Thinking Works!

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

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/9612063.stm

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.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15240207  (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!

http://www.gcsecomputing.org.uk/project_a453/index.html

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.

4 comments on “Thinking Works!

  1. Why would you expect government to understand the requirements of future employees of the next generation of IT companies when they so obviously fail to understand the educational and training needs of young people generally in any other sector (except perhaps the law and civil service). And of course they have such a good track record in understanding and procuring effective IT systems on behalf of the nation!

    I believe the NHS e-records system is the latest of many top down, nationally procured, UK government IT projects to stumble and fail to deliver. Most UK government departments continue to preside over catastrophic and muti-million pound IT project failures, including (but not exhaustively) the Child Support Agency, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Home Office, the Ministry of Defense, Defra, the Registry Office, HM Revenue and Customs, and many flagship projects in the department for Education… the list is relentless and the cost to tax payers runs into billions.

    So if our leaders don’t even know how to buy the stuff, how on earth are they going to specify a successful system to provide the providers of the future?

  2. I am so glad someone has begun to dig a lot deeper than just slating ICT and heralding Computing as the miracle cure. I fully agree that computational thinking and computer science are essential elements that are missing from the current offering in much of ICT teaching but are these miracle cures really providing the ‘modern day answer’? Having just started teaching Computing at A/S again, the course has hardly moved on in since I taught it and A Level IT 11 years ago. Yet, without doubt much of the industry has in many respects. The question of what Computing is needs addressing.

  3. As someone in IT education who seems not to have realised that the computer industry has moved on, I have to take issue with lots of what you have said.

    Firstly, some things that really irritated me:

    The GCSE you mentioned is not an IT GCSE, it’s a Computing GCSE.

    “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.” – No. The highest marks are awarded for “Efficient use of programming techniques – 12 marks”. I can agree that the emphasis on design and testing is frustrating, but this was largely driven by the QCDA – not the people writing the exam spec and certainly not the teachers (whether we aware of how the computer industry has changed or not). I’m sure that DT specifications have very few marks for design and evaluation, with much more emphasis on the skills used in actually building the product.

    “Somehow the retro website graphics and revolving floppy disc says it all.” – Well, yes. If someone made an old fashioned website about a topic then that clearly invalidates the stuff that sits within that topic. This is not an official site, but then perhaps linking to that rather than the site you found would have invalidated your argument… (Me? Cynical?)

    “it reads much like GCSE specs from the 1990s with a bit of programming thrown in for good measure” – I didn’t do GCSE Computer Studies in the 1990s (it looked deathly dull to my 13 year old eyes as my only experience of IT work was a Teddy Bear’s Picnic spreadsheet and a DTP newsletter), but most bits of Computer Science (logic gates, fundamentals of programming, von Neumann architecture, magnetic storage media) don’t really change that much. 14 year olds using Agile Development while simultaneously trying to learn just how assignment, selection and iteration works would be hard bloody work and, I suspect, not very productive. Still… I hadn’t realised that the computer industry has moved on so my opinion might not be that worthwhile.

    Most importantly, you don’t appear to have said anything constructive. You quote others saying that the state of ICT in schools needs improving – something that I agree with wholeheartedly. You don’t actually state whether you agree with that or not. I think that you might, but I’m really not sure. Pretty much everything of your opinion appears to be having a swipe at the improvements that educationalists are trying to implement. If you have a better idea, I’d be very willing to hear it. Seriously.

    I’d encourage you to have a look at what’s going on with Computing At School (computingatschool.org.uk), a grass roots organisation of almost 1000 teachers, academics, employers, parents and school governors. Have a look at the Body Of Knowledge (aka curriculum) we have been working on, and the CPD (continuing professional development) opportunities we have been offering to skill up teachers. I’d also welcome you to have a look at this blog post (http://ishouldbemarking.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/some-thoughts-on-it-ict-and-computing/), a response to a post by Nick that sent me here in the first place.

    *Apologies for pasting in the URLs – I didn’t get a WYSIWYG editor and I’m not sure whether HTML is acceptable

    • Many thanks for your comment. It makes a welcome change to read such a well considered and argued response!

      First, as you probably guessed, the post was meant to be deliberately provocative, and I had hoped to get readers making suggestions for what 21st century school experiences in IT/computing should be about – a debate that we don’t seem to be engaging in at present, at least not in public! I certainly don’t have the answers, and like you I would simply welcome some people to propose better, more appropriate ideas. And I do entirely accept that the Government and QCDA etc are the real problem – it was really them I was attacking.

      I read your post, which I enjoyed and thought made good points. I agree that there are some basics that need covering, but my view is that the problem is more to do with the way computing has to be taught to meet the requirements of the examination, in that different, more flexible approaches to programming are now needed. A particular contact I have with someone who works in the industry has told me that they have considerable problems trying to change the attitude and working methods of programmers who trained in the 80’s and 90’s – they just don’t do it that way any more.

      But surely the most important thing is to find a way of grabbing school-children’s interest and thus opening up the possibility of a career in IT – instead of turning them off, as seems to happening at present.

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