Computer sciences needs a change of image and approach

Erase All Kittens

It’s a simple divide, embedded in the culture and materials of teaching and learning computer sciences: there are geeks and there are creatives, and the two simply do not mix.

That pigeonholing is not the overt intention of the revamp of the UK computing curriculum, updated in 2014 to give greater emphasis on how to teach children how to problem solve, and empower them to become creators of digital media rather than consumers. But ‘geek or freak’ is the outcome.

That’s not to say the newer curriculum isn’t progress, and it does create a skillset which are a better fit for the 21st Century workplace. But it doesn’t change perceptions – learning to code is still ‘difficult and dull’, and for those who are good at maths and science. Creative subjects, languages and the arts, are for a different kind of person altogether.

And that, of course, misunderstands coding completely – the truth is, there’s not much point in learning to code if you can’t think creatively. Coding is a language, or a tool, it’s not the end in itself, and the failure to make this clear in even offering the course (never mind in the teaching of it), is putting young students off.

All pupils struggle to see the relevance of their learning to their own perception of their later life (‘why do I need to know algebra?’), yet few subjects have the resonance for future work skills as coding, technology and computer skills – creating a maturity with tech that allows pupils to think, collaborate, and be lifelong learners. Ultimately, teaching coding with Personal Learning and Thinking Skills is what will give children a real advantage in our hyper competitive, increasingly digital world.

It’s also important to treat coding less like a subject and more like a literacy that spans the entire curriculum – much like reading and writing. Embedding the skills across the academic silos is a more creative and practical approach to code education that will engage more students, and prepare them for their future in our increasingly digital world.

Changing the culture of teaching digital skills takes time. Changing the tools can be much quicker.

Currently, most coding tools use Blockly – a visual based programming language made specifically for kids. It uses visual blocks that students drag and drop to write programs, which is a great way to introduce coding to young children. But it is limiting: there’s a huge difference between learning visual based programming languages, designed for newbies, and learning real, text based programming languages – which allow people to create on the web. With text based programming languages you have to remember what the instructions are called and be very precise in what you type, like where to put a semi-colon or remembering to include an exclamation point. Visual based programming isn’t like this at all – it’s extremely simple by comparison.

However, children learn languages quickly and easily when they are very young – so why not try introducing the real languages of technology in a way that would be challenging and engaging?

How could that work? Well, a friend of mine has one answer, so forgive the push. Erase All Kittens is a web-based platform game that teaches students aged 8-14 to code, whilst leveraging their creativity and critical thinking skills, allowing them to edit the source code that governs the game environment, enabling them to build and fix real levels as they play, using HTML and CSS. The tool aims to inspire and equip students to build their own simple creations on the web, and to give teachers the opportunity to become the facilitators of independent, autonomous learning.

Its one answer, and only one, to the dual problem of perceived relevance, which affects all, and the self-selection that comes with a course which has a severe problem with pigeon-holing. Computing as a subject has great potential to give children the understanding and confidence to think of changing the world around them, from their earliest years. But this means that programming has to be meaningful – which is impossible if too great a focus is put on learning the procedural building blocks.

Without a significant change in approach, we will never inspire children to become creators rather than consumers of technology.

Written by Jimmy Leach

Jimmy Leach is a digital consultant, working with governments, organisations and people. He tweets at https://twitter.com/JimmyTLeach

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