The chips are down as schools unplug computer science

1st May 2015 at 01:00
Subject faces `extinction' unless leaders act, warns academic

The Scottish government needs to show leadership in promoting the study of computer science to prevent its "extinction" in schools, a leading academic has said.

Quintin Cutts, a professor at the University of Glasgow's school of computer science, has called for the subject to be revived using an approach similar to the government's 1+2 languages policy, which aims to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn a modern language from P1 onwards and a second language in P5.

According to the latest official figures, one in 10 Scottish secondaries has no computing department and the number of teachers in the subject has dropped by 14 per cent since 2012.

Professor Cutts, co-chair of CAS Scotland, the teacher association for computer science teachers, said: "It's a leadership issue. We need something like the 1+2 languages policy for computing because we are sleepwalking towards the extinction of the subject."

Not every child had to be taught how to programme a computer but an understanding of how machines operated was vital in the modern world, he told TESS.

Fixing the problem

"At the moment, our education system does not really teach children how to think about processes or mechanisms," Professor Cutts said. "We tend to think some people have an innate ability when it comes to understanding machines, but the reality is probably that they played with a lot of Meccano when they were younger, or were brought up to look into how things work, and how to fix them if they are broken.

"This is about trying to bring all that into our education system. If we teach people this mechanistic reasoning, this understanding of how machines operate, they will become better users of the technology, as well as being able to be in the vanguard of people creating the new stuff."

The call from Professor Cutts came as Graham Donaldson, Scotland's former chief inspector of education, told TESS that in his new review of the Welsh curriculum he had put digital skills on a par with literacy and numeracy.

Professor Donaldson's plans for Wales include a framework for progression in "digital competence" from ages 3 to 16. He said that if young people weren't encouraged to think about what lay behind the technology rather than just "pressing the buttons", this would be doing them "a great disservice".

"If we just do it the old way, we need to train up a lot of people to be highly competent in this area. That's too slow, and by the time we get them into schools, the technology will have moved on anyway. We need a more organic approach," he said.

The flipped classroom - where pupils view instructional content at home and then do activities that might traditionally have been set as homework at school - was one potential solution, Professor Donaldson suggested.

"We need to find a new way of approaching this kind of learning, where teachers and pupils are both the learners," he said.

A Scottish government spokesperson said that ministers recognised the "importance of computing science education in preparing young people to enter careers in the digital sector".

The spokesperson added: "We and Education Scotland are supporting the Plan C project, which is led by Professor Cutts, and involves the British Computing Society and Computing at School Scotland. Plan C is helping teachers to improve computing science teaching and learning in the classroom through a network of local professional learning communities."

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