Saturday, 17 December 2011

Is teaching programming that important?

I've read a lot in the news recently about how ICT lessons should be more about programming and less of what we're doing at the moment. There's some very strong arguments for it and I wholeheartedly agree that programming of some sort should be experienced by all, however I don't believe the picture is as clear  as it might seem in some of the articles you might read online. Therefore, I've decided that this might be an interesting topic for my first ever blog.

First off, a bit about me. I'm a 26 year old ICT teacher from Devon.  I first looked at programming when I was about 8 after my dad showed me how to create some shapes on a sinclair spectrum, which I thought was amazing. I went on to modify a few games and create a few basic websites for local traders. In the last few years I've turned my attention to some bigger projects such as the South West Teacher Training Portal ( and a school rewards system called EPraise (

I love teaching; there is nothing more satisfying or fulfilling than being able to help young people learn. I also love solving problems and helping other solve problems, using computers. Teaching ICT is a chance to do both every day and it's great. Something I love about ICT is the pace at which it changes - I'm teaching things now that I never got the chance to do 5 years ago. Most of these changes have been the result of me and my colleagues seeking to keep the content up to date, relevant and interesting, not the result of what the media or politicians have suggested, however I think the fact that the media and the government appear to be more interested in what is happening in ICT lessons across the country has to be a good thing. I also think that sometimes the realities of the situation in classrooms is not always clear to these people, so here are a few of my thoughts on the subject;

The goalposts need moving
I guess this one is really obvious. At the moment, the National Curriculum / Program of Study (from the Department for Education) mentions the word 'programming' once at KS3 and doesn't mention it at all at KS4. This is a reasonably easy fix - take out the bits that add the least value and add in some new bits. There are of course options to study programming at Level 2 (e.g. OCR CCSE computing), but it's important to make something compulsory if every student should be exposed to it.

Teachers need up-skilling
The majority of ICT teachers I know do not have a good knowledge of programming and most don't have an ICT related degree. This has never been a problem before, because we've only been expected to teach the National Curriculum (see above). To retrain thousands of ICT teachers is a big job - however teachers love learning - they just need to right support to do it.

There also needs to be specific guidance about what ICT teachers should be able to do. Should they be able to use Logo? Should they know web programming and SQL? Should they be able to create smart phone apps? Or perhaps guidance in terms of understanding of programming terminology, such as arrays, functions and loops.

Not everybody can teach ICT
I read somewhere today that any teacher could teach ICT and we could move a lot of content from ICT lessons into other subjects. It's an argument I've heard before, once even from a secondary school head teacher, and I certainly agree that most of my colleagues could teach the basics of word, powerpoint and excel. There is also no doubt in my mind that the majority wouldn't have the depth of knowledge that ICT teachers have in those areas and would be lost if it came to graphics, animation or website design. ICT teachers are very skilled people which seem to be taken for granted, which is a real shame.

Should every student really be expected to learn programming?
Yes - to some extent. I'd like to be able to give my students a better understanding of how their computer works, as well as what they can do.

The 'But Sir/Miss I'm never going to need/use this' doesn't convince me - I leaned about electrons, neutrons and protons at school and whilst I don't think I've mentioned those words in about 10 years, I still have a better understanding of the world around me because of it.

It's also worth noting a few facts here - the UK is a world leader is software development. For example, we have the third largest video games industry and in 2010 it generated over £2.8bn. Industry leaders are crying out for high quality graduates, but numbers are falling.

Should every student be exposed to programming - yes. We just need to be careful with how much as many kids would get very, very bored, no matter how skilled the teacher. I can't imagine how I'd teach a terms worth of programming to any of my non-option groups. There is definitely a place for it, but it's not the only thing we should be teaching in ICT lessons. Despite what many say, presentations, word processing and spreadsheets are still of value.

We need to tell kids the big picture
We did a questionnaire at school recently and discovered that a lot of our students don't see when they're going to use ICT in their future jobs. That's a shame. I don't know whether it's the same story in other schools, but I know that I've started to add thing to my lessons that explain how important the skills they learn are and how big the ICT industry is in this country. I wonder if we've got so caught up in the delivery of the subject that we've forgotten to tell our students why they're doing it in the first place. We should also be celebrating our computing heritage, which I'm not sure we do at the moment.

Some cool tools to help
There are some great resources out there to help you teach and learn programming. Once such resource is Code Academy - - which teaches you in a fantastic, interactive way that you may find students love (although it didn't seem to work properly on our schools machines).

A summary
ICT teaching needs to change, although remember we teachers have been changing it every year since the subject was invented. What we need now is something to aim at and some support to get there. We also need to remember that whilst programming is important, there's plenty of other things we teach kids in ICT which are just as important and arguably more useful.

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