Thinking Works!

In case you missed it, here’s a link to Monday evening’s Newsnight item on ICT in schools:

The item was prompted by the publication of a report by the Games Industry highlighting the need for the education sector to better meet their future needs:

“… the sad truth is that we are already starting to lose our cutting edge: in just two years, it seems the UK’s video games industry has dipped from third to sixth place in the global development rankings. Meanwhile, the visual effects industry, though still enjoying very rapid growth, is having to source talent from overseas because of skills shortages at home. That is mainly a failing of our education system – from schools to universities – and it needs to be tackled urgently if we are to remain globally competitive.”

The report identifies the limitations of the current ICT experiences children have in schools, lamenting the fact that we no longer have the expertise that developed as a result of initiatives such as the BBC Micro in the 1980s, and that instead the emphasis now is still on learning how to use Microsoft Office. Importantly it calls for students to have a mixture of STEM and Arts-related experience and qualifications, and not just one or the other, and to be able to work in multidisciplinary teams.  (Click on the link to download the report)

Of course it’s not something limited to the Games Industry, but to the rapid growth in a wide range of IT-related enterprises. Indeed I recently came across the website of ThoughtWorks, one of the leading global IT consultancy companies that promotes an agile approach to programming. At one point on its site it lists the key requirements for the attitudes and approaches it needs its employees to have:

  • A constant desire to keep code as clear and simple as possible
  • Refactoring skills so you can confidently make improvements whenever you see the need.
  • A good knowledge of patterns: not just the solutions but also appreciating when to use them and how to evolve into them.
  • Designing with an eye to future changes, knowing that decisions taken now will have to be changed in the future.
  • Knowing how to communicate the design to the people who need to understand it, using code, diagrams and above all: conversation

But wait – apparently there’s a new IT GCSE currently being piloted that will change all that!

Or will it? Essentially it looks exactly the same as previous IT courses that have existed for several decades, with the addition of a section worth just 30% that expects students to write a program. Just 9 out of 45 marks are for design, with the highest marks being awarded for  providing a ‘detailed analysis of what is required…justifying their approach to the solution. There will be a full set of detailed algorithms representing a solution to each part of the problem. There will be detailed discussion of testing and success criteria. The variables will be identified together with any validation required.‘ An exemplification test is to create a standard password system.

Hmm – there’s nothing that could be called forward-looking or creative here – in fact it reads much like GCSE specs from the 1990s with a bit of programming thrown in for good measure. IT in schools needs to move far beyond learning how mainframes work and how to use Microsoft Office. Somehow the retro website graphics and revolving floppy disc says it all.

No-one in IT education seems to have realised that the computer industry has moved on – it doesn’t work the same way it used to, and the principles and practices of last year, let alone the last decade, are increasingly out of date and inappropriate to today’s requirements. Now it’s about agile approaches to high-level computing languages, paired programming and self-organising teams. At the same time we are rapidly moving away from the idea of desktop programs to cloud computing, mobile apps, ubiquitous computers and a host of other innovations that will completely change the way we perceive and use our information technologies in the very near future. And one of the big demands at present is for good interface and interaction designers, user researchers and information architects, expertise in social networking, and so on – none of which are even dreamt of in the philosophy of the current school curriculum.

There’s no doubt that Thinking Works. The DfE and Secretary of State just need to try it some time.