to better deal with cyber bullying; make them less likely to send naked photographs into the ether?

And how - as is claimed - does coding particularly help pupils with SEN to become more engaged with language? How does it engage more girls?

Sorina Biletchi is head of computing at Epsom College, in Surrey. For the 740 pupils from year 9 upwards, ICT hasn’t been completely erased from the curriculum but the emphasis has shifted to the skills associated with computer science - understanding the network; password security; file management; online safety.

As part of a £1.5 million investment in IT, there’s even a Tech Club, which gets involved with robotics and advanced coding.

“Computer science is the new literacy,” she says. “What it primarily teaches children is problem-solving and computational thinking, which are useful in every walk of life and further education.

“Recent statistics reveal that employment within the UK technology sector will grow by 2.19 per cent over the next 12 months. Nine in 10 IT leaders plan to increase technology investment in their companies, with new projects including information risk and security, business intelligence, mobile solutions, application development and virtualisation.

“Our students will get a head start, should they choose to follow this path. The next programmer or computer scientist who solves a complex problem in medicine, physics or telecommunications may well be studying computer science right here.”

At Cranleigh School, in Surrey, seven members of staff are involved in teaching discrete computing lessons to 950 prep and senior pupils. The department is headed up by Mark Poeti, head of computing 7-18, and IT director David Futcher.

“Computing is now a much more academically rigorous subject in its own right, and develops computational thinking with a focus on how computers and networks operate, along with context about their place in the world,” says David.

“As much as we’re led to believe children are now digital natives, they still need to be taught how to use technology of learning.”

In year 3, children begin to learn coding concepts - object-orientated programming and sequence.

From Year 5, that’s progressed to algorithms, commands, arguments and variables.

“Coding lends itself to development and refinement in small blocks, and there’s a fluid progression through the age groups where pupils are subsequently introduced to textual programming.

“Graphical programming tools, such as Scratch, lower the barriers to creating programs with drag and drop and colour-coded interfaces which really helps the younger year groups engage.

“These skills are vital in today’s society, both personally and professionally, and are of growing importance.

“Many of our current pupils will find themselves participating in the knowledge and service economies which now rely on these skills and the digital divide that’s emerging between those who just use technology and those that can understand and control it is widening across all sectors.”

Neil Stokes is head of computing at 900-pupil Reigate Grammar in Reigate, Surrey which started its new computer science curriculum five years ago: “It’s teaching them to think, to be resilient,” he says. “Not to give up if something doesn’t work first time.”

Neil says the problem-solving element is key - something future employers will applaud, along with teachers across other disciplines.

“Students need the resilience to fix their own problems. If we do it for them, they’ll never learn.

“Getting it wrong is a very important part of learning, as long as they are carefully helped to fix it themselves.

“We also stress the real computing concepts as we teach from year 7 upwards. For example, we teach the concepts of loops and decisions with Scratch rather than ‘let’s get a character to do something’.

“We structure it so they cover the same concepts in different environments as they progress and constantly refer back to examples they’ve previously made themselves. This might be in Flowol, Code Combat or Python. We try to leave actual typing of code to the point when they understand these concepts, so we can then start to focus on the syntax of a language.”

He says uptake of computer science at GCSE, particularly among girls, is increasing.

“It’s far more challenging than the old ICT,” says Neil, who takes his GCSE students to Bletchley Park, to see the im-portance of code in action.

“They see it as a real subject. Students generally don’t actually like work to be too easy, so making their brain ache is a positive. Showing them what they are capable of if they are prepared to try is their main inspiration.

“We are changing the way students think. Can teaching get any better than that?”

At Lavant Park, an independent, single-sex boarding school in West Sussex, the girls are using Minecraft - a time-sink of a computer game most parents discourage - to engage them.

It’s long been a criticism of the subject that girls feel ostracised by the new curriculum, convinced computing is not for them. Not here.

From reception to sixth form, computer science is in-built into the psyche and head of computing, Sandra Davis, is determined to push her pupils.

She believes in allowing the girls to experiment using Raspberry Pi - credit card-sized single board computers developed specifically to promote the teaching of basic computer science.

In her lessons, the girls learn how to build Minecraft components they can only dream of at home using Python, a programming language much in vogue in secondary schools.

“Back in the classroom, the complete control of the 3D world using mathematical concepts found at GCSE and beyond allow our Year 9 girls to learn how to create anything they want in Minecraft using only the power of coding,” says Sandra.

“Now that’s a definite incentive to learn to code, and it certainly works for them.”

Here, the girls use code to build streets of houses, large structures and even carpets in random colours, formed by generating random numbers in code.

She cites one pupil, Abigail, who decided she’d like to create an explosion.

“She used her Python coding skills to change the attributes of TNT so that it explodes when hit in a particular way; built a huge TNT structure and then, gathering the class around to watch, hit it,” says Sandra. “And blew a massive hole in her world. Now that’s learning.”

But it’s not only at senior level that the new computing syllabus is shining. In 2013, it became compulsory at Key Stage 1 and 2 too.

Handcross Park in West Sussex is a thriving nursery, pre-prep and prep school.

“There’s a clear differentiation here between computing and computer studies,” says Jo Beard, head of communications.

“With the introduction of Chromebooks and the interactive Google Classroom throughout the school, our pupils have daily interaction with technology. Learning becomes cooperative and interactive with the world of the web to hand.”

Coding is the main focus in computer studies lessons.

“Pupils experience basic elements of coding in reception and we aim for every pupil to have experienced HTML, Javascript and even old languages such as BASIC by the end of year 8.

“Various online resources such as Code Academy are used to help deliver the content whilst real life situations are explored, from an algorithm for making a jam sandwich to one for controlling a robot through a chemical spill.

“We also use practical lessons to help instil the knowledge in other ways – learning about coding can even translate into the outside environment making a lesson look very different.”

Battle Abbey School in East Sussex teaches pupils from pre-prep to A-level, and offers ICT to A-level, and computing to GCSE level.

Here, computing and ICT aren’t in silos: skills are taught across almost every subject. For example, a bank of iPads is used in science lessons.

“The way we look at it is we’re preparing pupils for jobs that haven’t even been thought of yet,” says marketing manager James Dennett.

“There are going to be many more jobs in this [computer science] sphere, so every subject is linked.”

A recent Google Rise Award project saw Battle Abbey pupils collaborate with wearable technology experts for a series of performances at venues including the Brighton Amex and V&A in London.

LEDs in dance students’ shoes were connected to sensors, and algorithms linked to these projected live data on to the walls behind them, creating a digital painting.

Head of computing and ICT Fiona Usher believes the younger you spark children’s interest, the better.

“Programming is a language, and young children are great at learning new languages, so the younger they get started the better,” she says.

“But all children are different. Some will take to problem-solving, algorithms and coding - others will automatically put up a block against it. They key, we’ve found, is to make it fun, using games and songs to get the concept across.

“Giving a mixture of computing and ICT skills allows the pupils to choose the direction they wish to go in terms of further study and career.”

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What will my child learn

Key Stage 1 (5-6-year-olds)

Algorithms - maybe not using computers, but perhaps using recipes or breaking down the steps of their morning routines. They will also create and debug simple programs of their own, developing logical reasoning skills.

Key Stage 2 (7-11-year-olds)

Creating and debugging more complex programs and learning concepts including variables and sequence selection and repetition in programs. Learning to use web-sites and practising using devices for collecting, analysing and presenting back in-formation and data.

Key Stage 3 (11-14-year-olds)

Using at least two programming languages - one textual - to create their own pro-grams. Schools are free to choose their own languages and coding tools. Simple Boolean logic, working with binary numbers and looking at how computer hardware and software work. Internet safety.

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