Computer Science for Everyone?

Computer Science education is increasingly being described as a critical component of a 21st century education. But who exactly is Computer Science education for? And how should it be positioned to meet this purpose? Having spent the past few years training and coaching new and experienced teachers, I am occasionally challenged to state the purpose for teaching Computing to primary-aged children. One such teacher that comes to mind was a teacher called Brenda. Brenda had been teaching for a staggering 40 years, and several months before she was due to retire, I was asked to support her in teaching Computing to her Year 4 class. Brenda was a rebel at heart and resisted change by openly questioning that which she did not believe in. She was quite proud of her label as an ‘old school’ teacher and having been present during some of the biggest reforms in British educational history, she had seen it all.

Brenda, not being someone with a modern sensitivity or political correctness, went straight for the jugular: “I just don’t understand why they need to know how to program? I can’t program and most others that I know can’t program and we get on just fine… What happens when they all grow up expecting to be programmers and there aren’t enough jobs to go around?” At the time, my answer was simple: it will enable children to grow into adults who will have the jobs of tomorrow. Brenda accepted this answer in the same way she did at the claim that marking pupils’ writing in different colours makes them better writers – with a casual arrogance, as if to imply: “you’ll see”. I didn’t think too much about it. I figured she could be written-off as a victim of being old-school teacher in a modern education system and as a result, I was doubtful about whether she could be helped?

Every now and again I look back at that conversation fondly. Perhaps Brenda recognised something that I didn’t? That short conversation we had has since then, served as a reminder that more experienced teachers are just as vulnerable as those in training. And furthermore, the longer I serve in the profession, the more critical I become about the intentions of our education system.

In the Interests of Industry?

In his talk to the RSA (2010), Ken Robinson argues that our current educational system was designed and conceived for the industrial age, driven by the economic imperative of the time. If this is an accurate observation, then the introduction of Computing in Key Stages 1-3 and the inclusion of GCSE Computer Science in the new Progress 8 measure maybe more than just a coincidence. Many agree that the purpose of education is to prepare children and young people for the world of work and life as an adult. And while this is true, how much of the former is wrapped in the economic imperatives of our time?

The Royal Society (2012) report titled ‘Shutdown or Restart’ made recommendations for the government, exam boards, schools, colleges and universities, urging them to address the issues surrounding inadequate educational provision and as well as the decreasing numbers of computer science graduates. As a result, the government implemented many of these recommendations, which became the rationale for the replacement of ICT for Computing (and Computer Science at GCSE). This too is also echoed by Brown, N. C. C. et al (2013) who attribute the changing priorities to industry voices who: ‘…helped to draw the government’s attention to the issue, and lend credence to the idea that there was a problem.’ Therefore, it is apparent that commercial interests and economic imperatives may have been the biggest influence on these reforms.

Understanding of the (Digital) World

The question of who Computer Science is for still remains unanswered. Because although driven by the wants of industry, is it a subject that everyone should study – even if they don’t wish to pursue a related career? I believe the answer is: yes.

For example, Science provides us with an understanding of how our physical world works, it teaches us to be methodical in our actions and ‘scientific’ in our observations – as well as to appreciate the world around us and its underlying complexity. It is clear that the intent is not to make everyone a scientist. Similarly, Computer Science offers us an understanding of how our digital world works, it teaches us to use computational thinking to create and evaluate solutions – as well as to appreciate the opportunities technology provides and the growing complexities of digital innovation. Therefore, it should be considered as more than a way to secure employment in the future, instead it should be regarded as a discipline to help children and young people better understand how technology works and how to problem solve using computers.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is clear that Computer Science is valuable in providing pupils with the knowledge and skills required to understand how our digital world works. But while its value is absolute, its intent is rooted in both commercial and economic interests. This raises questions about the overall necessity of positioning this subject within compulsory education, as not every child will grow up to be an adult who contributes to the world of work using these skills.

However, the focus of compulsory Computer Science education should actually be to equip children and young people with the knowledge, skills and competencies needed to use technology purposefully and creatively in a range of situations (including problem solving through computational thinking), and furthermore to understand how the technology they see around them works – so as to fully appreciate its innovation and complexity. Despite perceptions that learning how to program will guarantee employment in the future, it should be looked upon as a way of ensuring children and young people can navigate their futures (whatever it may be) feeling confident that technology will not be a barrier to future success.

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