Teaching Computer Science: why an overhaul of the school curriculum may be long overdue.

In the news today, the Government is overhauling how IT is taught in schools, with the focus to shift away from learning specific applications, such as Word and PowerPoint (Information Communications Technology or ICT), and more towards underlying coding and principles (Computer Science). For us adults, this is a small thing, but reflecting back to my own introduction to computing, and looking forward to what i look for from graduates now, it’s really quite significant (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16493929)

My childhood coincided with the rise of desktop computing, notably the Spectrum, Atari and BBC microcomputer. What this meant in practical terms was that, if you wanted to play a game, you had to spend the first half of your summer holiday typing in the code from a magazine to made it work. You could then spend the rest of your holiday debugging it, from line ten to line twenty and so on. You never actually played the game, but that wasn’t the point. You learnt about code.

Flipping forward, i see a regular stream of graduates and school leavers who have really quite basic IT skills. They can maybe use Word, but are unlikely to know about ‘styles’ in word, or even be able to use tables effectively. They may know how to use Final Cut Pro, but not Avid. They tend to have been taught certain specific programmes, but not to have focused on the underlying principles of either the genre (e.g. ‘timeline’ based approaches, ‘online vs offline’ approaches) or ‘how it works’.

Many of the most successful developer are, to part of a full extent, self taught. Not all, but a good percentage. It is challenging to get the balance right. For many children or students, simply being good at using specific ‘productivity’ software would be a real advantage, but they will never be programmers. For others, learning to use Word is irrelevant: we need to challenge them and give them opportunities to explore behind the scenes.

My own view is that the current approach may be weak, but just switching to a pure computer science approach is unlikely to reverse the trends. I think we need both, as differentiated subjects. There is no doubt about it that Computer Science is only going to appeal to a certain sub group, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it as a subject. It’s no different from physics in that respect. Equally, really solid ICT skills are essential in the market today and can still differentiate you from the crowd.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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