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UK Puts Programming Front and Center in Revamped Computing Curriculum

While the United States has been treading through its Common Core revamp of English/language arts and math curriculum, the United Kingdom has been revamping its curriculum too. That update includes a revision of technology-related studies to put a stronger emphasis on "high level technical skills," including giving teachers more say in what and how to teach and pushing for programming lessons at a young age.

The shift started in 2012 when Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that he was "scrapping" the existing information and communications technology (ICT) curriculum. "Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch," he said in a 2012 speech at a national learning technology conference. "By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for Smartphones."

The Department of Education worked with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society to develop a draft document. When it was put out for public comment, the Reform of the National Curriculum in England drew 17,000 responses. The seven-page document reflects curriculum changes both small and large. For example, the term "ICT" (for information and communications technology) is used nowhere; it has been replaced with the word, "computing." The new National Curriculum lays out four aims in the area of computing for students:

  • To understand and apply the fundamental principles of computer science, including logic, algorithms, data representation, and communication;
  • To analyze problems in computational terms, and have repeated practical experience of writing computer programs in order to solve such problems;
  • To evaluate and apply information technology, including new or unfamiliar technologies, analytically to solve problems; and
  • To be responsible, competent, confident, and creative users of information and communication technology.

Attainment targets are provided for four "stages," although the document doesn't apply specific grade levels or ages to them. In the first stage, students should be able to write and test simple programs, use logical reasoning to predict what a program will do, organize and manage data in different formats, and understand the basics of digital behavior and etiquette. The subsequent three levels expand on those targets, including such activities as undertaking "creative projects that involve selecting, using, and combining multiple applications, preferably across a range of devices, to achieve challenging goals, including collecting and analyzing data and meeting the needs of known users."

The Department of Education enlisted companies such as Microsoft and Google and institutions, such as Cambridge University, to produce free materials for schools to use in their computing instruction. It has also put up the funds to grant £20,000 scholarships to 50 secondary school teachers seeking to obtain professional development in computer science.

The change in direction for technology instruction arrives at the same time that the British Computing Society has made available a set of iTunes U resources to help students learn how to use Scratch and how to develop mobile apps.

Likewise, a UK non-profit has introduced the Raspberry Pi, a $25 to $35 credit-card sized computer that plugs into a TV, can accommodate a keyboard, will work on an Ethernet network, and can be used for spreadsheet work, word processing, and games. A separate USB dongle accommodates WiFi. As Grove noted in his Department of Education speech, the Raspberry Pi can operate basic languages, giving students "the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of programming."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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