Coding the curriculum

By Brian McKenzie

It’s taken me some time to respond to this issue because I wasn’t sure what I thought. The issue in question is the valuable campaign to increase the prevalence of computer science and coding in the UK (or English?) curriculum, and in general to drag ICT into this century already 12 years old. This movement  emerged from long years of rumblings by savvy teachers and technologists, then in August 2011 a high profile complaint about British education by Google’s Eric Schmidt, then a Coding for Kids campaign by Emma Mulqueeney (who runs Young Rewired State), the Next Gen Skills campaign by the UKIE and industry partners, then the Royal Society report on The Way Forward for Computing in UK Schools and the Guardian’s Digital Literacy campaign. Michael Gove scored his only popularity hit with more progressive educators when he agreed in January 2012, after all this powerful lobbying, to scrap ‘boring’ outdated ICT and ensure computer science plays a strong role in the revised National Curriculum.

The problem with these linked campaigns is not that they’re wrong.  You’d be a dinosaur if you argued that digital education shouldn’t be updated, deepened with more science and giving learners more creativity. The problem is that it worked by pressure from employers rather than teachers and in a highly fluid context where educational change is too controlled by Gove. There are at least three factors that diminish the potency of Gove’s decision, despite it heading in the right direction:

– Cuts to education in general and in particular to tech support by local authorities (e.g. by the closures of City Learning Centres), will decelerate a decade-long push to integrate technology across schools.

– The shiny reviewed National Curriculum will be toothless because it won’t be required in academies and free schools, yet the Government is luring and forcing both secondaries and primaries to become academies or free schools.

– Vocational learning, including engineering, has just been massively downgraded and discouraged by the exclusion of the majority of such qualifications from League Tables.

Let’s assume, though, that a National Curriculum still has some validity. The problem is that it makes no sense to overhaul specific subjects, or for Gove to agree to major changes to particular subjects outside a holistic and systematic review of the whole curriculum. Such a review should include interrogating the whole notion of ‘subject’. When Gove conceded to the digital skills campaigns he also said the ICT curriculum should be crowdsourced. I’m aware of numerous platforms where educationalists share and generate strategies and resources, and also the subject associations have contributed to curriculum design. So, let’s assume Gove wasn’t suggesting reinventing those wheels. I’d like to think the best of his intentions, that he was inviting us to  recode the whole curriculum.

The success of the coding campaign can be seen as an opening, positive but only of chink size, that can pave the way for an open recreation of the curriculum. Coding can be seen not just as a narrow branch of computer science but more metaphorically as working with data, identifying patterns and crafting solutions, with a whole range of languages and materials. A curriculum based on ‘delivery’ of skills and knowledge that really is relevant for the future is almost impossible to craft, as we can’t predict how the future will unfold. What we can do is focus our efforts on supporting children to be creative, resilient, co-operative and driven to make a better world, with ‘bigger than self’ values. We’re unlikely to achieve these outcomes if computer science is added to a delivery-based Govean mix alongside Dryden, the King James Bible, the English kings and the periodic table. The curriculum needs to be restructured predominantly around creative enquiries whereby students are interpreting and manipulating code, numbers, materials, images, forms, ideas, emotions, actions, words and perhaps most importantly, the elements of the biosphere, in ways that generate meaning and value. Coding with data needs to interact with all these other languages or systems to explore their generative potential.

Ken Robinson has written inspiringly about the importance for learners of ‘finding their element’. I think we need to deconstruct this more. I wonder if there are three dimensions to it:

– The self (identity with others and distinctiveness from others, fear and desire, motivation, talent etc)

– The context (a locality, a diaspora, an ecosystem etc)

– A syntax or system of practice (maths, aesthetics, manufacture/craft, ecology, social wellbeing, literature etc)

We need to deconstruct this more comprehensively and more responsively to the world’s future problems. At present, the argument swings between whether education should be driven by the needs of industry or by the interests of the child. The question we may soon be asking is how education can be driven by the needs of the future generations and the planet.


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