[Category: In Class]
The Challenges of Implementing a Coding Curriculum
by Ben Davies
Since 2014, teachers in English schools have been required to offer their pupils the opportunity to learn how to write computer programs. For younger children – aged five to eleven – this involves using graphical programming languages, while children aged eleven to fifteen are required to learn a text language – most commonly python. In all age ranges there is the expectation that pupils develop their understanding of programming concepts and apply these to solve problems in a variety of contexts. The U.K.’s government believes that the implementation of this ‘coding curriculum’ will help Britain to stay at the forefront of computer science an area in which it has a rich history.
While many applauded the steps taken to raise the profile of computer science and to prepare pupils for a marketplace in which technology is omnipresent, it has caused some schools problems. The most challenging of which is who will teach these lessons. In many cases, the teachers charged with delivering this curriculum are non-specialists identified because of their technical savviness. While such teachers may be confident in their abilities to use a range of technology to enhance learning in other curriculum areas, they often lack the required subject knowledge to support pupils with the development of coding skills. As teachers, we know the importance of subject knowledge, and we have all, at some points in our careers, delivered a lesson where our subject knowledge had not been at the level we would have liked it to have been. I imagine these are not lessons that you look back on fondly.
What to consider when implementing a coding curriculum
This lack of subject knowledge has led may schools opting to provide coding lessons that require pupils to follow a set of instructions, either on-screen or from a sheet, to construct a computer program. Pupils often find such lessons engaging, and talk with enthusiasm about they have produced (been instructed to produce). However, if the conversation is steered towards how their program works, what computer science concepts they used or the debugging that took place, pupils are often less informed. For me, this shows a lack of value in such lessons. Do we teach children to copy out prose without any understanding of the structure of the sentences they are writing? Do we ignore the context of a math problem and simply provide them with the calculation(s) needed to solve it? I understand that ‘code-copying’ provides a quick-fix for teachers who lack confidence and ensures that pupils receive something rather than nothing, but it does not offer pupils the curriculum the deserve.
How to start implementing a coding curriculum
A longer term solution, albeit a more costly one, would be for schools to invest in the development of their staff to ensure they have the required subject knowledge to deliver the curriculum. Organisations such as Computing at School and the Raspberry Pi Foundation (through the Picademy program) offer free or low-cost professional development that allows teachers to develop their understanding of key computer science concepts through the use of a range of devices. Armed with such an understanding, teachers can offer pupils a ‘coding curriculum’ that places pedagogy at the heart of the lesson. Such lessons would focus on deepening pupils’ understanding of concepts such as repetition, selection, variables, etc through a range of activities not just writing programs. Once this knowledge is secure, pupils can then can apply these concepts when using technology to solve problems: a recent favourite of mine is creating a noise warning, so the pupils know when the volume in the class is approaching an unacceptable level. When pupils receive a series of well-structured, progressive computer science lessons in which they develop and apply their understanding, they can talk about the process by which they created the product and why it works, not just what it does.
Subject knowledge may only be one of the problems faced by a school trying to implement a ‘coding curriculum’, but it is the one, that if tackled correctly, can have the biggest impact on learning. Providing teachers with the opportunity to develop their understanding will equip pupils with the skills and understanding to use technology as a tool to solve problems rather than just being a passive user of it. I would like to think that is an outcome that we would all like to see.
Ben is a teacher at St Paul’s Church of England Primary School in Manchester, where he is the subject leader for science and computing. He is an SLE for computing and ICT, a CAS Lead Master Teacher and Hub Leader, and has previously held the position of Lead Practitioner for ICT for his local authority.