Teaching computer science considered harmful?

This is interesting (hat tip to @timbuckteeth). English schools will no longer be teaching Information and Communications Technology (ICT) study – a situation where students are bored out of their minds learning Word and Excel by bored teachers – and instead will be taught “more rigorous computer science and programming”.

While the fundamental idea can be seen as worthy, its implementation will be difficult to impossible. I hope they can pull it off.

But for all the reasons expressed below and others, I can’t but think that this move is going to be somewhat harmful.

Background

I have a double major in Computer Science and a PhD in Information Systems. I taught Information Technology for about 10 years at a University level. I have just spent the last year as a trainee high school teacher. One of my teaching areas was IPT. i.e. the “computer science” course taken by senior high school students.

Problems facing England

Some of the problems England’s school system will face include

  1. Intro computer science at University is troubled.
    Do a quick literature search in the area of computer science education – especially around the first year and programming – and you will find some problems. In this paper I reference a range of literature quoting failure figures of 30/40/50% in first year programming courses. Remember, the cohort in these first year University programming courses is significantly more selective than what you are going to find in high school.
  2. IPT at Queensland high schools is failing the relevance test.
    In this post I references research that shows that Australian students are finding high school “computer science” courses boring and irrelevant.

    Now both this and the previous problem could be ascribed to poor quality courses. The English are suggesting they’ll take a better approach. But that better approach is still going to have to be implemented in a large number of schools and overcome existing student beliefs. This is going to be hard. I hope they do it well.

  3. Where are the teachers going to come from?
    If English schools are anything like Australian schools, then I would suggests that one of the reasons why current students are bored with the current ICT training is that many teachers are recipe followers and not chefs when it comes to using computers. i.e. they can follow the 10 step process to create an Excel spreadsheet that does X, but problem solving and creative applications of the technology is beyond them. If teachers are struggling to do this with Word/Excel, are they going to be better placed with programming? This is a point made by some of the experts quoted in the article.

    While students can learn quite well without teachers. The teachers will influence the roll out of this exciting new curriculum.

It’s still separate

This curriculum appears to still create programming/computer science as a separate discipline distinct from the rest of the curricula. The suggestion is that the change will help produce students “able to work at the forefront of technological change”. This assumes that technological change is the most important spot.

The trouble is that what’s important is how to harness technology effectively within existing disciplines. Rather than making every student a computer scientist or games programmer. How about placing the ability to manipulate computers within the existing school subjects and creating students who are able to effectively marry “technological change” with the everyday problems of the world?

Not many people I know are enthused about technology for technology’s sake. They are engaged and enthused about seeing how technology – and from their the ability to manipulate and program technology – can be applied to their problems and interests.

2 thoughts on “Teaching computer science considered harmful?

  1. There is a resource “out there” – all those groups who are supporting one another in using whatever language. All it needs is a Khan-like set of resources for each language. Giving students access to mature insider forms of practice would be a winner. The move would call for a good deal of creativity around how to manage it/assess it – no bad thing :)

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