Teaching computing science is not top of the priority list for most primary school teachers. In an overcrowded curriculum, when there are not enough hours in the day, computing science, along with a third foreign language, RME (religious and moral education) and that weird learning outcome about land use are often casualties of the red pen, scored out on the weekly plan.
But computing science is too important to be sidelined.
There’s a viral video doing the rounds just now of a toddler demanding that an Amazon Echo play her favourite song (Baby Shark, in case you're wondering). The person filming watches with great amusement as the little girl talks to the machine as if it is alive: “Alexa, play my favourite song!” When Alexa obliges, the little girl claps her hands in delight: "Magic!" she squeals.
It is commonplace now for stumped parents to say, “Uh, let’s ask Google” in response to yet another “But why?” enquiry from their curious offspring. The message to children is that the computers know best, that they are the smart ones, that they just magically “know”.
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In the absence of good-quality computing science teaching, we are faced with a generation growing up who will believe Alexa is the ghost in the machine. All seeing and all knowing, computers provide all the answers and we won’t think to question how they know. Our children will live in a vast Emerald City and their Wizard of Oz will be Google. It might sound like something far-fetched from the latest dystopian novel, but it is actually not so very far away and it will herald the death of technological discovery. If our children and young people don’t know how the machines work, how can they design them to work better?
I know, I know. It’s moving the goalposts. Primary school teachers aren’t geared up for this kind of thing. They haven’t the resources or expertise to teach computing science. And yet most teachers don’t have a certificate of competence in teaching about Vikings or decimal fractions either, and they seem to manage just fine. Good teaching is about making links across learning, helping learners to see the bigger picture and develop transferable skills.
Teaching children to think computationally is essential learning and should start as young as possible. Children in nursery can understand the importance of sequencing and pattern making. Computational thinking doesn’t require lots of resources or even constant access to a computer. We can grow problem solvers, careful sequence checkers, creative thinkers and logical predictors long before the word “algorithm” is ever mentioned. We must provide an equality of opportunity across both gender and background; computational thinking is not the province of any one type of person – it is fundamental to the shared experience of us all.
It’s time we take our children and young people off to see the wizard and push back the curtain, just as Dorothy did, and show them how the machines really work. Open their eyes to the amazing and inspiring power of computational thinking and ignite the potential that lies inside them. That would be real magic.
Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30