Pupils need to be computer literate but do they all need to be programmers?

12 Jan

Voice welcomed the Education Secretary's speech on computer science yesterday, while expressing concerns about the practicalities of implementing the new computing curriculum.

General Secretary Philip Parkin commented:

"Voice welcomes the Education Secretary’s recognition of the importance of computing, his announcement of increased training and collaboration, and his new-found enthusiasm for giving teachers greater freedom on how to teach a subject area that, however, remains excluded from the much-vaunted English Baccalaureate (EBacc) measure of supposedly 'vital' core subjects."

"We look forward to reading and participating in the consultation, but we are concerned about how more specialist teachers will be recruited or trained and the curriculum prepared by September.

"More investment is required to ensure that schools can keep their hardware and software up to date."

There is no doubt that we need to nurture and develop the next generation of computer scientists and review and revamp how computing is taught in schools. However, in the rush to develop a much-needed modern computer science curriculum in schools, do we risk losing more the more basic, and perhaps more universally needed skills provided by the current Information and Communications Technology (ICT) curriculum that is being "scrapped" by Mr Gove "to make way for rigorous computer science"? Is ICT as it stands actually "harmful"? Is there room for both ICT and CS?

As Philip Parkin pointed out:

"There does seem to be confusion here between the functions of ICT and computer science. Whilst all pupils need to be ICT literate, they don't all need to be computer programmers."

The person writing this post didn't even have the opportunity to undertake any form of computer studies at school yet is able to produce this, upload information to the Voice website, send and receive emails, interact with others on Twitter and Facebook etc, etc.

Our cars need mechanics and engineers and they wouldn't exist or function without them but we don't all need to be mechanics or engineers to be able to drive safely and competently or even to an advanced level. We have to learn how to drive and what all the pedals and knobs and levers do, but we can get where we need to go without needing to understand or see what goes on under the bonnet.

Most of us wouldn't be able to work or function in the modern world without computers but even if we use them to an advanced level for design or internet or statistical or scientific or medical purposes few of our employers would be pleased if we started reprogramming the office computer system! We need people who know how to do that and to create the systems in the first place, and we need to encourage and inspire more young people to be able to do so, but we don't all need to be able to do it.

We also need to understand the basics of how the world works before we can re-engineer it into a virtual world.

While walking on holiday last year, the author encountered some mountain-bikers confused about their location. They had the local Ordnance Survey map downloaded as an app on a phone, but the size of the screen meant that they could view only a small area of the map at any one time. Yes it was neat and simple and compact, but also disorienting, especially when they were trying to ride and then stop and look at it. The author's old fashioned paper map (on which theirs was based and which had been produced by geographers and cartographers before the computer programmers turned it into an app) revealed the bigger picture the length and shape of the track, the mountains on the horizon, the pattern of the wood's boundary in the landscape.

There's the old saying about not being able to see the wood for the trees, but without any trees there would be no wood.

We need to know how to read and write before we can type and use a computer.

Ahead of Voice's official response to the DfE’s public consultation that begins next week, do let us know your views on how ICT and Computer Science are and should be taught in schools and how this impacts on further and higher education.

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One Response to “Pupils need to be computer literate but do they all need to be programmers?”

  1. Richard Dooley 13. Jan, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    I fear that the author of this article is at risk of making just as dangerous a statement as Mr Gove himself.

    While I agree with your point that not every student needs to have the skills to program a computer system or smartphone app–indeed, not every student is sure to be interested in doing so–you could by the same token argue that not every student needs to understand the theory of rock formation, nor be able to recall the timeline of World War I, nor know the exact muscular composition of the human body, but subjects such as Geography, History and PE (including elements of Sport Science) are taught as compulsory subjects until GCSE.

    I agree with Mr Gove so far as believing that the curriculum needs a rather radical overhaul. From my own experience, the way ICT is taught is out of touch and therefore dull for high school students. Most already know the basics of word processing, desktop publishing, and online communications before entering High School. The basics of Java, C, PHP, & other programming languages which are the very fabric of all of almost everything we do on a computer, on smartphones, with televisions, &c., are rarely so much as mentioned, never mind taught. As a result, anyone who later goes on to study or work in computer programming or web development is at a disadvantage of several years compared to those who continue to study other subjects.

    I don’t agree that we require a rip-it-up-&-start-again approach. As discussed by Matt Britland on The Guardian [1] there is more than enough room to teach both ‘conventional’ ICT–which remains as important as ever–and Computer Science.

    Looking at Computer Science as something that can be excluded from compulsory-stage education simply because not everyone needs those skills is as dangerous as saying that conventional ICT should be thrown out completely in order to make way for teaching code. Students need not reach the age of 14 having already coded their first app, but they deserve to be provided with enough knowledge to make an informed decision as to whether or not coding is something that they would like to continue at GCSE level–just as they are in other subjects.

    [1] Matt Britland “Is Goce washing his hands of ICT?”

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