Open Education and freedom to teach computing

I think anyone vaguely awake in the education and digital space cannot have failed to notice that 2012 is the year of Computer Science, of coding and kids. 2011 was a cacophony of noise about why this was so terribly important, and 2012 is reaping the rewards.

Government is making commitments for fundamental change and industry is running out of developers fast – and kids have no jobs.

In September of last year I wrote a blog post about how Open Education could work; indeed people have been writing about this for years but it was only really at this point that you could see anything actually happening.

Teachers and freedom

Can giving teachers freedom to teach a subject in any manner they see fit possibly work? This is a fundamental change from the micro-managed curriculum we currently enjoy, with the focus on exam pass-rates and associated funding streams.

I am not wholly sure that it would work easily and immediately with other STEM subjects, Science, Engineering and Maths – it can definitely work with Technology. But boy is it going to take some doing.

Speaking from experience

My eldest daughter is 14 and goes to a school that has just attained academy status, specialising in brilliance in Science – this does not include computer science. Me being me I have been a royal pain in the backside, whilst trying to be helpful, speaking to the deputy head about all I was doing in the coding for kids space and how my experience and contacts could help the school up its game with teaching coding and computer science.

Six months ago they ignored me.

Three months ago they called me in for a meeting.

Two months ago they asked for help.

One month ago we made a plan:

  • inter-form hacking competitions
  • programming computer club working with free online resources, local geek industry and gaming bods
  • an annual assembly
  • participation in Young Rewired State for the coders who had already taught themselves how to programme

This is the stuff dreams are made of. Relevant cross-curricular learning, with a skill that not only de-nerds coding, but simultaneously teaches each child something about programming the digital world they live in, regaining control, knowledge and new Summer jobs. What’s not to love?

Well…

The reality

It takes a lot of work and time to co-ordinate and set up a computer club with local enterprise and free online tools. Done individually, school by school, this will fail at the first missed meeting.

Senior schools operate on a time-poor, information-rich merry-go-round of priorities and logistics. There is an awful lot of information that needs to be imparted in very few hours over very few years – you can only imagine the eye-bleeding decisions that have to be taken.

As a result, senior schools are not the most malleable of organisations to effect immediate and affective change, regardless of good intent and recognition of a problem. New stuff has to become a part of the old stuff – traditional corporate change mechanics: communication, education, management, reward, story-telling and so on.

I tell you – even with one school, regardless of the work I do with Young Rewired State, Coding for Kids and Government – this could be a full time (voluntary) job.

So, I still hold out hope that in 2012 this school will be able to live its dream of being one of the first to market – but there is no kidding about the fact that this is a behemoth of a task.

How can this scale? We’re stuffed

I can hear the Computing at School teachers sharpening their pencils to send me a strongly worded letter about how they are succeeding in their own schools without parental interference, thank you very much – I know. But you face the same problems I saw, I think, judging from the posts on CAS.

So, let me be clear, I have read up on this subject, I work with young programmers, I am a parent to two children, one (aged 9, girl) obsessed with programming the other (14, girl) not so much – so it is with this that I plant my flag firmly in the camp of Year 8 is too late.

Senior school is not the place to focus attention right now. Yes, there will be things that can be done, that teachers can do – but the seeds of need must be planted in junior education.

Equip our young, time-rich juniors with the basics of computer science, take time to make it fun and exciting across the curriculum. The children will then enter senior school with an enthusiasm and expectation that is simply not there right now. And senior school teachers will, for a while, have to play to the masses who see no relevance at all between their BBMing, Facebooking and Tumblr blogs and what they could potentially be learning at school.

Trying to solve this problem with a top-down, managerial (half-hearted) cry to throw open the digital doors in Year 8 and force change in education and interest is going to be a long and bloody process. If this is the way we choose to go, then accept that it will take time, money (lots of money) and it will affect the whole of the education system, not just ICT reform.

Can we focus on the long term by paying attention to junior schools and exciting those teachers and children? And can we work with the kids currently negotiating their way through senior education who have already applied the principles of Open Education by teaching themselves? Young Rewired State focuses relentlessly on these kids and I can tell you the need to support them gets greater every year.

In light of this please can I encourage anyone reading this to still take the time to sign the e-petition and to consider supporting Young Rewired State.

Before I get slated by the Computer Science purists, coding is only one bit of computer science, but it is the only bit I know anything about.

8 responses

  1. I wonder… where does the obsession with exam pass rates and micromanaging teachers come from? It isn’t there in private schools, and they dont seem to have problems with pass rates. Could it be, the two go hand in hand?

    A few years ago, an obscure magazine called The Idler ran a special issue on Education which had a lot of input from John Lloyd and the team behind QI. It’s well with finding out if that gang are still interested in learning, and trying to get some hack days and summer schools going.

  2. Well I quite agree, Gordon. It does not work in the work place, micro-management is a dead-end street, people who are micro-managed in business do not find it easy to make use of their own particular skills and vision – and so it must be true in the education space.

    Good call on the QI gang

  3. Completely agree with making it fun and starting as early as possible. I was lucky to have a maths teacher who ran an after school club when I was about 14, where he taught us the basics of programming on a Commodore Vic 20 (am I showing my age?) It was mostly tinkering and drawing silly stuff on the screen but it gave me a passion for programming, which supported me throughout my school life because I knew why I was working at my homework: if I wanted to make a carreer out of computing, I had to get the right marks to get to a university where I could get the right degree.

    The end result is that I owe a carreer in computing that has taken me all over the world to a slightly nerdy maths teacher and a Vic 20 in a dingy little school in a remote part of France.

  4. I think this is your sharpest, most inspirational and overall just best blog post so far. Of all of them. Really proud of what you’re doing, and what you’ve achieved so far!

  5. I think you’re spot on with the primary angle. After the #codingforkids mini-un-conference last year I ran a pilot in my sons school where we taught Scratch to a group of 9 year olds. Judging by their enthusiastic reaction, its a perfect age to light the computing spark.
    Whilst it’s fantastic that it appears the door is being opened by government, I’m pretty sure my son’s school would not be able to jump through that door without some outside help. My experience of running the pilot left me wondering how to turn an amateur attempt to give kids that first exposure to code into a sustainable, ongoing programme – I guess finding an answer that scales nationally is the next step.

  6. Pingback: Open Education and freedom to teach computing | Elsewhere

  7. Pingback: Sharing What You Find | OliBarrett.com

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