Programming for five year olds?

I’ve been reading the new Draft National Curriculum Programmes of Study. 

I bet you’re thinking I must have too much time on my hands (we all know what an easy life teachers have, don’t we). Or are you more charitably assuming it’s a cure for insomnia?  Actually, it’s neither – it’s displacement activity to avoid doing all the things I ought to be doing (UCAS references, reading personal statements, preparing the new Thinking Skills course for Year 7,  OU TMAs and EMA, writing articles for the Alchemy newsletter, tidying my house…)

Anyway, I thought I’d look at the computing section, since that’s produced quite a bit of comment.

I’m a little curious about the motivation for this focus on programming. It says that it “aims to ensure that all pupils can understand and apply the fundamental principals and concepts of computer science… “.  Why? Is it because it is likely to be useful to them? (I’m not convinced by that – for the majority I don’t think actual computer science will be much used). Or is it because one should know a bit about computers as a matter of principle?  Or is it the associated skill-set (logic, problem-solving etc)  which I think we also deliver in maths? Would be interesting to know.

Right, before I start on slanging it, let me say a couple of positive things:-

  • I think replacement of ICT by computing is probably a good thing as ICT education is largely delivered by its use in other contexts, and that’s really the best way to do it. After all, we all find we remember how to use functions in Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc when we are actually using them for something, rather than just being taught them in abstract. Though that does assume that teachers of other subjects are all happy to deliver a small amount of ICT education – not entirely sure that’s true.
  • Learning to program develops some very useful skills – logical thinking and attention to detail, for a start. Breaking a complex task down into smaller ones comes in too. Oh, and patience, to root out that missing comma or semi-colon replacing a colon that’s stopping the whole thing working!

OK, that’s enough positivity – this blog isn’t the place for that! What’s wrong with it all then?

Let’s start with the practicalities. Firstly, how are more and more things meant to fit in the curriculum? This is quite a substantial addition, and I don’t see anything equally substantial being removed. I know our beloved Education Secretary thinks that if we lazy lot all worked longer hours with shorter holidays we’d manage it, but there is a limit to how much information kids can absorb, particularly as Mr Gradgrind Gove wants them stuffed full with facts.

Secondly – who is going to teach this? There are lots of ICT teachers out there who do a perfectly fine job teaching the current curriculum.  But they are what it says on the tin – ICT teachers. Many of them have not taught computing.  Many of them will have no programming experience themselves (you don’t need a degree in computing to be an ICT teacher – in some cases, you just need to indicate you aren’t petrified of computers and to have a gap in your timetable – been there, done that and got the T-shirt twice over).   This isn’t a minor change, it’s an almost totally different subject – it’s like asking a typical maths teacher to teach physics- some of the skills are the same, and they may know a bit about it, but they would find it pretty hard to do at a high level, and would need substantial training and preparation.  And even if, somehow, training could be delivered to all the ICT teachers who need it, how on earth will this be managed for primary school teachers?

Now let’s look at the detail.  Now, I think programming is fun myself. I spent happy hours as a teenager trying to coax my BBC Micro to print out numbers, sort lists of words etc, and more recently, I get a strange buzz out of writing complex formulae and the odd macro in Excel and Access.  But – I am a self-confessed geek. Much as it pains me to say it, I realise not everyone else will gain pleasure from such things!  If you are going to get kids into programming (and this is pointless unless you do – you’ll never get to be a really good programmer just by what you’re taught in lessons  – you have to put the hours in) , then there has to be an element of satisfaction, enjoyment etc. The thrill I got from making a dot move around the screen when I was a kid isn’t really going to do it for them. If you want to motivate programming, chuck the money at it and get them using something like Lego Mindstorms robots – you’ll get all the programming skills you might wish there, but it’s fun too. Who wouldn’t want to get a robot to navigate round an obstacle or follow a path?

I have a concern with what is expected at each key stage too. I sometimes wonder if Gove has ever met a five year old (I am quite prepared to believe he was never one himself…). I tend to feel five year olds are best occupied learning to read, write, count, add, subtract etc, as well as important skills like sharing, turn-taking and working alongside others without trying to tear their heads off or bursting into tears. I am not convinced they should be learning about debugging programs or what algorithms are until rather more basic skills are mastered.  “Understanding that programs follow precise and unambiguous instructions” is quite ambitious as a target for children who are often not yet sure about following precise and unambiguous instructions themselves.

Then in Key Stage 2 they are expected to work with variables. Now algebra is only down to be introduced in “Upper Key Stage 2”. How are they meant to deal with variables in programmes in any meaningful, useful way without some prior acquaintance with algebra?  Not to mention the fact that programming syntax is at variance with algebraic usage, which is likely to cause confusion.

I could go on… but I don’t want this post to be too long, and there’s another really important point here.  That is – not all children are equally able. Not all of them are going to be able to cope with this; we are looking at developing quite high-level skills.  I’m all in favour of stretching the bright kids, and I certainly don’t want to put a ceiling on kids’ achievement by low expectations. But … not everyone can learn program to a useful extent, in the same way as not everyone can learn to speak French like a native, and not everyone can be a research scientist, and not everyone can be good enough to be in a sports team.  I don’t see, in this curriculum, where there’s room for positive achievement for all. And if we don’t want kids to be turned off both computing and ICT, that needs sorting. The word is “differentiation”, Mr Gove. It’s generally reckoned quite important.

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2 Responses to Programming for five year olds?

  1. Joy Clark says:

    I know what I will do as a Y1 teacher. I will learn just enough to deliver what I have to deliver and no more I won’t be able to take into account what they need to know in Y2. I suspect that will be true for quite a while as children are expected to slot into their expected level (beware OFSTED) without having undertaken the prior learning. There will be a real lack of joined up delivery for quite a while. It’s not going to help!
    Mind you – that really does depend what we have to work with and use. That’s an unknown quantity at the moment, isn’t it?

    I remember the fun of creating a wee multiplication program for my son on an old Sinclair Spectrum, using an Usbourne book as a guide. It was fun but it was highly frustrating.
    A lot of people would have been totally turned off!

    Must go and read it for myself.

  2. Jesse Owen says:

    Really interesting post.

    Personally I’m a little bit jealous that computer science is being added to the curriculum – but this is coming from someone who spent most of their time once we first got a PC working out what he could do with – went from creating web pages in HTML & JavaScript to scripting web applications in PHP to dabbling with programming in C, C++ and Java. Admittedly, all while I was supposed to be doing A level things hehe.

    However, I agree with you about introducing it into the primary curriculum – the closest we got in primary school was Logo getting a little arrow to draw pretty patterns on the screen – I think that’s probably enough for that level. Variables like you say are so close to algebra – surely this would introduce confusion.

    Of course some debugging goes with any programming – “Why is this program not compiling / working as expected?” and doesn’t need to be unduly complicated – but nevertheless frustrating – missing semicolons I am looking at you! But as for algorithms it’s something that’s normally looked at after all the basics have been mastered.

    I love the idea of bringing in Mindstorm Robots as a way of motivating students to want to program but as you say it would rack up quite a bill. There’s also languages like Alice – built upon the Java programming language and based on the Alice in Wonderland story which allows it’s users to create an animation whilst at the same time learning about programming. Eg learning about loops by getting the Alice character to spin (and it’s free) – though to get the most out of it you’d probably want the accompanying book. It was built with young people in mind.

    ICT and Computer Science are totally different subjects. ICT can and should be taught across subjects – it’s far more engaging to create a newspaper article in InDesign about an event in history or to use Google Earth in geography or Word in English, Excel in maths etc. And don’t get me started on the ICT A Level – it’s a wonder anyone has any motivation to do any computer based subject after that!

    About the teaching of the subject I worry how the current cohort of ICT teachers would cope as you say the two subjects are different!

    I know they’re trying to attract the brightest new computing graduates into teaching with the £9,000 bursary / £20,000 BCS scholarship (and are offering to help existing teachers) but I can’t help but notice that the only provider in Bristol to offer it (I haven’t looked at the two in Bath) – the Cabot Learning Federation are struggling to fill the programme. They only had two vacancies for the school direct computer science path and as of this morning they still have one place left. And the first one only went about a month ago.

    That’s me finished now – I’m really sorry for the long comment!!!! 🙂

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