Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Thoughts on the UK Government's New Approach To ICT

The UK Government today announced a new approach to teaching computing in schools. The current sylabus is based on teaching how to use applications like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. This is, quite rightly, seen as highly boring and unecessary for today's computer literate pupils. The new strategy is to switch to a more 'computer science' based sylabus. This would include more on how computers actually work and would also teach programming. The Government's aim is to create a new generation of highly skilled graduates with excellent computing skills.

While this new approach sounds very interesting and laudable, I have some serious doubts about whether it will actually work. My concern can been seen if you break down the types of pupils that will be studying this new computing sylabus into three broad categories:

The Uninterested

There is likely to be a (fairly large?) category of pupils who, like with any subject at school, aren't really interested. These will be the pupils for whom a computer is about Facebook, playing games and downloading music and videos. It's pretty likely the these pupils won't really be interested in programming and will thus find it very challenging and probably quite boring. However, the sylabus won't be allowed to leave them behind, so it will have to run at a fairly slow pace in order to keep them on board.

The Swayable

This is the category of pupils who might have some interest in computing but whom have never really attempted any programming before. It's quite likely that a good portion of these might find the subject really enjoyable and will thus become the future genration of computer skilled graduates that the Government is hoping for. Unfortunately I think this category is MUCH smaller that those advocating the new sylabus believe that it is. In any given class I would think that it will be just one or two pupils - hardly a revolution.

The Hooked

Finally, there will be a group of pupils who will really love computing and programming. They will be the people likely to become the hard-core programmers of the future. Unfortunately, it's probably likely that these pupils will already have computing as a hobby at home. They will likely already be building websites and writing software. Even if they aren't at the start, then they soon will be once they get hooked. However, a sylabus created to cater for the slower pace of the uninterested will likely soon become very boring for those able and interested pupils. My fear would therefore be that they become unmotivated, unchallenged and bored by doing work that is way below their ability. This could then have a negative effect and turn those potential developers away from computing forever.

In fact, I know this will likely be the case as it happened to me. I was at school 28 years ago when computing first started being introduced. I got hooked early and my (very supportive parents) ensured that I was one of the first people in school to have a home computer. I taught myself to program at age 10 and never looked back. Unfortunately I found I was always way ahead of the curve when it came to computer studies lesson, talking to teachers about computers and so on. I got bored through not being stimulated. I had a few years of just playing games and word processing essays. I even toyed with a career in accountancy! Luckily I rediscovered my interest, changed tact, and went on to study Computer Science at University. It could have turned out so different.

My real fear of the proposed strategy is that rather than producing a new generation of highly skilled computer graduates it will instead produce a large number of moderately skilled people while turing the highly skilled pupils with the best potential away from the subject. Hey, let's build a large army of mediocracy!

So, what do I think needs to be done. I agree with the general goal of the new strategy, but I think it needs to be covered by a dual-sylabus approach. A sylabus for the uninterested and swayable that teaches general computer skills, applications, effective use of the Internet, basic programming and so on. To be taught by ordinary teachers with standard levels of IT skills. There also needs to be an Advanced Computing sylabus for the hooked and highly able that teaches programming and computing to a much greater depth. It would need to be taught by highly skilled teachers with a heavy input from universities and industry. Its aim would be to stretch the most able who could become the highly skilled people that our industry really needs.