Blog written by Stuart Dredge and originally posted on The Guardian website.
Education director Steve Beswick: ‘Coding isn’t just coding. In many cases it’s helping with maths, English, strategic thinking’
Later this year, British schools will get a new computing curriculum, including an introduction to programming for children as young as five years old.
The news was cause for celebration within the technology industry, and for many teachers too – but there is also trepidation within the latter group, especially for teachers who haven’t taught computing before, let alone coding.
Some of those technology companies that were lobbying for the changes are trying to help. Earlier this year, Google announced plans to invest £120k in a separate training initiative for primary school teachers in the UK, working with national coding clubs network Code Club.
Microsoft is also involved in this area, having recently announced its own partnership with UK organisation Computing at Schools (CAS) to invest £334k in ‘Back to School’ training sessions for primary and secondary school teachers ahead of the new curriculum’s introduction in September.
Microsoft claims that the training and resources will be available for around one in five primary school teachers in the UK, as well as three specialist teachers in every secondary school.
“Our target is to get to 50,000 teachers in the coming months. It’s not going to happen overnight, but that’s our target, and that’s how this money will be used,” says Steve Beswick, Microsoft’s director of education in the UK.
The new investment follows a previous project early this year in partnership with educational publisher Rising Stars, sending out Switched On Computing materials to teachers in 17,000 primary schools around the UK, including integrating the company’s own Kodu visual programming language.
“We’ve been championing this for a long time now. Our attention has been focusing on skill shortages in the UK: in the software industry alone there are 20,000 graduate vacancies a year around this area, and only 7,500 computer-scientist graduates to fill them,” says Beswick.
“We’re trying to get to a stage where those jobs are filled, and we see the gap getting bigger if we don’t do something about it.”
However, Beswick also suggests that the drive towards training teachers (and thus children) better is about all kinds of jobs beyond software development.
“80% of jobs today require some sort of computer knowledge, and that’s just going to grow. If you take a 16 year-old who’s leaving college today, if they want to be an entrepreneur – an SME in the UK economy – they must know something about computers in order to be competitive in the market. They need to know about websites, about search,” he says.
“Out there might be a new Bill Gates, and we want to nurture that person, even if they’re five years old, so that in 10 years’ time they can create a new company that’s got the new big thing.”
Nurturing teachers is as much on the mind of companies like Microsoft, though. Beswick says there’s a pressing need to assuage their concerns about the new curriculum coming in so soon.
“If you said ‘algorithms’ to a primary school teacher, many would probably say a.) I don’t know what you’re talking about and b.) How am I going to teach this?” he says. “But if you break it down – an algorithm is a set of instructions that’s put in a certain order to do something, like a recipe for baking a cake or making a sandwich – you get the teacher out the front buttering the bread, holding the knife, and doing it in the way a computer does it.”
“Teachers might be a bit worried and scared about the new curriculum, but they can break down that barrier with a bit of help. And we think that if kids get engaged with this curriculum, it will also help with maths and english,” he adds. “Ultimately, you want to embed computing into everything: yes, there might be a specific computing part of the curriculum which is mandated by the government, but you can use that skill to help with english, maths, history…”
Beswick stresses that he’s not suggesting computers are the answer to every educational problem – more that it’s a way of getting children engaged in a wider range of subjects if they’re comfortable with these devices. “They like using them, so let’s go to them and start using what they like using,” he says.
In fact, Beswick suggests that teachers intimidated by the new computing curriculum might even be able to get children to help – something that might build the confidence of their pupils.
“If a kid is good at computers, and the teacher uses that person in class to show how to do things, the confidence that child has in other lessons is a brilliant thing to see,” he says.
And then there’s the introduction of programming at an earlier age – a development that’s been controversial in some quarters, with arguments over the value of teaching it to children so young. Beswick uses the analogy of learning to drive, suggesting that proving knowledge of basic computing skills like word processing, spreadsheets and presentations are akin to the driving test, but that there is more to be learned.
“Using a computer is like driving a car: everybody has to take a test and be competent at it. But you have to understand a little more about what’s under the bonnet of the car too,” he says. “We’re not saying that everybody becomes a car mechanic or a software developer, but we will probably find more future developers and coders with this curriculum, and they will get those jobs that need to be filled.”
“Coding isn’t just coding. In many cases it’s helping with maths, english, strategic thinking. All those things are pretty good! Kids are engaged by this technology, so wow, what an opportunity that presents for us, including the chance to change the way we educate people,” he adds. “But this has to be done in the context of training – and retraining – our teachers, and having great head teachers to drive this forward. The role of the teacher is probably going to change a bit, but they are still a really important part of this equation.”
What about the dangers of a digital divide? Some schools are buying in a tablet for every child and outfitting sparkling new computer labs, while others simply don’t have the resources. Is there a danger of a widening gap between schools teaching computing based on the resources they have?
“My message for schools is don’t just think about buying the device. There’s a lot of emphasis on the purchase of devices, but start by saying ‘how do I want to transform my school at the top level? What are my aims and aspirations, and work back from that to how I want to embed IT into that,” says Beswick.
“You’ve got to start at the beginning. It’s not about saying ‘I want the next gadget’. And part of that transition is you’ve got to take your teachers with you: great head teachers and leadership that talk about the journey that the school is on. If not, you end up with a load of kit that gets potentially wasted.”
Microsoft, Apple and Google are all working hard at getting their devices into more schools, and the competition may well drive down not just prices, but also increase the amount of help available for head teachers trying to negotiate that transition.
“We are very aware of the digital divide [between schools] but we think that’s coming down,” says Beswick. “Our strategy worldwide is anytime anywhere learning for all, and technology has a massive part to play in that. We don’t want anybody left behind.”