Those of a certain age will no doubt have fond memories of the 1990s Saturday teatime TV staple Gladiators. In the finale to each episode, contestants had to run up the “travelator” – a steeply inclined treadmill requiring every ounce of strength to ascend.
I’ve no doubt computing science teachers will be feeling like they have been on the same dreaded travelator recently. Those in Scotland, having just got used to the new Curriculum for Excellence courses introduced in 2013-14, found it was all change again in 2017. This process continues right now with draft Advanced Higher (broadly equivalent to A level) changes being published, meaning a further year of rejigging and upskilling on the horizon. Add the current dearth of staffing into the mix, and it’s little wonder we’re having to run faster and faster to stay still.
Let’s be clear from the start that the underpinnings of our subject are constant: computers are still finite-state machines, still using von Neumann architecture and – last time I checked – still using binary. So, what’s the problem? Quite simply, the context and specific skills expected of students (and hence, teachers) are an ever-moving set of goalposts. Programming languages come into – and out of – fashion, new trends develop and the impact of technology on wider society continues to evolve. The curriculum needs to reflect not just the fundamental static elements of our course, but also the more fluid elements.
This means that, while most subjects enjoyed the simplification of removing unit assessments, around 40 per cent of our National 5 (which is about equivalent to a good GCSE) and Higher course content changed significantly at the same time. That’s not exactly the much-promised workload reduction we were told about.
It’s easy to be jaded about this, mostly due to workload issues, but I accept that the latest content changes have been for the better. Our courses are more coherent, give joined-up progression and have cut quite a lot of the superfluous “knowledge regurgitation” of old. The course is up to date and gives a good balance between underpinning concepts such as computational thinking and a focus on specific, relevant skills. National Progression Awards allow more focused exploration of topics that can’t fit into a generic computing science course. Future updates should be incremental and small, though I’ll believe that when I see it.
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Resources and support have also been more forthcoming recently, with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland offering a number of opportunities. Computing science teachers have always been a close community; being able to share resources and unpick our understanding of changes through discussion forums such as CompEdNet has been invaluable.
Perhaps now that the dust is beginning to settle on what has been a very difficult few years, we can look at an area of computing science that has been consistently neglected: not the “what” or “why” of the curriculum, but the “how” – in other words, pedagogy. Too often – under pressure of changes and time – we have fallen back on what’s “aye been”, doing things the way we always have: booklets tweaked, worksheets adapted, but, underneath it all, relying on the same processes as ever.
Projects such as Plan C, which began in 2014, started to show the way forward, with the examination of current research into effective teaching techniques and the “professional enquiry” model – of trying and evaluating new ideas in classes – being front and centre of this.
Alas, the race up the travelator of curricular change has blunted the impact. I hope that genuine attempts can be made to tackle workload issues, and that some of the pedagogically driven principles advocated by projects such as Plan C will be rekindled and start to make a real impact.
Because that’s what we need to ensure young people genuinely have a high-quality computing science curriculum at their disposal – and an experience that will prepare them for the ever-changing digital landscape they’ll encounter in the decades ahead.
Mark Tennant is a school faculty head with responsibility for computing science and digital learning, and a former chair of Computing at School Scotland. He tweets @markjtennant