Computing in the National Curriculum

Interesting article re the New Computer Science Curriculum

This blog is written by Neil Brown, who works as a computing education researcher at the University of Kent in the UK.

Recently, the UK government posted its new draft national curriculum. One change that caught the eyes of many was that “Computing” was inserted as a top-level subject. To understand the implications of this, we need to look at both the context and the curriculum document itself.

In early 2012, the Royal Society published a report entitled “Shutdown or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools” (free for download). They suggested that the term ICT (previously in the national curriculum) be dispensed with, in favour of three terms:

  • Computer Science: “The rigorous academic discipline, encompassing programming languages, data structures, algorithms, etc.”
  • Digital Literacy: “The general ability to use computers… a set of skills rather than a subject in its own right.”
  • Information Technology: “The use of computers, in industry, commerce, the arts and elsewhere, including aspects of IT systems architecture, human factors, project management, etc.”

Now, one year later, the UK government have published their draft national curriculum for “Computing” (also free for download). If you read the second paragraph, it’s clear that the draft is informed by the Royal Society report (emphasis added):

At the core of computing is the science and engineering discipline ofcomputer science, in which pupils are taught how digital systems work, how they are designed and programmed, and the fundamental principles of information and computation. Building on this core, computing equips pupils to apply information technology to create products and solutions. A computing education also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.

This is repeated in the section on Aims, where two are CS, one is IT, and one is digital literacy:

The National Curriculum for computing aims to ensure that all pupils:

  • can understand and apply the fundamental principles of computer science, including logic, algorithms, data representation, and communication
  • can analyse problems in computational terms, and have repeated practical experience of writing computer programs in order to solve such problems
  • can evaluate and apply information technology, including new or unfamiliar technologies, analytically to solve problems
  • are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technology.

So the first part is clear: “Computing” in the National Curriculum is not simply Computer Science, but rather a mix of Computer Science, IT and some digital literacy. So rather than Computer Science (CS) replacing ICT, it reads to me like the new “Computing” is intended to subsume much of what was in ICT (which was a varying mix of CS, IT and digital literacy, depending on who was teaching it), with an added prominence for the Computer Science parts.

Draft Problems

I think the problem with the draft, which may well be cleared up during this draft consultation, is that the specific targets for Key Stages 1 to 3 (ages 5-14) are focused on CS, with little mention of IT and digital literacy. So as it stands, the document is inconsistent: the targets don’t fully align with the aims. I hope that this will be corrected before the final version. Others can doubtless articulate what is needed better for IT and digital literacy than I can — for example, Miles Berry has thoughts on suitable corrections.

Matt Britland recently wrote an article in which he decries the lack of ICT in the new spec (I presume this is based on the CS-focused targets) and rightly raises concerns over the lack of trained teachers ready to deliver Computing. There are a couple of bits that caught my eye (emphasis added):

In fact I firmly believe that we are robbing our students, if the current draft stays how it is. Obviously, computer scientists will most likely disagree with me… It is safe to say that I think it will help ‘some’ who eventually enter a career in computer science, but will hinder many more when they realise they are being taught things that are of little relevance to them. It is important to get the balance right.

If all that the new curriculum does is help those who end up in CS, we will indeed have got it horribly wrong! What I hope we teach are fundamental principles that are useful to everyone. As an example: I’ve applied very little of the knowledge I gained in the natural sciences at school — and I definitely didn’t enjoy studying them — but I think it’s very important that I learnt knowledge like how living beings are made up of cells, that electricity conducts more easily through some materials than others, and that gases, liquids and solids are made up of atoms that combine into molecules. Along similar lines, I think it’s important that everyone at least understands that computers are deterministic and that ultimately all information is stored by a computer as numbers (thought I’d skip binary) — these are some of the important principles behind computers.

Letters are mapped to numbers

Letters are mapped to numbers

I also think it’s a good idea to let everyone try programming, in the same way that Art allows drawing, English allows writing and Science allows conducting an experiment. It won’t be for everyone, but I do believe they should at least get to try it, and get taught the very basics. So as it stands, my Computer Science-related wishes are supported by the National Curriculum — but I can see that is incomplete with respect to IT and digital literacy.

I do want to see more added to the national curriculum related to things like digital citizenship. Understanding the implications of publishing on the Internet (e.g. libel), of the transmission of information (e.g. ‘sexts’ being forwarded), of online security (e.g. password choice and cracking) and so on. Some of this overlaps nicely with CS: you can best understand how to pick a good password if you understand what attacks will be used against it. I would like to see students be intelligent consumers of computer software: that they can spot bad security design (passwords being sent back in plain text), that they can spot bad website design, or understand what data companies like Google and Facebook can harvest, and what they might be doing with it. As Matt Britland says, the challenge is to make room in the curriculum for all of this!