Monday, 28 November 2011

Teaching children to program computers

My first two years of secondary schooling were spent at a large and mediocre comprehensive.  Its computing facilities consisted of a Teletype connected to a mainframe at a polytechnic six miles away (this was at about the time the first personal computers were being developed).  And at the age of 11 or 12 what was certainly not called the top maths set was encouraged to write programs for it in FORTRAN 66 (being a heartwarming nerd I taught it to play noughts and crosses).

Decades later, there is more than one computer for every four children in UK schools (the ratio will be better in secondary schools).  And ICT - Information and Communication Technologies - is part of the school syllabus.  So how can it be that children are not learning computer programming?  The recent "Next Genreport has the answer:
...instead of building on the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project in the 1980s, schools turned away from programming in favour of ICT. Whilst useful in teaching various proprietary office software packages, ICT fails to inspire children to study computer programming. It is certainly not much help for a career in games. In a world where technology affects everything in our daily lives, so few children are taught such an essential STEM skill as programming. Bored by ICT, young people do not see the potential of the digital creative industries. It is hardly surprising that the games industry keeps complaining about the lack of industry-ready computer programmers and digital artists.
I had a look at the OCR's ICT GCSE examination - this is the exam 16-year-olds in most of the UK will take to certify their computing skills.  One optional "unit", making up 30% of the overall marks, concerns itself with coding.  Within that, at most 11 out of 60 marks are available for the actual code.  That's 5.5% of the overall marks.

It used to be the case that the nerds could be left to pick up programming skills for themselves.  But that's changed - why bother to write a noughts-and-crosses program when you can find a much better one on the internet in a few seconds?  We don't need everyone to be a programmer, but if we want to be a rich country we need enough programmers to support a thriving software industry.  The importance of literacy and numeracy is well recognized, but for most children learning how to use computers goes little further than the equivalent of learning how to take the cap off a biro.

There's been an understandable trend in education towards teaching the same subjects to children of all abilities, with the difference between abilities being in the level of attainment expected.  Appropriately enough, computer programming skills are more binary than that.  We have to take an elitist approach with the most able 10% or 20%, while doing everything we can to minimize the risk of leaving out the wrong children.

The government intends to publish its response to the Next Gen report today: I hope it takes the issue seriously.

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