A basic approach to programming

9th March 2012 at 00:00
Teachers have new freedom to teach computing - and they will discover that coding is not just for ICT experts

In an era when ministers like to state exactly what method schools should use to teach reading and seek to define the "essential" subject knowledge every pupil must be taught, Michael Gove has done a very rare thing.

The education secretary announced this term that he would rip up the rules for an entire subject, leaving teachers free to decide what to teach in it and how to teach it.

And this was no fringe subject, but information and communications technology, a key part of the curriculum and compulsory throughout primary and secondary school.

From September, Gove's plan is that ICT will not be in the national curriculum at all. But, he said, it "will remain compulsory at all key stages, and will still be taught at every stage of the curriculum". And it will be up to teachers to decide how it is taught.

"Technology in schools will no longer be micromanaged by Whitehall," the secretary of state said. "All schools will be free to use the amazing resources that already exist on the web."

Sudden and unexpected freedom can be bewildering and frightening, particularly if you have no idea of the rationale behind it. So before looking at some of what is available on the internet, it is worth briefly examining why the change has taken place.

The background

It is a move ministers have been under enormous pressure to make, from a growing lobby that has been arguing that the ICT curriculum has been putting England at a competitive disadvantage.

Our pupils have been wasting hours learning to use office applications that as digital natives they would have picked up anyway, the argument goes. Meanwhile, the programming or coding skills that helped make Britain an early leader in computer games - now a multibillion-pound industry bigger than Hollywood - are being neglected.

Ian Livingstone, the games publisher, co-authored a report last year that warned that the UK had gone backwards because its "schools turned away from programming in favour of ICT".

"Bored by ICT, young people do not see the potential of the digital creative industries," he wrote. "It is hardly surprising that the games industry keeps complaining about the lack of industry-ready computer programmers and digital artists."

However, ministers have suggested that it was pressure from Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt that had really changed their minds. Schmidt warned last August that, by failing to teach programming, the UK was throwing away its "great computer heritage". The Royal Society also told the government that the ICT curriculum was unsatisfactory and grassroots organisation Computing at School has been making similar points.

Banishing boredom

Gove has got the message. He wants an end to pupils being "bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers". So what should go in its place?

A Royal Society report last month argued for a "digital literacy curriculum" that should include: the safe use of computers; an understanding of the internet; the underlying principles of computing; the application of computers in society; and programming.

It is this last topic that is seen as the most important by those who want the UK's computer industry to thrive. But it is also the one teachers are likely to find the toughest. The Livingstone-Hope Skills Review reported that only 22 per cent of ICT teachers consider themselves to be good at creating or modifying even basic computer programs. And they are supposed to be secondary specialists in ICT.

The law expects pupils of all ages to be taught the subject. So how will primary generalists cope? Surely they won't be able to teach programming to their classes. Well, actually they probably could. Help is out there.

Kodu, a new visual programming language, is a good place to start. It has been specially designed to be taught by teachers without programming experience and to be accessible to children who can use it to develop their own computer games.

Kodu employs simple icons instead of complicated computer code and can be programmed with an Xbox games controller rather than a keyboard. But it teaches children exactly the same principles of logic used to create computer games blockbusters such as Halo or Tomb Raider. Just as importantly, it allows pupils to be creative and, according to its designers at Microsoft, to "express advanced game design concepts in a simple, direct and intuitive manner".

Before road-testing Kodu on some Year 5 pupils, Amy Parkin, a trainee primary teacher at Plymouth University, was worried that the program might be too difficult for children. Instead, she found they took to it immediately, excited by the prospect of being able to create a version of the games they played at home for fun.

"The program works by creating a world, with the children being able to choose the landscape, trees, mountains and rivers," Amy explains on her blog (amyparkinbed.blogspot.com).

"They then add a 'Kodu' - the character they play with - who they can also customise. They can then begin to program their Kodu. This works with a simple 'when' and 'do' system. You simply click on the + sign next to 'when' and select from the options - for example, 'see' 'apple', and then do - 'eat'. When in play mode, the Kodu will then see and eat the apple.

"The game gives countless options and the children had fun creating strange actions for the Kodu to perform."

Amy was "beyond impressed" with the program. She found it worked best when pupils were left to work out how to use it themselves, with a teacher on hand to help when needed. And contrary to her initial fears about Kodu being too advanced for young children, she reports that Year 3 pupils picked it up even quicker than their Year 5 counterparts.

"The children worked on their own and created an amazing game, with hills and rivers, where the Kodu had to reach a castle to rescue his 'girlfriend' and profess his love to her via a speech bubble, on the way collecting stars, coins and apples, and avoiding the deep water," she says.

Amy believes the program will work better with small groups of pupils rather than whole-class sessions, unless higher age groups are involved. Kodu runs on a PC or Xbox 360 and can be downloaded for free with accompanying lesson plans and helpful videos at http:fuse.microsoft.compagekodu.

The next level up

Slightly more advanced is the Scratch tool devised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The programming language is designed to make it easy for young people to create their own animations, games, interactive stories, music and art, and for them to share their creations with others over the internet.

Scratch takes its name from the scratching technique used by hip hop DJs because of the way it allows users to mix together materials from a variety of sources. But the developers of the software believe it will also help pupils to learn vital mathematical and computational concepts and to think creatively and systematically. The package for the PC and Mac is available for free download at http:scratch.mit.edu.

It allows young people to program by clicking together graphical blocks on screen, without the "obscure punctuation and syntax of traditional programming languages".

Most important for Mitchel Resnick, head of the Scratch development team, is its potential for online sharing, feedback and collaboration - for young people to "remix" each other's Scratch projects.

"Until now, only expert programmers could make interactive creations for the web," he said when the software was launched in 2007. "Scratch opens the gates for everyone."

Since then, millions of projects have been shared, and often remixed, by young people on the Scratch website. They include everything from interactive birthday cards to political commentaries and virtual construction kits.

The software is aimed at 8- to 16-year-olds, but its developers say that university students could use Scratch for introductory computer courses while younger pupils can work on Scratch projects if helped by an older sibling or parents.

Resnick says it is these early years, or "kindergarten", when children are most creative and collaborative. "We need to treat the rest of school more like kindergarten."

It is not the kind of thinking that you might expect Gove, with his emphasis on uniforms and essential subject knowledge, to be a fan of.

But the education secretary has given Scratch his seal of approval, saying last month: "We could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses."

Resnick's Lifelong Kindergarten research group was also behind the "programmable bricks" that inspired the award-winning Lego Mindstorms robotics kits. Lego Mindstorm NXT - the accompanying basic computer programming language used to control the kits and engage pupils in engineering tasks - was held up by the Livingstone-Hope review as an example of the resources available to schools.

Computer science

The review also noted that although ICT literacy was important, it was computer science rather than ICT that should be made a core part of the curriculum. Gove has not followed that recommendation directly - in statutory terms it is ICT that all schools will have to teach.

But the education secretary has thrown down the gauntlet to industry, universities and schools to transform the subject. Gove praised the OCR exam board for pioneering a new GCSE in computing and said that if further computer science GCSEs were developed, he would consider their inclusion in the English Baccalaureate.

Eben Upton is trying to tackle the same problem. But his solution has been to develop a new computer rather than create a new exam. The former admissions tutor at the computer science department at St John's College, Cambridge, has been concerned about a proliferation of ICT, as opposed to computing skills, for a long time.

In the 1990s most applicants Upton saw were hobbyist programmers. But their counterparts a decade later were "often incapable of writing simple code" and typically only had experience of web design.

He and a group of colleagues identified the causes as the colonisation of the ICT curriculum with lessons on Excel and Word, together with a change in the kind of computers that pupils had access to at home.

Cheap computers such as the ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 that earlier generations learned to program on had been replaced by games consoles and the more expensive home PC.

"While a lot of homes have a computer these days, kids aren't encouraged to start messing around with programming languages on these family machines," Upton told The Observer last year.

"No one wants their home PC going into meltdown. A useful analogy might be that you wouldn't let your children take the family car apart, but you might be happy to let them loose on a bike."

His solution is a computer equivalent of that bike: the Raspberry Pi. The credit card-sized computer can carry out many PC functions, such as spreadsheets, word processing and surfing the internet - but it costs between #163;16 and #163;24 and has been designed specifically to encourage children to learn how to program.

Gove is a fan. "This is a great example of the cutting edge of education technology happening right here in the UK," the education secretary said last month. "It could bring the same excitement as the BBC Micro did in the 1980s."

Those BBC Micros were the crucial ingredient behind the UK's first wave of computer game talent. Produced by British company Acorn, they had no more than 64K in memory. But their endorsement by the BBC as part of its computer literacy project meant that they were a fixture in British schools for at least a decade, allowing a generation to learn the principles of programming through the BBC Basic language.

Thirty years on, the corporation is expected to be launching a new Micro program by the end of the year. This time round, there may be no new hardware, but there is a software system that allows pupils to learn how to code.

Whatever form it takes, if a BBC Micro 2.0 really does emerge and has anything like the same impact as the first version, it will be a real sign that British computing education is getting back on its feet. In true 1980s style, we really will be going back to the future.


When pupils have the programming bug, teachers might want to introduce them to Young Rewired State (YRS). The network, run by volunteers, aims to foster and mentor British coders who are under the age of 18.

An annual "hack event" is held in the first week of August when around the country businesses host the young people. Mentors and YRS alumni help them develop digital products built on at least one set of open government data.

At the end of the week, they travel to London to show their products to their peers, the press, government and industry.

The next event runs from 6 to 10 August. To apply to take part, go to www.youngrewiredstate.org

Teaching to program

In 1985, Hardip Mothada became one of the first two pupils in his west London comprehensive to pass a computer studies O level.

By then he had already taught himself to program in his bedroom on a Commodore 64 and had written - and later published - three computer games. He went on to become a professional programmer in Silicon Valley, California.

More than a quarter of a century later, things have come full circle. Today, Mothada is an ICT, or rather computing, teacher leading the battle to rescue pupils from tedious lessons on spreadsheets.

As an assistant head at Acton High, just down the road from where he went to school, he has helped to bring in the pilot of OCR's new computing GCSE. It has proved so popular that two classes are taking it.

"The kids seem to be really enjoying it," says Mothada. "They see the difference between ICT and computing because we are teaching them how to program.

"It is definitely harder than ICT as a subject. But because the kids love it, they are much more resilient than if they were learning how to use a spreadsheet.

"They really want to find out how things work. They are picking it up and a lot of them want to go on and become games designers."

Pupils at the school now start learning to program in Year 8, when all pupils use the Scratch application. Mothada's colleague Stephen Ford is also a former programmer, who wrote games for corporate websites that included Disney and Xbox. But there are other Acton High ICT teachers without that kind of industry experience.

The assistant head believes that it is "definitely possible" for teachers who have not been programmers to teach computing at key stage 3, and "possible" at key stage 4.

He advises ICT teachers in this position to follow the example of his colleagues and go to www.codecademy.com to learn how to code or program.

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