Teaching CS in the 21st Century: CS as a fundamental skill.

Today’s Guardian has a feature in their Computer Science and IT section that includes a lot of very interesting pieces, ranging from what’s scaring girls away from coding, to why we need to be able to program and, John Naughton’s proposal for rebooting the computing curriculum – as an open letter to the Education Minister for the UK. Feel free not to read the rest of my piece if you’re pressed for time – the links on the first page will keep you busy for quite a while.

For those who are still reading, here’s a picture of ubiquitous access to computers in the developing world – giving people the possibility of doing anything with their lives. (Image is from this World Food Programme page, the food aid branch of the UN, showing the Nepalese deployment of the XO Laptop, with a programme focused on bringing young people into education, combined with a cooking oil-based incentive scheme if daughters attend at least 80% of the time.)

Children using a cheap high accessibility laptop.

What I took away from reading the Guardian feature is the overwhelming message that we should teach programming and computer awareness for the same reason that we teach maths and science to all students, regardless of where they’ll end up – because that’s the world in which they live. To quote Naughton’s article:

We teach elementary physics to every child, not primarily to train physicists but because each of them lives in a world governed by physical systems. In the same way, every child should learn some computer science from an early age because they live in a world in which computation is ubiquitous. (Item 3, A Manifesto for Teaching CS in the 21st Century.)

I’ve read too many articles about various government programs that try to raise standards but do so in a way that concentrates effort on some areas in a way that starves all of the other areas, or sidelines them at the least. If we don’t see Information Communication and Technology (ICT) skills as vital, then we won’t assign priority to them. They’ll get shunted out of the way for other topics, like Maths, Language skills and Science. ICT is not more important than these but, in the world that our students will have to occupy, ICT needs a seat at the table. As many other, and better, commentators have noted, the transformation of the workforce continues apace and programming and computer use is now a vital skill in many jobs.

We need the focus in schools, because then we can hire the teachers, which drives the job market, which causes the teacher training, which improves the quality, which improves the number of competent graduates, and ultimately leads to knowledgable and fully-participating members of our civilised democracies where those little boxes on desks aren’t a mystery or intimidating. I can’t take more people into my Uni-level courses than are being produced by schools – and, sadly, not everyone who has the skill or training at school goes on to use it. I can’t wave a wand and turn the “less than 20%” of women who start my degree into 50% by the end. (Well, yes, I can, but I can’t do it fairly or ethically.) I can do the best I can with the people I get but I’d really love to get a lot more people with the skills!

We all know this is a challenge because we have so many acronyms that might mean ‘Computer training’ – are we teaching ICT, IS, IT, CS, CSE? To step back from the acronyms, and their deliberate placement for emphasis, are we teaching computational or algorithmic thinking (problem solving and solution design), are we teaching computer usage at a fundamental level, are we teaching people how to use certain packages, certain techniques – where does programming fit into all of this?

All of us are need at least a subset of these skills now, in the 21st century. On a daily basis, I download more software updates and modifications and program more items around my house, than I ever did in the years before 1995.

As always, time and resource budgets are tight and, because of this, this is not a problem we can solve at one college, one school or even one state. This is why governments have to make this a national priority if initiatives like this will succeed. This doesn’t have to mean standardised testing or fixed curricula – it means incentive to provide quality education in certain areas, with supportive high-level goals and curriculum consideration, as well as allocated money for training and community building. Of course, there are many existing initiatives like the UK revamp of the high school curriculum and available on-line resources but, here in Australia, we still don’t seem to have strong linkage between a senior school course and University entry and it must make it hard to direct students into a certain path if there is no benefit for them. There are some excellent starting points, however, such as the Australian Government’s Digital Education Revolution, so there is certainly some hope for the future, but we need long-term vision and bipartisan support for these initiatives if they’re going to continue and make real change over time.


One Comment on “Teaching CS in the 21st Century: CS as a fundamental skill.”

  1. […] is the whole section of The Guardian focused on computing education. I learned about it from Nick Falkner’s post on CS as a fundamental 21st century skill, and then from other readers who forwarded me the link — thanks!  I was most impressed by […]


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