With a policy decision on ICT expected, Tony Parkin sounds out academics at the London Knowledge Lab
Rosemary LuckinRosemary Luckin“You wait 30 years for someone to listen to your ideas and then, suddenly, 100 come along at once!” Richard Noss, of the London Knowledge Lab, was welcoming the large and eclectic group attending his organisation's recent debate on computational thinking and computer science, “Time to Reload: Computational Thinking and Computer Science in Schools".

Quoting from one of Seymour Papert’s early papers, “Teaching Children Thinking”, Richard Noss warned in the opening session that many of these ideas were not new,  and that in the rush to generate the programmers of the new economy we should not forget that being able to program was a fundamental right for every learner.

Education secretary Michael Gove MP declared that “ICT in schools is a mess” at the BETT 2012 educational technology show in January, and he called for a new approach. Since then a debate has raged between those who wish to defend the ICT status quo, concerned about babies and bathwater, and those seeking to use the opportunity to advance their own preferred solutions, sometimes with vested interests.

'There has been what sometimes feels like the equivalent of the California Gold Rush'

There has been what sometimes feels like the equivalent of the California Gold Rush as various groups and factions have charged in to stake their claims to curriculum changes.

Some have suggested that computational thinking and computer science is what is needed in schools. Certainly, even if it isn’t the answer, it is certainly part of the question, and an important element of the debate. But given the range of interests, the conflicts of opinion, the complexity of the challenges and their interdisciplinary nature, how and where should that debate occur, and how should it influence curriculum development?

The Knowledge Lab's Professor Rose Luckin, professor of learner-centred design, asked some incisive opening questions of the group gathered to explore the issue: “Are we sure we know what we want to change? There is already some excellent teaching of ICT and computer science in some schools within the current curriculum and programme of study, so not everything is wrong.

"Care needs to be taken that the changes we make do lead to a better learning experience at school: an experience that inspires and educates. But are we clear about what is wrong with computer science and ICT in schools now? Can we be precise about the rationale for what learners at different stages need to be taught? What do we want learners to be able to achieve as a result of studying computer science? Where do ICT and computer science fit in the structure of the school curriculum: media, design, science, cross-curricular?

"There are no short cuts to answering these questions. The process of addressing them requires an interdisciplinary and participatory approach that involves groups from across the sectors that is inclusive in nature and powerful in design. This will require an approach that is new to society, schools, teachers and learners: a process that must be both flexible in its thinking and realistic in its understanding of the role of schools.”?

Report after report has highlighted concerns and opinions

With the 2011 Naace report “The Importance of Technology”, Ofsted's "ICT in Schools 2008-11", Nesta’s "Next Gen" and The Royal Society’s 2012 "Shut down or restart?" there is certainly clear evidence of growing concern, and no shortage of opinion. There is also clear government commitment to change, but an equally clear hands-off approach to let the educators come up with solutions – well, assuming that you ignore the obvious endorsement of the "Behind the Screen" initiative to create a new computing GCSE by David Willetts MP.

The Royal Society report also focused on the computer science dimension, and suggested that a sound understanding of computer science concepts enables people to get the best from the systems they use, and to solve problems when things go wrong. The London Knowledge Lab session was an attempt to begin a broad-ranging and meaningful debate exploring the potential of computational thinking in schools.

A series of five-minute presentations gave the assembled group a feel for the breadth of the field. Jake Habgood (a game maker involved in Games Britannia) described how children became fired up by the knowledge that game-making was happening in South Yorkshire, and offered them a potential future career. Daniel Ortega (International Baccalaureate student) gave a personal account of the challenges facing a student  trying to embark on the field, and Iris Lapinski (Apps for Good) described how effectively their programme was providing opportunities to young people in schools today.

Madeline Balaam (University of Newcastle) discussed how important the correct emotional trajectory was in ensuring effective learning, while Lars Hyland (Epic), and Ed Baker (TechHeads) described activity in the "gamification" of the commercial world.

Miles BerryMiles BerryThese introductions were followed by a flurry of hands-on demos, programming and curriculum challenges from the opening speakers and a number of others, including Miles Berry proudly showing off his recently acquired Raspberry Pi computer. During these sessions Rose Luckin moved among the attendees, asking and gathering further questions and ideas, and these served to broaden and extend the topic for the plenary discussion that followed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the debate opened with an expression of anxieties from a number of people who highlighted the potential dangers of the opening up of the ICT curriculum. Bob Harrison asked about the likely impact on schools where ICT was currently weak, rather than those where effective teachers would quickly create or adapt to any new curriculum. Margaret Wright, formerly of QCDA, also expressed concern at the loss of the statutory entitlement to learn about ICT for a key group of learners, a point which others also seized upon.

'A real danger of schools not being held accountable for what they do with ICT'

Peter Twining, head of Vital CPD at the Open University, emphasised this risk. “There is a real danger of schools not being held accountable for what they do with ICT, and the disapplication of the ICT curriculum is a danger inasmuch as it will be taken by schools as a signal that they do not have to do it. We all know that schools spend their time on things for which they are held accountable, and do not waste time on things for which they are not accountable. So it doesn’t matter how nice whatever you put in place in its stead is, if schools think that they don’t have to do it there is a real danger that they won’t do it, since schools have a lot of other pressures on them.”

Others were equally concerned about the lack of capacity in the system. Ian Fordham, of The Education Foundation, whilst recognising the excellent practice by teachers in some schools, asked about any levers or affordances for the 85% schools that were not currently focused on the area of computational thinking? Mark Griffiths of Nesta, also wondered about teacher development, and models and levers to help disseminate the excellent practice from the few to the many. It was pointed out that in Israel, where the issue had also been raised, the solution was a prescribed programme and government intervention. It was also noticeable that nobody on the debate suggested a similar response here, such as an equivalent to the NOF programme!

From this point the debate ranged more widely, touching on implications for many aspects of inclusion, including age, gender and special educational needs. The need to address stereotyping within computational thinking was clear. Iris Lapinski was quick to point out that the Apps for Good groups were over 40 per cent female, with many from disadvantaged backgrounds. The key for her was not to focus on the writing of code, but on the solving of real and authentic problems identified by the students. Others echoed the importance of this authenticity of learning to engage and motivate learners in computational thinking; this was broadened by observations that it was not just about the writing of code. When addressing the economic and career aspects of the debate, the need was not just for coders, but thinkers from a wide range of disciplines that were producing solutions to real-life problems, as well as those working in the games and entertainment industries. Dominic Savage queried whether the feeling was that the DfE were focused on the needs of the gifted and talented, the future employees in the computer science business, or more generally on addressing the anxiety that young people only had a limited grasp of the technology that they used?

Peter TwiningPeter TwiningPeter Twining, in what he suggested was probably a final "rant", gave perhaps the best summing-up of the issues raised during the session. “First, the debate we have been having has been problematic because terminology was being used in a very loose way. In the last statement I heard ‘digital literacy’, not ‘computer science, so we are going to have to be much clearer about the terms we use, and how we use them.

“Second, we are going to have to be far more realistic about our curriculum expectations. The Government are trying to reduce this curriculum, not extend it, and we are not going to get all that we would like in there – digital literacy, computer science etc. We need the interested groups to get together and agree a realistic and shared strategy for what would be a coherent curriculum, including all the aspects such as digital literacy and the computer science. At the moment we appear to have factions fighting one another, and speaking at cross purposes, and we could end up with a mish-mash of ideas being presented that are not coherent that leaves us with a complete mess.

“Third, we need to recognise that computer science is a discrete subject and of specialist interest. Every subject teacher feels that their own subject is of particular importance, and will argue its case. If I am a historian, I can explain why history is the most important subject, how it underpins everything, and is essential. I could equally do the same thing as a chemist, or whatever subject you name. Computer science is the same. It isn’t that it isn’t important, but we need to recognise that, while everyone needs digital literacy, not everyone is going to be a computer scientist.

"So I think that to square this particular circle I think we need to accept that we need digital literacy across the piece, which can include some programming, but that we recognise that computer science is a specialism that we can leave till later in the curriculum, say at key stage 4. And Computer science is the same as history in that you need specialist teachers to teach the specialist subject.”  It was also clear that not everyone at the event agreed with these views!

More information

“Time to Reload: Computational Thinking and Computer Science in Schools" was sponsored by the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) research programme and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. This series of events is supported by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), Intellect and BESA. They are organised as a collaboration between the London Knowledge Lab, The Open University and the Learning Sciences research Institute at the University of Nottingham.

The intention is to continue the debate about this important topic, and to produce a more comprehensive version of the initial briefing paper. The team will be posting details of the questions that people raised and also encouraging people to add more, as well as hopefully suggesting some answers. There will also be  further focus groups to talk through the key issues that emerge.

“Time to re-load? Computational Thinking and Computer Science in Schools”, Professor Rose Luckin’s blog post on the event, can be found here.

“Time to re-load: Briefing paper 2” (April 27, 2012 - contains more links)

Tony ParkinTony Parkin, former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (The Schools Network) and now an independent consultant, describes himself as a 'disruptive nostalgist'. He can be contacted at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Twitter via @tonyparkin

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