What does Computing look like?

Computer Science

Originally uploaded by Lower Columbia College

Has anyone seen the new Computing programme of study*?

I’m betting lots of you have heard about it, and a few of you have read it.

If you haven’t, you really should – it’s only short. In fact, for KS3 it amounts to 9 bullet points. Nine.

Most ICT teachers will probably look at it with dismay, or at least some trepidation. First, the DfE have ditched “ICT” and replaced it with “Computing”**. And the bullets cover topics such as computational abstractions, sorting algorithms, boolean logic and the fetch execute cycle to name but 4.

There are a few… addendums? Caveats? A couple of points to make, at least.

First, ICT has not been ditched. ICT, as a subject title, is seen as being devalued in the eyes of the DfE. I’m not getting into my own point of view on that, at all – it is what it is and while I appreciate that some feel angry, undermined and under-appreciated, that’s not what I want to talk about right now. The DfE has rebranded the subject as Computing – which isn’t the same thing as ditching it entirely.

Take a look at bullet points 8 and 9:

“undertake creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple
applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals,
including collecting and analysing data and meeting the needs of known users”


“create, reuse, revise and repurpose digital information and content with attention
to design, intellectual property and audience.”

That sounds a lot like ICT to me. Looking at presentation software, designing documents for hardcopy (i.e. posters and leaflets), spreadsheet modelling, data handling with a database, web design, image editing, video editing, audio editing, digital creativity – it’s all in there.

It’s written up in a pretty vague way – but then it’s meant to be. The PoS is supposed to be slim, and vague. It provides the pegs on which we get to hang our curriculum. Again, I have my own opinion on the sweeping changes being brought in by the DfE in the last few years – but we are where we are. The government wants schools to have more independence. Here is an outline of the kind of stuff we want you to do – you fill in the blanks.

And most ICT teachers, and most ICT departments, should feel comfortable with their own curricula to meet those two criteria. The fact that it represents 2/9 bullet points (22%), doesn’t mean that it should equate to the same proportion of curriculum time.

So what about the other 7 bullet points?

“understand at least two key algorithms for each of sorting and searching; use
logical reasoning to evaluate the performance trade-offs of using alternative
algorithms to solve the same problem”

Well, that’s potentially a half-term’s work. To do it properly I’d probably want to build up to it over the three years – looking at algorithms in general and sorting algorithms in particular as part of a wider context (or I could try and sell the pupils on a unit of work all about sorting data – but I’m not sure they’d find the prospect as exciting as I probably would***). I doubt highly that anyone is suggesting we spend as much time on the bubble and shuttle sorts as we do on the whole “ICT” curriculum as it was.

Think back, those of you who’ve been in this game more than 5 years or so, and you may recall the KS3 National Strategy. A lesson-by-lesson programme of study for the whole of KS3. Many schools took it as a prescribed scheme of work that must be followed at all costs – when in fact it was designed as a starting point for schools lacking enough specialist ICT teachers. Here was a set of resources you COULD use as a starting point, and build upon until to meet your students’ needs and your staff expertise.

I see this new document in the same way. There are 7 new things that you might not be familiar with if you’re not a computer science specialist – so we’ve put a good bit of detail and a good bit of emphasis into them to make it clear and to give you a starting point. There are also two bullet points at the end to cover the stuff you already know – and we’re not going to patronise you on those ones because we trust you to know what you’re doing.

I’m sure some will accuse me of being naive (a criticism I’ve faced more than once), but until someone tells me that I’m wrong, that’s the way I’m planning to read that document.

My school’s KS3 ICT/computing curriculum is made up of 3 strands – digital productivity (e.g. MS Office type stuff****), digital creativity and computer science. Creating a computer game? You need to design it (creativity), build it (computer science) and advertise it (productivity). Find the user manual for any computer game and have a look at the credits – see what the different people have contributed to the game. I bet a lot of them have done some ‘coding’ at some level – but I bet a hell of a lot have done all sorts of other work – all of it done on, or with, a computer. That’s the model I’m taking at KS3…

* http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/n/national%20curriculum%20consultation%20-%20framework%20document.pdf, pp. 152-155

** I know that, technically, only English and other languages should be capitalised as proper nouns, but I think it helps differentiate between general stuff relating to anything computer based and the specific subject area we’re talking about.

*** I’ve met Tony Hoare, who invented the Quicksort algorithm – I doubt the kids would be as humbled as I over that experience!

**** Doug Belshaw quite rightly picked me up on this point within about 30s of hitting the “post” button. I don’t want to amend the post too heavily as this isn’t the point I was trying to make, but his criticism is fair. Nomenclature is a big deal – just ask teachers whether we should call our subject ICT, Digital Literacy, Computing, Computer Studies, Computer Science, IT or something entirely different – then step back and watch the argument ensue.

I accept that being productive is not about using PPT and Word. I was trying to rapidly differentiate between a set of topics – a set of topics that are never truly distinct anyway. Does making a poster fit into productivity, or creativity? Ultimately both, but for the sake of trying to categorise things I’m going to lump it in productivity – with a tacit understanding that layout and design are key principles involved.

Communication and collaboration would fit into productivity, as would turning a machine on, managing files & folders, eSafety, etc. Call it digital literacy if you prefer. Call it Hungarian Basket Weaving if you prefer! And I apologise for making the reference to MSO (although I’m leaving it there – I don’t believe it editing all of my mistakes out).

Another way?

Business Plans Don’t Suck – Mind Games Do

Originally uploaded by pinkpurse

I woke up this morning and came across two Telegraph articles via @schoolduggery that, at first, look like teacher bashing.

In the first, we have some quotes from Michael Gove on the day before tougher Ofsted rules come into force with sound bites like “zero tolerance of poor teachers” and comments such about how Ofsted “will even assess how well teachers ‘articulate and mouth’ the sounds of letters” and “check payrolls to ensure the salaries of weak teachers reflects their performance”.

In another article we are told that “Those admirable goals have earned him the undying hatred of organisations and individuals who put the interests of inadequate teachers above the interests of children who need, and are entitled to expect, a decent education.”, with several comments about the introduction of performance related pay for teachers.

What worries me is not that teachers are being measured against a high standard, or that the dreaded ‘O’ (who are expected to come knocking any day) will be taking a tough stance. What worries me is all the talk of those teachers who are judged to be ‘not good enough’ being sacked or (effectively) fined. It’s the punitive aspect that scares me the most. If we were to translate that into the classroom then we would be giving punishments to students who are underachieving. We could expel those working towards an E or an F within a term instead of a year*. As it is, I find that shouting at, restricting the free time of or otherwise punishing students who aren’t flying high doesn’t have a particularly good effect. Giving them support, encouragement, engaging them, differentiating resources, etc, etc, etc. all seems to have a much more significant effect.

It is particularly worrying when you see schools drop from Good to Unsatisfactory in the course of a single Ofsted inspection, when you see an ‘Outstanding’ teacher three years on the trot suddenly labelled as ‘Satisfactory’ on the grounds of a single observation. Measuring the ‘performance’ of teachers is not as simple as timing a race or counting the profits, and in such a subjective environment we find observations and appraisals can appear more as an ordeal to be survived rather than the positive, constructive activities they are meant to be.

I’m not saying that there are no teachers out there who are sitting back and not giving the best for our students. What I am saying is that creating an atmosphere of collegiate support and positive help for those who might need it is likely to have a much more powerful and lasting effect than threatening teachers with frozen salaries or a P45.


* Just to clarify, this is a response to a comment in the first article (“Heads and governors will be able to sack the worst-performing staff in just a term – rather than a year – under new “capability” procedures.”). It is not the case that any school will expel a pupil for achieving poor grades.

Don’t Panic!

don’t panic towel

Originally uploaded by norrix

Well, by now you really ought to be aware that the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, has had quite a lot to say this morning on the topic of ICT and Computing provision in schools.

I’m not actually going to say too much about the speech specifically, but more about the consequences.

What I will say is that the rhetoric and soundbites in the media outlets* had me pretty disheartened first thing – but reading the detail in many of those reports and the speech itself I think everything’s going to be fine (and if you disagree, just go to make-everything-ok.com).

I’ve seen forum threads, tweets and comments all day from teachers in turns ecstatic, perturbed and distraught at the future prospects for careers, subject areas and the academic future of our students.

ICT provision at KS1, 2, 3 and 4 is still compulsory. And so it should be. Students need to know how to use computers to complete tasks – modelling, presenting information, research. This may be delivered in a cross-curricular format, at least at KS2 and 4. It may be taught as a discrete subject.

Maybe this will give SLTs and HoDs the push they need to look at which elements really should be taught in a cross-curricular format. Maybe Science and Maths will be given some formal responsibility for delivering some of the above. All schools now formally have the freedom to choose the most appropriate method. I would more than happily let my Maths colleagues deliver spreadsheet skills and modelling techniques. I’m not suggesting that cross-curricular is the only way to go, but I spend so much of my time making up scenarios to give the skills a context that it does seem there’s an opportunity there.

And what of the Computing side of the curriculum? I’ve been teaching Computing topics at KS3 for years. Initially just when ‘no-one was looking’ (especially the kids), but increasingly explicitly as the years have gone on. And I’m hardly alone. Gove has been quoted suggesting that in the near future our 11 year olds could be creating 2D animations. I started delivering Scratch lessons to my Y7s in 2006 I think…

At KS4, those studying a GCSE or other Level 2 course in ICT can continue to do so and I’m equally certain that ICT qualifications will be around for a long time. With the expansion of Computing topics lower down, there should be more opportunities for Computing to be popular as a formal qualification, and this is a good thing. It’s about choice and exposure.

Some are clearly concerned that Computing is for a niche, or at best a minority. I wouldn’t go that far, but History, Geography, Music, Drama, Art… they’re none of them for everyone at KS4. And again, nor should they be. But now, hopefully, all schools will have Computing at KS3 so that students can make an informed choice, and all schools should be able to offer Computing as a qualification so that students have an opportunity.

What changed today? For me, actually, very little. I had a great discussion with my Y9s about their options (as planned), practiced search techniques with my Y8s (as planned), created radio adverts with one Year 11 group (as planned), had a go at coding a theatre booking system with my Y11 Computing group (as planned) and looked at the TCP/IP stack and common protocols with my Y12s (as planned). Tomorrow will be similar. Y7s creating a database, Y13 creating an interactive Flash product, Y10 video editing, Y12 practising working with arrays – a broad and balanced curriculum made up of essential application skills, creative use of computers and the study of how to make computers work for us.

The future is not what a politician tells us it will be, the future is what we do with what we’ve got.

* BBC News – “The current information and communications technology (ICT) curriculum in England’s schools is a “mess” and must be radically revamped”

Telegraph – “‘Dull’ technology school lessons to be replaced”

ZDNet – “‘Boring’ IT classes face being axed”

I could go on…