The computer science revolution needs processing power

23 Oct 2019, 12:16

The new computing curriculum in England regards computer science in exactly the same way as the more familiar natural sciences. This is an ambitious recoding of the curriculum, says NCCE chair Simon Peyton Jones, but do we have the capacity to deliver it?

Ask yourself this: why do we invite every child to learn elementary natural science from primary school onwards, although only a small minority will become professional scientists? It’s because we want them all, including – perhaps especially – the ones who will not become professional scientists, to understand the natural world that surrounds them, so that they can make well-informed judgements about their own actions, and those of their society.

The new computing curriculum in England regards computing in exactly the same way. It matters that our children have at least an elementary understanding of the informational and computational world that surrounds them so pervasively, rather than regarding it as impenetrable magic conjured up by distant wizards, over whom they have no control.

What does AI do? Should we trust giant tech firms? If my computer doesn’t work properly, am I helpless? These questions are too important to be left to geeks like me – computing is for everyone.   And for many young people, a rich computing education will also be a pathway to creative, rewarding, fascinating jobs, not just in tech but in games, fashion, design, engineering, medicine, retail; in fact, pretty much anything.

Computing is for everyone

But this new vision for computing as a school subject presents schools and teachers with a huge challenge. The new curriculum introduces computer science as a brand new foundational discipline, alongside its applications in information technology; but few teachers have qualifications in computer science, we have little experience of what to teach or how to teach it, and schools are under all sorts of other pressures too.

Being a teacher is hard. Being a computing teacher is harder. We should treat them with the honour and respect that their commitment deserves, and offer the support and resources that can equip them to meet the challenge.

The advent of the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE), which I have the privilege to chair, is a huge shot in the arm. Funded by £84m from the government over four years, its mission is to support the professional development of computing teachers, from primary through to A level, so that they can be the inspirational teacher that changes their pupils’ lives.

The NCCE is producing lots of training courses, both face to face and online; a carefully designed suite of teaching resources for teachers at every level; a platform for A level students; and much more besides. It builds directly on the foundations of the Computing at School community of practice, its 32,000 members and its 250 local communities. That volunteer-led community is more important than ever.  But the NCCE alone is not enough.

Tech-sector professionals and university computer science departments have an important role to play in developing subject-specific knowledge, and faculties of education are needed to research subject-specific pedagogy, to help us figure out what works and what does not.

Above all, the engagement of senior leadership teams is crucial, to ensure that their school offers a rich computing curriculum, and to support the professional development of their computing teachers as they step up to this new challenge.

The NCCE is not a substitute for any of this: we will succeed only as a broad alliance.

England is the only country with such an unambiguous commitment to computer science as a foundational subject. The NCCE is one of the largest (perhaps the largest) per-capita investments in professional development for computing teachers anywhere on the planet. Education is complicated – but succeed we can.

Two weeks ago I was at the graduation event for eighty teachers who had completed the NCCE’s Computer Science Accelerator course. The sense of pride, excitement, and commitment in the room was palpable. Teachers are at the sharp end of this re-envisioning of computing as a school subject, and with teachers like these, we’ll be fine.  It’s up to the rest of us to offer them respect, encouragement, and our sustained, tangible support.

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  1. It would be a positive move if we acknowledged that the change from ICT for all to Computer Science for all was a misguided policy decision.

    We do not need the whole population to learn to code. Students as a whole do not want to take Computer Science GCSEs.

    Trying to encourage enough teachers to train to become Computer Science teachers so that all schools can teach Computer Science is doomed to failure.

    Unfortunately the Computer Science policy geeks have thrown the baby out with the bathwater by thinking everyone should be forced to be a Computer Science geek.

    ICT literacy for all, YES!
    Computer Science geekdom for all, NO!

    • Paul Martin

      ICT is now embedded in most schools and students expert (or at least satisfied with their skills) by end of Primary. There is talk that, with the Internet providing endless knowledge at the finger tips. where is challenge in education to come from …. CS ?

      • Luke Martin

        An expert by the end of primary – at what? What *is* IT? Is it using PowerPoint to make a presentation, or is it using PowerPoint to make a multi-media product that meets the complex needs of a third-party, so they may use said product to convey complex concepts to a specific audience? IT was never about functional skills, which is what you appear to be alluding to. That’s like saying DT is about learning how to use a hammer. DT is about learning how to use tools to create complex products that meet the needs of others. That’s a high-order skill set that takes years to develop. IT is a design-based discipline and until we see it as such (and reintrroduce it as a GCSE/A-Level), we’re completely missing the point.