Children should be taught computer science – not programming

The government has missold the new computing curriculum by emphasising programming rather than computer science, according to the organisation partly responsible for implementing the subject.

Children should be taught computer science - not programming

Computing at School (CAS) is a grassroots group that’s helping train primary school teachers ahead of the new computing curriculum in September.

Coordinator Simon Humphreys said the government’s focus on coding was “just rubbish”.

Can we please tell government ministers that it’s not about programming

“One aspect that has been shockingly misunderstood in the press, and that has fallen from the lips of government ministers where their opinion has been sought, is all around coding and programming,” he said, speaking at the Westminster Education Forum. “That in some sense, this new curriculum is all about trying to produce the next generation of programmers – well that’s just rubbish.”

Education secretary Michael Gove has played up the importance of coding in the new curriculum, and how this will eventually help pupils find jobs in the tech sector. He has also endorsed the Year of Code campaign, which aims to get students coding before September.

“Can we please tell government ministers that it’s not about programming?” said Humphreys. “In just the same way that the music curriculum is not designed to fill desks of London Symphony Orchestra, it’s about something different, it’s about something enriching.”

Although Humphreys acknowledged the importance of coding, he said the underlying skill of problem-solving was more important.

“While it’s not important that everyone learns an algorithm so they can implement it, I think that mental model of why we need that algorithm and what it’s doing is important,” he said.

Humphreys quoted the definition of computer science by journalist John Naughton as a discipline that “involves a new way of thinking about problem-solving; it’s called computational thinking”.

Educational director at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Clive Beale, agreed, saying code alone was “not what computing’s about”. He said computing could be a creative discipline, bringing in other subjects such as music or art.

“I do say the ‘c’ word occasionally, but it's not that useful a phrase when talking about computing as a subject," he said.

Programming vs computer science

One issue, it seems, is that teachers don't fully understand what the new curriculum entails.

Steve Daley, director of learning for computer science, business and enterprise at the Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough, said teachers still assumed computing simply meant coding.

"It’s not just coding, we need to get to that message out there to staff," he said. "There are lots of staff in schools thinking that it’s just ICT. There's a concept that it isn't computer science - it's code."

But Margaret Wright, a lecturer in ICT Education at the Institute of Education, said many teachers would likely follow a set formula and ignore more creative methods of teaching.

"I don’t think most teachers are actually interpreting the programme of study in [that] way," she said. "What they’re thinking is - I need to teach coding, I’m going to teach Scratch line by line, I’m not even going to mention computational thinking or programming concepts because I can’t get my head around it."

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