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Involving learners in the discussion about improving computing science is key, says professor
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Education & Skills

Involving learners in the discussion about improving computing science is key, says professor 

I’ve spent the last week putting the finishing touches to a report about young people’s views about computing education in Scotland. This was more uplifting than many of the discussions I’ve been involved in about computing education over the years, primarily because of the energy and passion of my co-writers – the Computer Science Young People’s Advisory Group (CSYPAG) members and students at the University of Edinburgh. 

After the Logan review of the Scottish Technology Ecosystem there’s been much thought by government working groups about improving computing education. The report commented that computer science should be of equivalent status to science and maths within schools but that the current curriculum is ‘boring’ and more specialist computing teachers are required.

I agree with Professor Logan overall – I’d love it if computing had more recognition in schools! But I don’t agree with some aspects of the report. It recommends that computing should be formally taught from the first year of secondary school. This is already happening. In fact, computer science has been part of the Curriculum for Excellence since 2017 and is taught to children from early primary school.

The report also expressed concerns about the lack of specialist computing teachers resulting in a syllabus which is restricted to what non-specialists can teach. It’s certainly true that there is a shortage of computing teachers and so some learners may not have access to the subject in the senior phase. However, we should acknowledge that our existing computing teachers are highly qualified in computing, particularly in comparison to other countries around the world where less formal university-level computing knowledge is required.

There is a trade-off between setting high computing entry requirements for teacher education programmes and attracting sufficient numbers of students to these courses. As Professor Logan notes, pay is a factor here. In theory, raising the salary of computing teachers would be an attractive way to increase teacher numbers but it seems unlikely that the government or the teaching unions would agree to a settlement which would advantage one particular group of teachers above others.

It’s great that the Scottish Government has established working groups to investigate these issues in depth. An important aspect of this should be consultation with learners in order to understand more about what it is like to study computing within our school system. An excerpt from the recent Muir report on educational reform speaks volumes: when asked what changes should be made to the education system, a child explained, “I’m pretty sure the government gives the teachers what we need to learn, so we don’t really get a say”.

The child captures the current situation quite well, but the whole point of the Muir report is that we have the chance to put learners at the centre of rebuilding the education system. That’s why some colleagues and I established the Computer Science Young Person’s Advisory Group. Over the last year, this group of six young people have designed, implemented, analysed and presented an extensive survey of young people in Scotland’s views about computing teaching in their schools (with 537 participants).

There’s a lot of good news, as well as some interesting suggestions for improvements. Let’s take a moment to appreciate one of the main findings: on average, the learners rated the quality of teaching in their computing classes as 7 out of 10. That’s an ‘A’ grade! Our computing teachers are doing an excellent job in the eyes of the people who matter most – their learners. 

For example, one learner wrote: “my teacher is incredibly creative, enthusiastic and great at teaching – he manages to make everything seem more exciting”. In our haste to transform our technology ecosystem, let’s not forget to recognise and thank the hardworking professionals who are already doing a good job. We should prioritise constructively supporting teachers through high-quality professional learning, access to up-to-date materials and partnerships with appropriately trained industry employees and university and college staff and students. Most of all, we should free up time for teachers to enable them to develop their skills and learn about emerging technologies – an issue which is also raised in the Logan report.

While the Logan report considered the curriculum to be boring on the basis of “anecdotal” evidence, the finding that the young people considered their computing classes to be enjoyable (average 6.5 out of 10) calls this into question. However, the young people and Professor Logan were in agreement about their preferences for project-based learning.

The CSYPAG recommendations include giving learners access to the specialist computing equipment they need, making computing classes more engaging and relevant, informing young people about computing career pathways earlier, improving the gender balance in computing with positive role models and including children and young people in future consultations. The recommendations about making career information available earlier, and addressing the gender imbalance reinforce the Logan report.

I enjoyed this project because of the talent and energy of the young people as they carried out their research. If you watch the seminar recording of the CSYPAG members presenting their findings you’ll realise that they are highly skilled people with a natural talent for communicating their ideas and listening to other people’s views. They facilitate Zoom discussions a lot better than many adults I know, including myself.

Learners don’t need adults to plan their educational futures without them, and they don’t (always) need teachers to speak for them. They need regular opportunities to contribute to discussions about their education. So, if you’re involved in a working group about CS education, or if you find yourself regularly bemoaning the topic with other adults, invite some young people to be part of the discussion. You won’t regret it.

 

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