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A 'Radical Manifesto' For Computer Teaching In English Schools 108

Posted by timothy
from the it-clicks-the-mouse-or-else-it-gets-the-hose-again dept.
00_NOP writes "Everybody (or almost everybody) in England agrees that computing teaching to kids in high school is broken. In response the government promised a radical overhaul and a new curriculum. But then last week it was discovered the government had scrapped the bit of the education department that would develop any such curriculum. Not to be deterred, John Naughton, the Cambridge University academic who wrote the Short History of the Future, has now published his own 'radical' manifesto on how computing should be taught."
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A 'Radical Manifesto' For Computer Teaching In English Schools

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 01, 2012 @05:34AM (#39539569)

    1. Don't teach computing;

    2. Instead, improve teaching of the basic subjects: mathematics, English, science and at least one foreign language, to pre-Thatcher standards, i.e. before the national curriculum and privatisation of exam boards and replacement of O-levels with GCSEs destroyed secondary education;

    3. Well-prepared minds will be able to build on this foundation to do anything they want in their spare time or later years, including computing.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This so much. We have so many problems with basic education at the moment, and the great advances in computing in England came before there was some daft "IT" or "computing" curriculum at school. I see it's been modded down by people who have missed the point entirely.

      • by Dr_Barnowl (709838) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @09:11AM (#39540157)

        It's a different world ; the culture of "bedroom programmers" we had in the UK grew up in the wake of the 8-bit home computer revolution.

        The computer systems sold today emphasise pre-packaged software and it's utility. The computers of the 8-bit era emphasised experimentation and learning - they all shipped with a programming language and a manual. Most of them booted straight into the programming environment.

        The Raspberry Pi is an attempt to recapture some of this culture. But it has so many other things to compete with. Back then, kids TV in the UK was only on 2 channels and occupied only a few hours a day. Once it stopped, all you had to do was read, or use your computer. Now there are multiple channels that run for much longer hours, an internet full of possibilities, games consoles, portable devices, etc.

        It's much harder to get a hook into that natural childlike curiosity. It's much easier for parents to use the pre-packaged computer systems to occupy their children, and much more likely, because they have better marketing budgets. Part of the reason RasPi is gaining the traction it has, is because those of us who remember the BBC Micro are interested, but I would bet you it's not even on the radar of most of the younger generation (unlike Moshi Monsters). I know that curiosity is there - my 7 year old daughter was charmed yesterday by the ability to control a flashing LED from an Arduino - but how many parents these days are geek enough to have an Arduino lying around, or have the time to help their children work it out?

        Back in my youth, simple computers that you had to understand to use were the only game in town, now the best games in town are in full 3D. I think the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer had this right - you have to start simple.

        • kids TV in the UK was only on 2 channels and occupied only a few hours a day. Once it stopped, all you had to do was read, or use your computer.

          Well, there was this thing called playing outside. It involved kicking & throwing different sized & shaped balls and also riding something called a "bike".

          Of course the weather was only really good enough for about six weeks of the year, but at least it was safe because pediodiddlerists hadn't been invented yet.

    • Why stop there? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by F69631 (2421974) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @06:12AM (#39539687)

      Why teach science? Surely you can only teach math and well-trained minds can pick up science on their spare time or later years?

      From TFM (the fine manifesto):

      We believe every child should have the opportunity to learn computer science, from primary school up to and including further education. 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.

      Everything from banking to communications to public transport relies on computers these days so it seems obvious to me that everyone should have at least basic understanding of computer science concepts / how computers work, instead of viewing them just as magic boxes. I honestly can't see why that shouldn't be taught in schools...

      • Re:Why stop there? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 01, 2012 @06:19AM (#39539697)

        Why teach science? Surely you can only teach math and well-trained minds can pick up science on their spare time or later years?

        No. Science involves observation and experimentation skills which aren't present in mathematics. To science, mathematics is a tool - it does not have primacy, and we cannot assume that something mathematically simple is scientifically correct. Otherwise we'd still be modelling the universe like Plato.

        Everything from banking to communications to public transport relies on computers these days so it seems obvious to me that everyone should have at least basic understanding of computer science concepts / how computers work, instead of viewing them just as magic boxes. I honestly can't see why that shouldn't be taught in schools...

        Everything in the world is built on the laws of physics, but only a small proportion of things are built on computer systems - however skewed the view appears to the technologist. A "basic understanding" of computers, i.e. an understanding which takes them beyond thinking in terms of a black box and instead in terms of mathematical and physical concepts, requires a couple of afternoons of attention from a smart, well-prepared schoolkid.

        • Re:Why stop there? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by F69631 (2421974) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @06:29AM (#39539719)

          A "basic understanding" of computers, i.e. an understanding which takes them beyond thinking in terms of a black box and instead in terms of mathematical and physical concepts, requires a couple of afternoons of attention from a smart, well-prepared schoolkid.

          I think you're greatly underestimating how long it will take to teach/grasp everything from the basic understanding "ok, so it's these 'logic gate' thingies that use electricity..." to the basic understanding of concepts such as databases (no matter how you try to compare them to excel), network topology, encryption (not that they needed to learn the algorithms but the basic understanding of concepts such as public keys would be pretty great), etc. etc. takes if the student has never herd of them before.

          Of course, we might just greatly disagree about how much everyone in modern world should understand about computers.

          • by mikael (484)

            Start by teaching the concept of Turing machines. An set of symbols representing instructions. Anything from cooking instructions, music sheets to computer programs. Then digital representation requires the use of binary to represent data, logic gates and flowcharts. Move onto microprocessors, CPU and GPU. Cover basic things like RAM, ROM, cache, registers, microcode, assembly language, high level languages and scripts. Move onto operating systems, security, passwords, the internet (clients, routers and sev

            • by dgatwood (11270)

              Learning about programming by learning about turing machines is like learning about how to design skyscrapers by learning about cave dwellings. In theory, they are distant cousins. In practice, learning about something so incredibly primitive doesn't really help you much unless your goal is to spend the rest of your life as a theoretician.

              You can't learn programming from the bottom up because the bottom isn't useful by itself. You can't learn programming from the top down because then you get a bunch of

          • You're correct. I designed and taught a computer networking curriculum. The classes were 2 hrs per day, 4 days a week, for 4 weeks. There were 3 courses, so a total of 12 weeks @ 8hrs per week. That was just computer networking, and I wasn't training them to be CNE/MCSEs, just level 2 tech support for some networked printer/fax/scanner/copier multifunction devices. I did cover specifics of Windows (95 and NT4 at the time) and Mac OS, as well as some specifics of Windows NT Server and NetWare 3.x/4.x Now, th

          • I'll go a step more basic and say that just basic file handling from documents and using application features up through basic password security (no, don't "leave me logged in for two weeks"), basic printing ("will you stop sending "fit paper to pdf page size" 8.06 X 11.35 paper requests to my print queue?") etc.

            When they can do that stuff properly then let them have the clever theory.

        • by zAPPzAPP (1207370)

          And programming involves (or should involve) engineering skills.
          It is hard to find a subject in school, that involves actually making something. You have arts and then the rest is just theory and mostly passive. Even experiments are spoon fed and outcomes are predetermined.

          In programming class, you will at least have an endproduct, something you made yourself. Most importantly it can stand on it's own. You know if you have succeeded.
          Not like some essay that is only as good as the teacher rates it.

        • No. Science involves observation and experimentation skills which aren't present in mathematics.

          The same holds true for programming (algorithms and data structures do not just fall out of mathematics, they are an art in themselves), which was the parent post's point in making this provocative statement. Just because you could in some meaningless sense reduce the entire world to maths, does not make it worthless to study other disciplines (this is what you are arguing). What holds true of science holds true of programming (this is what they are arguing, by analogy with Science, and in fact you unwittin

          • by Anonymous Coward

            The same holds true for programming (algorithms and data structures do not just fall out of mathematics, they are an art in themselves)

            Algorithms certainly do fall out of mathematics, in a fairly formal sense since Leibniz. Mathematics seems an obvious place to begin creating simple algorithms on a graphical calculator (dedicated or computing package) to solve problems well before your teenage years. Data structures are better studied in the more general context of information science, as above.

            in some meaningless sense reduce the entire world to maths, does not make it worthless to study other disciplines (this is what you are arguing).

            No it isn't, and no more so just because you say it is. Re-read what I've said - particularly the other anon posts in my style in this thread which

            • You're being obtuse. The laws are not "constantly changing" - they are being refined for more general cases.

              Talking of the laws of physics as if anything is built or based on them is misleading and, if you'll forgive me, somewhat myopic. They are our current best approximations for the world, not some unchanging set of rules which the world is based on - that's a very important distinction. Just in the last few centuries they have changed almost beyond recognition (not as a set of refinements, but in a set of massive shocks which changed our worldview forever), and a few centuries before that the concept of scien

          • everything is not 'built on the laws of physics'

            No, just everything that doesn't immediately fall down.

        • by Ihmhi (1206036)

          No. Science involves observation and experimentation skills

          Jeez, what skills do you think I used to load up SNES emulators and ROMs on every computer in the computer lab? How do you think my mates got a pirated version of TFC/Counter-Strike/Half-Life installed on every computer in the AutoCAD lab?

      • by Hentes (2461350)
        I mostly agree with you except that computer science has little to do with how computers work.
        • by Nursie (632944)

          Sorry? WTF?

          Can you justify that comment? Because it sounds like nonsense to me.

          • Computer science is logic, graph theory, information theory, complexity theory, set theory, and game theory, with some psychology and a bit of electronic engineering. Computers are just tools. The Dijkstra quote of relevance is:

            Computer science is as much about computers as astronomy is about telescopes.

            • by Nursie (632944)

              Sure, but all those things are applicable to how the tools work, and how best to use the tools.

          • by Hentes (2461350)
            Computer science is the mathematical theory behind programming, you will never really need it unless you design a language or write a compiler. In most universities CS courses are extended to provide a general theoretical background to pogramming, but those courses still lack the practical elements.
            First of all, the knowledge that every children will need is user knowledge, learning how to use electronic devices for their needs. You can also teach them programming, to introduce them a profession they can c
      • Everything from banking to communications to public transport relies on computers these days so it seems obvious to me that everyone should have at least basic understanding of computer science concepts / how computers work, instead of viewing them just as magic boxes. I honestly can't see why that shouldn't be taught in schools...

        I think that logic would equally justify teaching to all school children plumbing, electrical work, HVAC, and basic lightbulb manufacturing.

        • by rtaylor (70602)

          It wouldn't hurt to teach the basics of electrical work and plumbing in grade 7/8.

          My school taught wood working, metal working (welding, folding, etc.), cooking, sewing, etc. in Grade 7/8. I've found those skills to be more useful as a software developer than a large number of things we were taught in math.

          • by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @08:07AM (#39539953)

            Well, sure, but we can't all have jobs developing CNC software that controls the machinery that makes wooden salad bowls to be used in clothes-making factories!

            You insensitive clod.

          • Completely agree. I learned set theory, venn diagrams, ladders slipping down walls and eventually solving second order partial differential equations thirty years ago. I've had to teach myself statistics and compound interest in order to make stuff to sell and feed myself. There has been and still appears to be a bias in British education to teach abstract fashionable academic things rather than something that a filthy capitalist worker might find usefull to make money out of. British education is run by sp

        • In order to maintain democracy, the electorate needs to be familiar with the current issues. They include more and more issues that relate to computers and networks: Your privacy online (requires that you understand basic datamining concepts), electronic voting, political buzzwords such as "cyber warfare", to what extent can companies be held responsible when they're hacked and your data is stolen, should unmanned cars be allowed in traffic, etc. etc... These are all completely new issues that didn't exist

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        Everything from banking to communications to public transport relies on computers these days so it seems obvious to me that everyone should have at least basic understanding of computer science concepts / how computers work, instead of viewing them just as magic boxes. I honestly can't see why that shouldn't be taught in schools.

        But you don't need to know anything about computing science or programming to be a good worker in banking, communications or public transport. And the only educaton that the Tories are interested in is the one that helps you get a job. (Unless you have rich parents, in which case of course you may study Fine Art and still get a job at daddy's bank.)..

    • I'm not talking about majoring in computer science. I'm talking about basic knowledge of computers through using them and your own inquisitiveness?

      One of the misconceptions about education is that you can teach intelligence, curiosity or interest. Not everyone is the same nor born equal and on the same note, not everyone belongs in college especially not if it means going tens of thousands of dollars in debt, whichever humanitarian thought that was a good idea, good job. So, not everyone belongs on

      • by Nursie (632944) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @07:02AM (#39539779)

        I taught myself because my education failed me, then I went to university and studied them. If I hadn't had a friend who was interested in them and who exposed me to the idea they did more than play games, I probably wouldn't have even known that computer programming was a thing that you could do.

        Your own inquisitiveness is good, but you need to at least expose people to the basic concepts to trigger it.

      • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @07:16AM (#39539813) Journal
        Schools teach, but they also demonstrate your ignorance to you. The best education is the one you give yourself, but that's of no use if you don't know what it is that you don't know. I had a few programming classes in school when I was 7. It wasn't enough to give me a detailed knowledge of programming, but it was enough to let me know that it was something that I was interested in learning and to motivate me to learn most of the rest on my own time.
    • by Nursie (632944) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @06:58AM (#39539767)

      Computers are now ubiquitous. That so many people think of computers as black boxes is a crime.

      As is this ludicrous strategy I keep hearing on slashdot that we should just teach 'the basics' to kids. It completely backwards. You should teach kids as wide a range of things as possible in their early years, giving them exposure to as many different subjects and as many different facets of life as we can manage. Later they use that grounding to pick their way to a specialism.

      What's destroyed secondary education in the UK is the bizarre insistence that everyone be put in the same class, regardless of ability, so the smart kids get bored, the less academically inclined get frustrated and everyone loses.

      Bring back per-subject streaming, expand the network of grammar schools, and watch things pick up.

    • by mikael (484)

      We used to havd SYS Computer Studies as well as Physics and Mathematics. Mathematics covered vector-matrix algebra, while Physics covered topics like the electromagnetic spectrum, photons, refraction, gravity and Keplers laes of motion. Writing little animation programs to denonstrate your understanding was the best way to learn.

  • ... although I wouldn't expect timmeh to know the difference.

    • No, England (Score:5, Informative)

      by ebcdic (39948) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @05:59AM (#39539631)

      There are similar issues in the rest of the UK, but this particular story is *not* about the UK as a whole. Education policy is devolved to the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish parliaments/assemblies. The manifesto is addressed to Michael Gove, who is the Secretary of State for Education in England.

      • Re:No, England (Score:4, Informative)

        by 00_NOP (559413) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @06:42AM (#39539735) Homepage

        Actually he's Secretary of State for the whole UK and has some duties in this regard, but yes, he's responsible for the curriculum only in England, so the story is correct to focus only on England.

        • If we set kids a homework task of producing a Venn diagram showing what parts of policy belong to the UK as a whole, the Skirts, the Wails and the Irates they'd gain a darn good understanding of set theory.

          That or they'd shoot themselves.

    • by loufoque (1400831)

      It has been acceptable practice to refer to the UK as England since its creation.
      It's only in the latter half of the 20th century that people have started showing concern that this might not be politically correct as it might hurt the Welsh and Scots.

  • by Psychotria (953670) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @06:19AM (#39539701)

    What the hell is that even supposed to mean? "Teaching computing" I could understand, but "computing teaching" is a very odd thing to say or write. It doesn't say what it's meant to say!

    • by mikael (484)

      Sometimes they mean IT skills, like switching a computer on, using a word processor, reading and sending E-mail, using a spreadsheet application and printing documents. In some deprived parts of the UK school-leavers don't even know how to do those things.

      • Sometimes they mean IT skills, like switching a computer on, using a word processor, reading and sending E-mail, using a spreadsheet application and printing documents. In some deprived parts of the UK school-leavers don't even know how to do those things.

        Yes, but do "studying teaching" and "teaching studying" mean the same thing? I could come up with a bunch of examples. "Researching teaching" vs "teaching researching"; "creating teaching" vs "teaching creating"; "finding teaching" vs "teaching finding"; "cunning teaching" vs "teaching cunning"; "creating teaching" vs "teaching creating"; and so on, and so on. All these have different meanings, as does "computing teaching" vs "teaching computing".

        • by doshell (757915)

          "Computing teaching" is correct (despite sounding unusual) if you assume "computing" is a noun and not a verb (as in "maths teaching", i.e. the act of teaching maths). But it does lend itself to confusion.

  • by cuby (832037) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @07:56AM (#39539911)
    This is obvious. Like in England the "CS" curricula in Portugal (where I am) teach how to use Windows or Word and not the science behind computers. Piking in a analogy used in the manifesto. Teaching specific this commercial software is like teaching how to listen songs of Lady Gaga in a music class.
  • I can't agree with this more - programming is one of the key literacies of the 21st century. Programming is as vital a subject to teach as music, art, or poetry. The skills gained by learning programming are applicable in almost any domain - skills such as analysis, abstract representation, and logic.

    I recently gave a presentation at TEDxTokyoTeachers [tedxtokyo.com] on this exact subject entitled "The Guitar and the Smart Phone [youtube.com]". In it, I use the guitar as a metaphor (analogy?) for the way we are using computers in e
  • The days of cheap computing via Sinclair and the BBC Micro where squandered and are long lost. The USA now owns computing.
    If the UK wants to rule computing again they have to find the hunger and arrogance of been a small island facing a big Spain or France again.
    Work out what England wants, change the rules and win.
    If all the USA can offer is "program or be programmed" i.e. digital slavery built in distant sweatshops, find a Wilberforce, abolish the trade and rule a new eworld.
  • As soon as you train up people (they won't be teachers unless they actually start teaching children, read on ... ) to be competent in computer or IT skills, they'll immediately go into better paid and more rewarding jobs using those skills - rather than passing them on to the children they were intended to teach. That's how the country got into the mess with all technology or science subjects: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach (and those who can't teach, teach teaching).

    So the end result will be a

    • by acefsw (2608289)
      First time posting, non geek...I'm in the US, my "programming" teachers were my maths teachers and I'm not sure why, as far as programming goes, this should not be the case. That said, last time I did any programming was mostly on papertape and cards in the 1970's when I was in grades 7-9, (junior high). At some point during that time, (and my math teacher was as excited as a child in a candy store when it arrived), we acquired a tandy, commodore, or some such. The only thing I remember was that we were req
    • As soon as you train up people (they won't be teachers unless they actually start teaching children, read on ... ) to be competent in computer or IT skills, they'll immediately go into better paid and more rewarding jobs using those skills

      Not really, because the vacancies aren't there in any great numbers.

      Even then, the alternative solution would be to take people with the IT skills and fast-track train them as teachers. A similar thing was proposed a few years back with maths and/or science IIRC.

  • ...teaching technology in k-12 is pretty much a complete waste of time, and it always has been.

    The reason is that to teach kids this young, you're going to need good current equipment (which is expensive and schools have no budget, so they buy crap), and exceptionally talented teachers with both the technical chops and the ability to manage a classroom full of kids and explain their knowledge to them. Those guys can make six figures with their feet up on a desk and would therefore have very little interest

    • by acefsw (2608289)
      Well, that sounds like a really stupid implementation of technology. Really though, I see no need why everything has to be cutting edge to understand the basics. We were taught some very elementary COBOL and BASIC, and if you wanted to learn more, FORTRAN was also an option. I had quite a few of my peers go into the tech/programming industry and I think being exposed young piqued their interest and having learned a language enabled them to tackle the languages taught at university because they already had a
      • I agree. But the hardware has to work, it has to be reliable and have reasonable performance, and the implementation has to be able to take a room full of kids beating on it. I learned all the major languages back in the 70's and 80's pretty much on my own, and it was nice that the school offered some computing resources I could use to that end. But we turned out a lot of students that spent all year learning to do something that had no use or applicability.

        Things dont have to be cutting edge, but the th

        • by acefsw (2608289)

          You sound like a good parent and you are definitely giving your child a good start as regards computer tech. I take it for granted that this the type of attention that you bestow upon your child will not be replicated in school. As far as public school finances, and especially in California, I'll agree that many states/communities don't have the will, (the penal system has more money allocated), or money to appropriately fund their school systems. That, to me, is a community/social failure and has no bearin

    • Glad to see that out of date tech and teaching staff that can't get their heads around how to integrate it into lessons effectively isn't just a UK thing!

      I, too, have quite a bit of experience of school computing (albeit on this side of the pond). I've been through it myself, I've worked as the IT support for a fairly large school with a budget large enough that we had an advantage over other schools in the area, and now I'm with my wife, I get exposure to how things (haven't) moved on in the last decade+
  • It's confusing to me when I read about students being taught how to use Word and Excel in computer classes. To me, that's just (very!) basic business computing literacy, not computer studies or science. I did an O-level, sitting the exam in 1985. My teacher (IIRC, a former COBOL programmer) taught us this: A high level language (BBC BASIC) A low level language (CESIL, supported by ICL) Flowcharting (yes, even had the stencil) * Inputs and expected outputs * Writing code on paper * * all done before going

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