Computing in the Curriculum: Identifying and responding to the challenges

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In October 2017, I was awarded the BERA Public Engagement and Impact Award for work in computing education. To respond to the award, I wrote this short article, which was published in BERA’s termly magazine, Research Intelligence, Spring 2018.

Every time we turn on the TV or radio we hear of a new innovation in health, science, engineering, entertainment and so on that has been enabled by new technological advances. Artificial intelligence, big data and cybersecurity are now all fields that are increasingly impacting on society.  In this context few people would disagree that there is a need to educate young people in a range of skills that will help them to participate and drive forward an increasingly computer-driven world.  Skills that involve being an effective end user of computer software are important but clearly no longer sufficient: we need to introduce young people to the world of algorithms, data and programming to enable them to understand not only current technology, but an unknown technological future around the corner. All children need to leave school able to make informed decisions about the use of technology in their lives even if they do not directly work in computing-related fields.

To support this educational need, a new Computing curriculum was introduced in England in September 2014 comprising three strands: computer science, information technology and digital literacy. The latter two have already been taught in schools for many years but the computer science strand had not been taught in schools to the pre-16 age group since the 1980s.  In the new national curriculum, Computing is a mandatory subject from age 5-16.  This is a significant curriculum change, and as all readers will be aware, curriculum change impacts teachers hugely. The question then becomes how teachers can be supported and upskilled to deliver new material in the classroom; and more than this, how teachers can own the changes and develop into leaders in this new subject area.

Two Royal Society reports have been widely influential in firstly announcing the need for this change  (2012) and secondly, and very recently, evaluating current computing education in school in the UK ( 2017). The latter highlights the challenges faced by teachers feeling unprepared to deliver the computing curriculum and recommends that significant government funding is provided to support teachers. For several years there have been grass-roots and volunteer-driven initiatives within the community of computing teachers and other stakeholders to provide training, mentoring and support in the new elements of the Computing curriculum. At the heart of this support has been Computing At School[1] (CAS), a community with some 29,000+ members which has grown from the ground up to provide face-to-face networking opportunities via CAS Hubs, peer-to-peer training via CAS Master Teachers, sharing of resources via an online community website, amongst many other things.  The strapline of Computing At School is ‘there is no them, only us’ and it is a body of people who ‘seek to support and empower each other in an inclusive and self-sustaining body so that each child has the opportunity of an outstanding computer science education’ (CAS mission[2]).

Supporting teachers who find themselves needing to teach the computer science aspects of the Computing curriculum is more than simply running a range of courses on how to program, although this is where the support began. Drawing on existing good practice in CPD, which suggests that it needs to be collaborative (Cordingley P, Bell M, Rundell B, Evans D, 2004), sustained (Guskey & Yuon, 2009), and combining a range of different elements (Kennedy, 2005), the CAS model for supporting teachers provided a holistic approach as shown in Figure 1. This work draws on situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and the importance of communities of practice.  Many of the aspects shown in the diagram were developed by CAS within the Network of Excellence, funded by the DfE from 2013-2018, and are documented elsewhere (Sentance, Humphreys, & Dorling, 2014). The aspects that I have been most involved in are the development of the BCS Certificate for Computing teachers (Sentance & Csizmadia, 2017) (an online accreditation and training programme for in-service teachers) and facilitating classroom-based research projects for teachers of Computing (Sentance, Sinclair, Simmons, & Csizmadia, 2018).  However, there is plenty of room to scale up these efforts, as highlighted by The Royal Society (The Royal Society, 2017).

Figure 1: CAS model for implementation of PD in Computing

 

As time has gone on since the curriculum change it has been increasingly apparent in working with teachers that we need to work out ways of making the curriculum more accessible to children, and in particular understanding how to develop a secure understanding of computer programming concepts. The current work we are involved in at King’s College London is around the development of approaches to the teaching of programming that can be used in lessons to support students understand hard-to-understand concepts and to build confidence. This includes a pedagogical approach called PRIMM (Predict-Run-Investigate-Modify-Make) which draws on many years of research around the teaching of programming to novices. Previously these novices were university computer science students: we now have to find ways of making some of the same content accessible to every KS3 student. It is important for children to explore and be creative in their development of computer software – but without ways of developing a deep understanding of how it works their attempts to get beyond the basics will end in frustration and disappointment. In our research we work closely with teachers using design-based research methodology.

The Royal Society recently called for a focus on rigorous educational research in school Computing (The Royal Society, 2017). Existing research in this area has largely been carried out in computer science departments with undergraduate students: my belief is that we need to start to situate this research in education departments. There is much scope here for exciting interdisciplinary work and at King’s we are just setting up a new Computing Education Research Centre (CERC) linking Education, Informatics and Digital Humanities, in which we will work closely with teachers to further develop impactful research.

I was very honoured to be presented with the BERA/SAGE Impact and Public Engagement Award and have worked with many inspiring people nationwide in these efforts to make computing education both deliverable by teachers and accessible to students. We are just at the beginning of a journey in computing education, with still much work to be done, but I believe the direction of travel is the right one and would encourage others to get involved in some of the many exciting research opportunities in this area.

References

Cordingley P, Bell M, Rundell B, Evans D. (2004). The impact of collaborative CPD on classroom teaching and learning: how does collaborative continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers of the 5-16 age range affect teaching and learning? (Research Report). London: EPPI-Centre,  Social Research Unit, Institute of Education.

Guskey, T. R., & Yuon, K. S. (2009). What works in Professional Development? The Leading Edge.

Kennedy, A. (2005). Models of Continuing Professional Development: a framework for analysis. Journal of In-Service Education, 31(2), 235–250.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.

Sentance, S., & Csizmadia, A. (2017). Professional Recognition Matters: Certification for In-service Computer Science Teachers. In The 48th ACM Technical Symposium on Computing Science Education. Association for Computing Machinery. https://doi.org/10.1145/3017680.3017752

Sentance, S., Humphreys, S., & Dorling, M. (2014). The Network of Teaching Excellence in Computer Science and Master Teachers. ACM.

Sentance, S., Sinclair, J., Simmons, C., & Csizmadia, A. (2018). Classroom research projects for Computing teachers: facilitating professional learning, forthcoming in ACM Transactions on Computing Education.

The Royal Society. (2017). After The Reboot: Computing education in UK Schools. London: The Royal Society. Retrieved from https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/computing-education/

[1] http://www.computingatschool.org.uk

[2] http://www.computingatschool.org.uk/about#purpose

 

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