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Technology for learning: Coding the next generation

by Derek Llewellyn at Pun Hlaing International School

 

What’s the thinking behind overhauls to the ICT curriculum, what’s the impact on the curriculum and should we all be learning to code?

Derek Llewellyn is the founding Headmaster of Pun Hlaing International School; soon to be renamed as Dulwich College Yangon, the latest addition to the DCI family of schools. He has taught in the UK and the Netherlands. Prior to moving to Yangon, he was director of Next Wave Education, working with schools in London advising on new technologies and introducing primary teachers to coding.

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From the Guest Editor:

In Coding the next generation Derek Llewellyn (PHIS, Yangon) provides the historical context and rationale behind recent overhauls of the ICT curriculum in favour of computing and coding.

 

In 1870 the English government passed the Elementary Education Act, known as Forster’s Education Act, requiring all children between the ages of 5 and 12 to attend school. The perceived need to teach the whole of the coming generation to read, write and understand arithmetic was imperative for Britain to remain competitive in a world that was increasingly literate and numerate (Stephens, 1998).

It was a critical point in educational history when those who enjoyed the benefit and empowerment of literacy and numeracy realised that if the country was going to continue to develop economically, remain significant and retain influence in the world, it was important to ensure that as much of the population as possible should be literate and numerate. The government of the time, and enlightened, influential individuals took steps to ensure that the next generation would begin this journey.

One hundred fifty years ago, the educated classes realised that if children were going to grow up into a generation that was skilled, productive and empowered, they needed to learn how to confidently read, write and use numbers. Since then, many innovations have required changes in the skill set students need to succeed and mature into productive and competent individuals, but perhaps none has had the impact of the modern computer age. Many believe that this is as significant a point today as it was in 1870, when people realised that literacy and numeracy promised a brighter future for society and individuals. Some believe that coding, or at least an appreciation of coding, is now the required skill set Indeed, some prominent technologists maintain that in the very near future the ability to code will be as critical as the ability to read or write:

 

“Programming is how we talk to the machines that are increasingly woven into our lives. If you aren't a programmer, you're like one of the unlettered people of the Middle Ages who were told what to think by the literate priesthood. We had a Renaissance when more people could read and write; we'll have another one when everyone programs.“

Tim O'Reilly

Founder, O'Reilly Media

 

“Learning to code makes kids feel empowered, creative, and confident. If we want our young women to retain these traits into adulthood, a great option is to expose them to computer programming in their youth.“

Susan Wojcicki

Senior Vice President, Google

 

“Code has become the fourth literacy. Everyone needs to know how our digital world works, not just engineers.“

Mark Surman

Executive Director, Mozilla Foundation

 

“Coding is today’s language of creativity. All our children deserve a chance to become creators instead of consumers of computer science.“

Maria Klawe

President, Harvey Mudd College

 

“In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.“

Douglas Rushkoff

Author, Program or Be Programmed

 

Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, echoed the concerns about young people not learning to program when he visited the UK in 2011 as a speaker at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. He said,  “I was flabbergasted to learn that, today, computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage.” (Schmidt, E., 2011).

A great deal of investment has been made in the infrastructure of computers in schools but, is it, as Papert believed in the early days of computers, in danger of being a way of doing the same old stuff but in new and expensive ways?  “If the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dullest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a Skinner box . . . I believe with Dewey, Montessori, and Piaget that children learn by doing and by thinking about what they do. And so the fundamental ingredients of educational innovation must be better things to do and better ways to think about oneself doing these things” (Papert, 1980).

As far back as the decade ending in 1995, the United States had committed $3.3 billion to digital technology (US Panel on Educational Technology, 1997), a figure that increased to around $2.9 billion per year in the five year period from 2006 to 2011, representing a huge increase in spending (Unleashing the Potential of Educational Technology, 2011). In the UK, an estimated £1 billion was spent on digital technology over the five year period from 2007 to 2012 (NESTA, 2012) but has the impact on learning reflected this massive investment?

Over the past decade, educators have increasingly stated that simply having access to new technology does not necessarily raise standards (Condie et al, 2007) and it is important to understand how computers and programming work rather than just knowing how to use certain hardware and software.

The most immediate reason teachers and pupils should develop the skills to learn programming at an early stage is because understanding code and learning to program are likely to be a key requirement in school curricula in most developed and developing countries, as it has been in the UK National Curriculum from 2014. However, it’s important to invest in helping teachers and students understand that the need to develop coding skills goes beyond “it’s on the curriculum”.

An argument against this is that some governments, school leaders and teachers believe that coding is a specialised skill that requires a higher level of mathematical understanding than can be acquired by the majority of students, or that the creation of supportive infrastructure to teach these skills is currently either beyond their provision or unaffordable. But the genie is clearly out of the bottle in terms of the future demand for the workforce to be coding literate.

In the 1870’s the UK government’s drive to produce a literate and numerate society resulted in an explosion of the number of teachers being trained and schools being built. It seems there is again a need for an explosion of teachers learning to code and adjustments to the curriculum if we want to build a confident, coding literate society in the future.

The critical difference is that teacher and students are developing this skill at virtually the same time and some would say that the students are ahead of teachers. This is a really interesting shift, as a society would probably not expect teachers who could not read or write to teach students how to read and write. However, adjustments to various countries’ computer science curricula seem to expect that very thing – that staff currently employed to teach in schools will, within the space of a couple of years, develop the necessary skills to teach coding and its applications to their subject. Across the world, technologically developed countries have invested billions in developing the use of computers in school. Most acknowledge that future generations need to be highly computer literate and, additionally, that they need to be able to code to exercise some control over their economic progress and, as Douglas Rushkoff believes, to “learn and contend with the essential biases of the technologies we will be living and working with from here on” (Rushkoff, 2010).

The UK’s OFSTED 2005/7 report found that schools needed more help assessing students’ ICT capability and underachievement. In particular, the report identified a need for support in developing higher order capability. Subject leaders, teachers and teaching assistants all needed training. The potential for ICT needed to be built into school improvement to reduce variations in the quality of students’ experience. It was clearly recognized that their experience of ICT outside school was outstripping their experience in school and that, in general, schools were not responding to this experience in their planning and delivery of the ICT curriculum. The report also noted the over-emphasis on the use of ICT to present work and the skills associated with that instead of teaching coding or programming skills.

Similarly, the now defunct British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) concluded that “the availability of ICT is not, in itself, sufficient to enhance learning and teaching and, in turn, increase attainment. Analyses of the literature indicate that while ICT can be motivating and engage pupils in learning more effectively, sustained impact depends on the ability of the teacher to integrate or embed ICT into the learning experience of pupils in such a way that the potential of the technology is fully realised. Teachers have to be confident in their own ICT capacity and understand the potential benefits of using ICT in a planned and pedagogically sound way” (Condie et al, 2007).

In December 2011, the Department for Education in the UK published a report reviewing the provision of ICT in England.  This report, ICT in Schools 2008 – 2011, is an evaluation of the current provision of ICT in schools in England, which draws evidence from OFSTED inspections in 167 primary, secondary and special schools across the country. This report was fairly complimentary about the state of ICT in primary schools but highlighted weaknesses in data handling and control. The report was less positive for Key Stages Three and Four, highlighting limited capability in programming and noting that the number of students taking ICT at GCSE had dropped dramatically (by 63%) since 2007, while the reduction at A level stood at 23%. Overall, it painted a fairly bleak picture of the number of students learning to program in English schools, which largely confirmed that the situation reported in 2005/7 (Ofsted, 2011) was unchanged despite the huge spending in software and hardware across UK schools.

The experience of coding or programming in the KS2 curriculum prior to September 2013 is only referred to obliquely in the expected level of attainment, e.g., level 4’s “They use ICT-based models and simulations" and level 5’s “They create sequences of instructions to control events, and understand the need to be precise when framing and sequencing instructions”. The emphasis of the primary ICT curriculum is on using computers to explore, evaluate and present information and emphatically not on learning to code. Understandably, the ICT curriculum before September 2013 was ready for an overhaul (ICT in Schools, 2011, Shut down or restart?, 2012, Next Gen, Feb 2011).

On 11 September 2013 the UK government published the final revision of the new national curriculum after a period of consultation. Renaming the curriculum from ICT to Computing reflected significant changes to the primary curriculum and the programmes of study with a substantial move towards including the teaching of coding in the curriculum.

“A high quality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world. Computing has deep links with mathematics, science and design and technology and provides insights into both natural and artificial systems. The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work and how to put this knowledge to use through programming. Building on this knowledge and understanding, pupils are equipped to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of content. Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.’ (DfE, 2013, National Curriculum in England: Computing Programmes of Study)

A series of significant changes are brought to bear in the Key Stage One curriculum. The introduction of algorithms, the debugging of simple programs and the emphasis on internet safety (presuming that children as young as five years old will be using online technologies unsupervised, a presumption in and of itself a considerable departure from previous curriculum planning) raise the bar considerably when compared to the previous curriculum. These changes create a discontinuity for assessment when compared to the (recently disapplied) levels of attainment descriptions whereby students at the end of Key Stage One are generally achieving level 2/3.

In Key Stage Two the emphasis on programming continues with a much greater emphasis on computational thinking and “e-maturity”, that is, using the internet and networks responsibly when sharing data and private information. There is a clear distinction between the old ICT curriculum and the new Computing curriculum. The ICT curriculum dealt with the creative and productive use and application of computer systems, especially in organisations, including considerations of e-safety, privacy, ethics, and intellectual property. The new Computing curriculum is the study of the foundational principles and practices of computation and computational thinking, and their application in the design and development of computer systems. Omitted from the new Computing curriculum are clear and measurable levels of attainment; these seem almost dismissed with a curt “by the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study.”

(DfE, 2013, National Curriculum in England: Computing Programmes of Study)

It is virtually certain that schools will require more detail in the future to adequately assess their students’ progression and attainment in the subject. It is clear that the policy makers urgently need to work on making the levels of attainment in Computing available and as rigorous as the levels of attainment in core subjects such as Mathematics and English.

It is important that further advice be given to schools to ensure an understanding of the differences between the expectations of the previous ICT curriculum and the new Computing curriculum to avoid the feeling among some in the profession that this may just be a name change while the content of lessons is similar. The Computing at School organization (part of the BCS Academy) has a helpful table to compare the two disciplines.

The following table (5.1) compares the two disciplines at school level:

Information Technology

Computer Science

How computer systems are used

How computer systems work

People are central to the subject

Computation is central to the subject

Concerned with the development of IT systems, with particular emphasis on the effects on end users

Concerned with algorithmic thinking, and the ways in which a real-world problem can be decomposed in order to construct a working solution

Focuses on building a business / application solution mainly by using a combination of currently available software

Develops new systems by writing new software.

Emphasis on choosing and evaluating, appropriate software

Emphasis on principles and techniques for building new software (or hardware). Programming is a central technique.

Information Technology supports human activity

Computation is a “lens” through which we can understand the natural world, and the nature of thought itself, in a new way.

Tending towards applied/vocational

Tending towards academic

Table 5.1 (Computing at school, 2013)

Simply put, the curriculum at Key Stage One introduces algorithms and programming and Key Stage Two sees further emphasis on programming linked to algorithms. There is an expectation that students understand how the Internet works, and that this is different from the Web. It is also expected that students understand how search engines operate and be able to use these safely and responsibly. Distinguishing between ICT, as “how computer systems are used” and Computing, as “how computer systems work” is a simple but helpful way of introducing children to the new curriculum, particularly if they are in the middle of their education and have some confusion about why the subject has undergone a name change.

The UK government’s response to recent reports such as NESTA’s report and the Royal Society’s report Shut Down or Restart was one of qualified agreement; the government recognises that the current ICT programme is insufficiently rigorous and in need of reform.

As part of a review of the whole English National Curriculum, radical changes have taken place in the new draft curriculum for ICT teaching in schools, recognising that many schools had become too focused upon the use of office productivity software. Also, schools and national education policy tended to conflate computing skills with digital literacy.

The relationship between learning mathematics and learning coding and whether you need to be “good” at mathematics in order to be good at programming are still under debate, but it can be acknowledged that programming requires an ability to think and solve problems logically, which are also attributes needed to succeed in developing an ability in mathematics.

There is a movement of influential individuals, such as those supporting simple learning-to-code online programs, who believe that there is a worldwide shortage of computer programmers and that computer science and computer programming should be part of the core curriculum in education alongside other sciences, technology and mathematics. They are concerned that governments are not doing enough to promote the study of computer science in schools, or at a young enough age. For example, the US Department of Education’s study (USNCES, The Nation’s Report Card, 2011), which highlighted the number of high school students (at age 14-15) choosing to study Computer Science had fallen from 25% to 19% over twenty years, whereas other STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) had all seen an increase.

Mitch Resnick and the team at MIT Media Lab, in their project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, have done influential work in this field and their development of the “Scratch” visual programming environment has been instrumental in bringing the world of programming to young learners. Scratch works by building programs in a way that allows the user to “snap” together blocks of code, in a highly colourful and engaging way, which control two-dimensional graphical objects called “sprites”. Launched publicly in 2007, having been developed through testing in after-school environments such as the Intel Computer Clubhouses (Maloney et al, 2010), the Scratch project’s goal is to introduce programming to those with no previous programming experience. It has proved highly successful, with translation into more than fifty languages and over two million copies of the free software downloaded from its website (Maloney, 2010).

The great variety of reports generated in the last five years, together with the variety of sites supporting learners new to coding (see recommended sites below), suggests that there is an increasing awareness amongst educators, technologists and governments that there needs to be a democratisation of technology. There is, in particular, a need to increase the number of people able to code and program in an effort to understand, personalize and be creative regarding new technologies in their lives.

There is also a growing awareness that increasing the population who are able to code needs to start in schools, introducing coding at an early age to enthuse students and counteract negative perceptions and prejudices that impair the participation and recruitment of a wide demographic of genders, social classes, ethnicities and cultures.

Although some may feel that coding is a specialised skill inappropriate for the primary classroom, there are many initiatives around the globe where teachers and students are developing skills to learn programming. It is clear that both new and experienced teachers need training, but equally clear that independent companies providing professional development services are already quickly responding to this need.

ICT as a subject has done what it has needed to do historically, and the argument for the change to Computing in the primary curriculum is persuasive. Wells believes that “our current and new teachers can be trained in enough ‘small incremental steps’ computing (with significant support from the universities in the provision of suitable professional development opportunities). This will allow them to confidently deliver more rigorous computing topics over time, and therefore reshape and evolve an IT curriculum that needs some more ‘awe and wonder’ injected into it. Future recruitment into teaching needs to look more closely at computer science as a discipline for teaching IT and at ways of attracting high-calibre computer scientists who have the capacity to teach and inspire successful learning, into the profession.” (Wells, 2012)

The need for primary age children to learn to code, or at least develop an awareness of programming, is of increasing importance and is clearly moving further into the public consciousness as the popular press increasingly deems it newsworthy.

Countries around the world are investing in computer science education to grow the next generation of start-ups, entrepreneurs and skilled workers. And it is clear that independent agencies are also responding to the need for the next generation to grapple with learning coding, in the form of independent providers for training, international education charities and social network sites.

Now that the UK government has completed its period of consultation on replacing ICT with Computing in the curriculum framework, the arguments about it may be over. But although various bodies have done huge amounts of work to produce new programmes of study, it is unlikely that the teaching workforce will be able to implement this new curriculum in the short term. Issues surround disparity between primary and secondary schools, with primary teachers proving to more confident in embracing new technologies (OFSTED, 2011, Smith et al., 2008). Teachers still restrict themselves to a limited range of applications in the classroom (Cox, Marshall, 2007). In the field of programming, data handling and the use of control technology, implementation continues to exhibit weaknesses (OFSTED, 2011) and there is a clear and continuing need for extensive continuing professional development in the teaching workforce, in particular, a need to come to grips with teaching programming (BECTA, 2010, Furber, S., et al, 2012)

However, in terms of a vision of the future, there is little doubt that where governments around the world make the effort to produce new curricula that address the teaching of coding and introduce it in primary schools as a core expectation, children will have an opportunity to be creators, not just consumers, of digital technologies. It is also clear from the experience of those who have made their fortunes in emerging technology that the next generation should be encouraged to learn programming skills both to exercise a measure of control over technology and to move beyond being simple consumers of technology.

There is, of course, no guarantee of that future, but the focus of the new curriculum in computing has the tremendous potential to unlock children’s interest in going beyond using computers and becoming creators and contributors. Alongside the curriculum, there must also be continued investment in continuing professional development for educators in the fields of new and emerging technologies and in the related infrastructure, particularly in international schools that aspire to deliver the very highest standards of education.

The last word is left to the well-known American prophet of the future of the coding- literate community, Douglas Rushkoff, who believes the opportunity to learn to code is one we should all make an effort to exercise: “For while digital technologies are in many ways a natural outgrowth of what went before, they are also markedly different. Computers and networks are more than mere tools:  They are like living things themselves. Unlike a rake, a pen, or even a jackhammer, a digital technology is programmed. This means it comes with instructions not just for its use, but also for itself. And as such technologies come to characterise the future of the way we live and work, the people programming them take on an increasingly important role in shaping our world and how it works. After that, it’s the digital technologies themselves that will be shaping our world, both with and without our explicit co-operation. That’s why this moment matters. We are creating a blueprint together – a design for our collective future. The possibilities for social, economic, practical, artistic and even spiritual progress are tremendous.”  (Rushkoff, 2010)

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Available online:

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