Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The mystery of teaching computing at schools

As a person who has been programming since the age of nine, which was a long time ago, and as an academic researcher in computing science whose focus is on education, I am very excited about the new Computing At School curriculum to be introduced later this year. Regardless of the arguments about the approach to that and the timing, I am totally in favour of introducing students in more depth to computing and computational thinking. It provides the students with problem solving skills that are applicable to many other disciplines and to today’s and tomorrow’s world as well.

When it comes to using tools to support teaching the new curriculum, a number of tools come to mind to help teaching programming and writing algorithms such as MIT’s Scratch, Kudo and Logo. However, even when talking specifically about algorithms, there is much more to programming than simply being able to write or understand an algorithm. Students need to understand that there are many algorithms to solve the same problem. In most cases there are compromises between the speed of the algorithm and the time it takes to implement it, or between writing code that is easy to understand, debug and modify and one that executes fast but is hard to maintain. This is just one example of the many decisions that programmers need to make, and existing tools may not be as well suited to raising or discussing such issues, as they are other elements. Arguably, understanding the benefits and shortcomings of different ways of solving a problem - and the compromises that need to be made based on the specific circumstances - are more useful life skills to learn than knowing how to actually implement an algorithm.

There are many other topics in the curriculum that can be taught best by engaging students in open discussion with their peers and their teacher. This is especially true for topics such as; judging quality and reliability of information obtained from different sources from the web; using digital content responsibly; and understanding the consequences of publishing and sharing personal information. As recommended by different guides on the new curriculum, working collaboratively in groups can bring many benefits to students, especially for such topics that have an open question with no one, clearly right answer. Encouraging students to engage in discussions about such topics does not only help them learn better about the topic but also helps in the formative assessment of the students. Discussions help the students elaborate on their understanding which consequently can identify missing knowledge or incorrect understanding that need to be addressed by the teacher.

While in researching and developing the concepts behind Digital Mysteries - a tool to promote collaboration and thinking skills - at Newcastle University and later at Reflective Thinking, using it as a tool for supporting the teaching and learning of IT related subjects was not part of the plan. However, looking carefully at the new computing at schools curriculum and at the existing tools that can assist in that, it seems as if Digital Mysteries can fill an important gap in the pool of existing resources. We plan to collaborate with educators and make use of our experience in computing to develop the sort of materials that complement existing programming tools in order to help teachers address the subjects in the curriculum that do not directly involve understanding and writing programs and algorithms.

I hope for this to be the first of a series of blog posts about the introduction of the new Computing At Schools curriculum. My first active step is to write our first mystery on the subject.
I’d really like to know your thoughts, so please feel free to comment and make any suggestions for future discussions.

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