04 Apr

Teaching Computer Science

While the UK produces many highly-skilled computing graduates (disclosure: my son will be one in a couple of years) the quality of computer science teaching in primary and secondary schools leaves a lot to be desired. This has little to do with the teachers (who are motivated and talented in my personal experience), but an unimaginative and outdated curriculum which focuses more or less exclusively on how to use Powerpoint, Word and maybe a bit of Excel. So our children get reasonable exposure to computers as a tool for teaching and learning, but learn almost nothing about how computers actually work.

As a result we have a generation of young people in the UK who are depressingly ignorant about computer programming, computer hardware and networking. We teach our children about Newton’s laws, chemical reactions, and photosynthesis, but not about CPUs, networking, or compilers. Apart from the members of the school’s Computer Club (if there is one) we don’t give them the chance to write software or build their own computers. We teach them Ohm’s law but not Moore’s Law.

John Naughton is a columnist for The Observer and professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University. He feels strongly on this issue, and has written a manifesto calling on the UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to overhaul the ICT curriculum. He wants computer science is taught as an “academic discipline in its own right and not … merely acquiring skills in the use of constantly outdated information appliances and shrink-wrapped software.”

Arthur C Clarke famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” However there is no reason why this should be true of information technology. As Naughton says in his manifesto, “in a world shaped and dependent on networking technology, an understanding of computing is essential for informed citizenship.”