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Why teach computing to young learners?

I share the view of Dr Bill Mitchell (Director of Education at the British Computer Society) that the reasons for teaching computing are the same as those for teaching anything. There are many definitions, descriptions and depictions of how we choose what to teach our learners. We teach them the knowledge and skills that we believe will enable them to make sense of and contribute to their world. Increasingly that requires the use and understanding of computers.

Even those of us who have no direct access to or need of computers will be interacting with governments and businesses that do. The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, explains we don’t need to teach computing because we need more programmers. Most learners will study music at some point in school but not because there is an international shortage of musicians. Instead, we should teach learners computing because we need more doctors, artists, farmers and civil servants. Universities that run introductory computing courses are finding they are fast becoming some of the most popular courses around and not just with computer scientists.

What to teach?

In England computing has recently replaced ICT in the national curriculum. The debates around the relative merits of ‘ICT’, ‘IT’, ‘computing’, ‘computer science’, ‘digital literacy’ (and many other similar terms) often use unfairly narrow definitions of each subject. ICT is more than document and spreadsheets and computing is more than coding. Across all these disciplines there are overlaps and there are good and bad teaching practises; there is powerful knowledge and skills to be gained and there is academic irrelevance and redundancy. There are also potential benefits through cross-curricular links to other subjects. Here is an example of using a computing idea to search for treasure and learn about grammar from csunplugged in New Zealand: http://csunplugged.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/unplugged-11-finite_state_automata.pdf

Learners need the best of both ICT and computing. This blog is about the benefits of computing but learners will also benefit from developing some key ICT skills which will enable them to interact more meaningfully and securely with computers.

How to teach it?

How we teach computing is as important as what we teach.

The influential computer scientist and educator Seymour Papert used the word ‘constructionism’ to describe how learners make sense of their world by creating mental models of it (Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. Basic Books, 1980). They learn by being part of what they are trying to understand. In other words, learners should not just be asked to create documents, spreadsheets and code for the sake of it. Instead, encourage them to use ICT and computing to create art and solve problems that are grounded in their own experiences. This is particularly important for engaging girls with the subject.

There are challenges for schools in teaching computing, particularly in primary. Most primary school teachers do not go into teaching because they love computing. Teachers are generally attracted into the profession by a desire to work with young people or for their own career prospects . Even teachers who are familiar with the tools and techniques of computing might need some support to understand key concepts of computing if they are to teach it effectively.

There are no easy shortcuts to developing teachers of primary computing but professional development networks that connect teachers with peers and local computer scientists can be a source of knowledge, support and inspiration.

Computing and ICT do need to be taught.

Learners who have grown up with technology around them may naturally develop into competent operators. However, that will not give them any awareness of the underlying processes involved and will not help them to understand how best to apply their skills safely and ethically. Teaching learners to type may be as beneficial to future careers as learning to write with a pen; yet few schools routinely support learners in developing this skill.

Closing thought

Developing computational thinking in learners can be done from an early age and will help them make sense of and contribute to the society they will live in as adults. However, as educators we should take care to ensure that our teaching is focused on the learners’ development and not on the technology.

As Seymour Papert said: “The question is not “What will the computer do to us?” The question is “What will we make of the computer?” The point is not to predict the computer future. The point is to make it.”

This blog summarises discussions at the Westminster Education Forum on the future of computing in schools. For further writing on this topic please read Miles Berry’s excellent blog on coding and digital skills.

Find out more about Cambridge ICT Starters can help you support your learners

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  1. In spite of such a clear and excellent blog on this topic, I fail to understand why is ICT made an optional subject in grade 10/IGCSE level? It should be optional at AS and A levels. I stress on it as I have experienced that students are only making a choice of dropping ICT due to other subjects stress level or as they are regularly using gadgets they feel they do not need to study it any further. Please Comment.

    1. You raise an interesting point Faye. Whether or not ICT should be compulsory is a decision for governments or school leadership based on their needs and expectations. However, I do believe that the role of IGCSE level ICT courses in preparing learners for studying at AS/A level is sometimes undervalued. The skills gained from a well prepared and well taught ICT course should take learners beyond what they will learn through the casual use of devices in their everyday life.

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