A basic approach to programming

16th March 2012 at 00:00
Teachers in England have new freedom to teach computing - and they will discover that coding is not just for ICT experts. William Stewart reports

In an era when government ministers in England 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 and how to teach it. And this was no fringe subject, but information and communications technology, a key part of the curriculum down south 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". And it will be up to teachers to decide how.

"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."

Ministers have been under enormous pressure from a growing lobby arguing that the ICT curriculum has been putting England at a competitive disadvantage. Pupils have been wasting hours learning to use office applications that 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.

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? The Livingstone-Hope Skills Review last year reported that only 22 per cent of ICT teachers considered themselves to be good at creating or modifying even basic computer programs. And they are supposed to be secondary specialists in ICT.

But help is out there. Kodu, a new visual programming language, is a good place to start. It has been designed to be taught by teachers without programming experience and to be accessible to children who can use it to develop their own 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 (P5) pupils, Amy Parkin, a trainee primary teacher at the University of Plymouth, 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."

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. And contrary to her initial fears that it would be too advanced for young children, she reports that Year 3 (P3) pupils picked it up even more quickly than their Year 5 (P5) 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 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.

This 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, 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 could work on Scratch projects if helped by an older sibling or parents.

Lessons from kindergarten

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

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.

Michael Gove 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.

"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 pound;16 and pound;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," he 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 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 off their products.

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

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