The educational juggernaut is turning, slowly but surely, and Simon Peyton-Jones is the man making it happen. Joshua Clark reports from a talk Peyton-Jones gave to Oxford students.
The Computing at School founder came to the Department of Computer Science last week to expound his vision to those who can help with his mission. Most of us have fond memories of our chosen subjects from high school and sixth form, and almost every University department ask for an A-Level in your chosen subject, yet computer science is not one of those. Why should it be, when the closest relation is ICT or Computing? The former teaches technology, and as Peyton-Jones highlighted in his talk, makes “the most exciting discipline on the planet comes over as dull and de-motivating”. The Department of Computer Science has less of a relation to Excel than the Physics department has to sliding toy cars down ramps. As Suzanna Marsh, the Computer Science department Publicity and Schools Liaison Officer, comments: “It’s not just about Word and Excel, and it’s certainly not just for geeks and boys.”
Criticisms of the state of ICT in British schools are nothing new: the Royal Society published a report called “Shut down or restart?” describing the current computing teaching in many schools as “highly unsatisfactory”, with Peyton-Jones referencing the rise of “technology before discipline”. Peter Millican, during the presentation, remarked that computation was one of the paradigms through which we viewed the world, and despite being a key element of our lives was under-appreciated in schools.
The DfE is famous as an ivory tower, bestowing its national curriculum upon the country after months or years of inner discussion, yet the Computing at Schools group was given a blank page and asked to deliver a curriculum, for the full gamut of school ages, from 6 to 16. This new curriculum was published in January 2013, with the first lessons being delivered in September 2014. Schools now have a year to prepare for teachers to deliver lessons on algorithms, data structures and logic, and there’s a shortage of teachers able to deliver such concepts in the classroom. Peyton-Jones laments the perception of ICT teachers, reflecting that they are “often the ones called upon to fix the printer”, and referring to other teachers drafted in to teach the subject, despite it having little relevance to their own speciality, remarking that “the same would not be done to a physics or maths teacher”.
The government, too, has recognised this shortfall, and this year will be offering bursaries and scholarships to those training to be Computer Science teachers at the same competitive rate as the most sought after STEM subjects. Retraining teachers would also present difficulty, given the pressure they are under with “significant and swiftly introduced changes to the curriculum,” according to Marsh. She has high hopes though, and echoes some of Peyton-Jones’ sentiments: “Up until now a lot of our work has been around dispelling some myths about the difference between ICT and Computing”, with the department frequently being represented at Lesser Spotted Sciences events, with the hope that outreach will move “towards supporting students in exploring the discipline beyond the curriculum”.