'Teachers need not fear the new computing curriculum'

TES Opinion

Oliver Quinlan, digital education programme manager at Nesta, writes:  

Last week, TES and Nesta survey revealed that most teachers are not confident in their ability to deliver the new computing curriculum. The results will no doubt start numerous discussions at policy level about why this is and what more could have been done. In the meantime, teachers are faced with the need to take rapid action to respond to significant change.

It should be noted that a significant part of the content is not new to the curriculum – despite the very visible discussions on "coding” that I suspect will have contributed to this lack of confidence. The computing curriculum is not labelled as such, but it is broadly split into the three themes of ICT, digital literacy and computer science.

ICT is the use of technology to find, analyse and present information, and still takes in much of what was in the old curriculum, although now with less detail and more space to allow teachers to respond to technology as it develops.

Many of the resources already available can support teachers to continue to develop their use of technology in this way, from the blogs of innovative teachers like Mark Anderson and Martin Burrett and the resources uploaded by teachers for teachers, to sites like TES Connect, to those shared by Naace, the subject association for learning with technology.

Digital literacy is a slippery term, but in this sense is concerned with the safe and responsible participation in the significant aspects of our society that are now mediated by technology. Using technology safely and responsibly is something a great many schools have recognised the importance of for some time and implemented initiatives to ensure young people develop safe online habits and understand the risks and benefits of communicating with technology. For those who feel they could do more, the UK Safer Internet Centre provide advice and links to resources in this area.

It is, I suspect, the “computer science” elements that are causing much of the anxiety reported in the survey. This aspect of the curriculum concerns not just using technology, but understanding how it works, from the underlying principles of computation to harnessing these concepts to make computers achieve tasks and solve problems using programming.

For many teachers, this will not just be a new subject to teach, but also a subject that they may well have never even studied before. Faced with a big gap, it is often tempting to try to plug it by stockpiling resources and activities to make sure there is enough for the learners to actually do, or leave it up to the children to “teach themselves”.

The practical side of computer science is certainly an area that is conducive to open-ended projects, exploratory work, self-teaching and peer coaching. However, I would encourage teachers to get to grips with the underlying concepts themselves, as it is only by understanding these that you will be able to significantly and consistently challenge learners to develop their skills and knowledge.

The key concepts of algorithms, logic, decomposition and abstraction are straightforward once their precise technical language (a must in this technical subject) has been demystified. For anyone teaching primary, I recommend visiting Miles Berry's blog. 

Once you have got the concepts you are teaching clear in your head, the next challenge is turning those very abstract ideas into engaging and meaningful lessons so that they are learned rather than yawned at and forgotten. There are many resources online for this, such as on the TES website, official guides from Computing at School and Naace, teachers such as Phill Bagge sharing schemes of work they have developed, and the Computing ITT and CPD group, which have crowdsourced resources, ideas and lesson plans from teachers in the field.

The new computing curriculum certainly provides a challenge for teachers, but there is a wealth of resources out there to help teachers move from uncertainty to understanding. While policymakers, influencers and the media are discussing how great the shift and how big the gap, teachers will be doing what they always have; riding the wave of change to provide the best possible learning opportunities for the young people they teach.

This week, TES is running its Computing Week, which has linked up with Computing At School and Naace to help teachers get to grips with the new computing curriculum. Click here to find out more

Other useful links: 

Nesta's Make Things Do Stuff: For many young people, their lessons in computing at school will just be a starting point. "Make Things Do Stuff" pulls together a wide variety of inspiring projects on computing and digital making to inspire young people to get creative and take their skills further.

Computing At School and Naace guides to computing for both primary and secondary schools.

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