Category Archives: Computer Science Teaching

Students, computers and learning – not such a good thing

The OECD report: Students, Computers and Learning Making the Connection (2015) caused some interesting headlines in the press Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD (BBC, 2015).

This OECD report is not as alarming as a journalist’s headline might wish to make out (BBC, 2015.)

The conclusion of the report is quite obvious: that learning is not enhanced by using ICT. This is not to say that using ICT in education is a bad thing. It’s just that it’s use in schools has to be tempered and analysed like any other educational tool. The report concludes that other skills should be “bolstered” – like literacy and numeracy and skills – so that the student can better navigate the digital world.

Of concern is the detrimental effect that over use of ICT is having on children. The evidence is compelling and I don’t disagree with this.

“Excessive use of the Internet has also been found to be related to various problems among  adolescents, including poor academic performance, family and interpersonal problems,  and even physical weakness (Park, Kang and Kim, 2014). While the causal direction is not  always established, excessive use of the Internet for leisure can harm academic achievement  and health, as it reduces the time available for sleep, study or physical activity. Conversely,  students who feel excluded from school-based socialisation may retreat to online activities.  In these cases, excessive use of the Internet is more a symptom than a cause of their problems.  Acknowledging emerging concerns over adolescents’ use of the Internet for online gaming, the  fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) identifies  Internet Gaming Disorder as a condition warranting more clinical research…” (OECD, 2015: 43).

I would also not disagree with anybody who told me that doing any activity to an extreme and to the exclusion of other activities is not a healthy lifestyle. I would include watching too much TV, obsessing over Jason Beiber, spending lots of hours hanging out in the park with mates as being too much and detrimental. My point is that I don’t regard the act of gaming or social networking as inherently bad. It’s the obsessive over use that leads to a reduction of the time spent on a healthy mixture of other activities that is bad.

There are other issues I would like to look at in this report, but have not had the time to read all of it. In particular I need to read more about the report’s conclusions on “teaching” children better reading and navigating skills so that they navigate and read in digital texts better.


BBC (2015) Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD, BBC, 15 September 2015.

OECD (2015), Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, PISA, OECD Publishing.

Transferable skills

Transferable skills seem to divide opinion quite strongly. On the one hand we have some educationalists who like the idea of teaching transferable skills like “critical thinking”, “resilience” etc. And there are others who regard skills as being inextricably interwoven with the knowledge of the subject and the exercise of the skill to achieve something.

As an example think about the selection and evaluation of primary sources in history:

  • The transferable skills group will see this as a way of instilling a healthy scepticism about reading newspapers and other modern sources of information.
  • The knowledge and skills are scrambled group will merely regard it as a teaching children how to select and evaluate primary historical sources.

Who is right?

I am beginning to position myself with the “scrambled egg” theory of knowledge and skills. There seems to be a lot of evidence from cognitive science that this is actually how the brain works. Though I would acknowledge that some macro-skills like use of language, numeracy etc. do cross subject domains and are thus transferable.

What put me in mind of this debate is the following quote from a website from the Michaela Community School

“ICT is taught through the other subjects but does not have its own discrete lesson. For instance, spreadsheets are learned in Maths lessons and the basics of coding will complement the learning of algebra. Digital photo software is used in Art lessons and films can be made using complex technology in Drama and English lessons. Four state-of-the-art computer suites are being built. At GCSE, we plan to offer Computing GCSE (as private schools do, instead of ICT GCSE).”

Interesting. This seems to be a very strong statement that they think all of ICT / CS skills are transferable. And perhaps they are correct. I would agree that my Word Processing skills are not stuck in the subject domain of English. Though I do wonder how they will teach the appreciation of computers in society, operating systems, hardware and other rather singular subjects.

Food for thought.


Intuition or Ignorance: why teach computational thinking?

I was trying to explain to a friend why I was learning about the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and Arithmetic Logic Units (ALU) on my course training me to be a teacher of computer science.

I did not need to know about the workings of a CPU during my career. Perhaps the only time I considered a CPU was when I was buying a new computer. And even then I did not need to know much more than the relative speeds and power of the CPUs available.

So I was pleased to read this article “Computing is too easy” which makes the case for why educators need to add the study of computational thinking to the school curriculum. And it makes a lot of sense to me. I am lucky enough that I learnt to use computers when knowledge of the command line, knowledge of roughly how programs work was necessary to get the best out of computers. So teaching something about how computers actually work, and why they sometimes don’t work and what limitations they have and what power they have should contribute to the knowledge base of a well educated student.

And I understand the other point of view, put to me forcefully by my boss. All she wanted was the computer to do something. Why couldn’t it just do what she needed to do? She wanted a hammer to do a job, a car to do its job and a computer to do its job too. Was she asking too much? And my patient explanation of a particular computing quirk was just dismissed: “make it work and then come back to me.”

And of course I do prefer to use the modern shrink wrapped operating systems and shiny new laptops and smartphones. I switch them on and they enable me to do stuff. So much better than the old Win 3.11 for Workgroups and DOS 6.22. Though I do dislike Apple computers because they are too shiny and easy, and encourage people to know nothing about the Mac they are using, they just use it. For example the Daily Mirror puts out this explanation of how to turn off a default on your iPhone that most people probably never knew was there because they had just taken the thing out the box, switched it on and then gleefully tell everyone how intuitive it is to use. No, Mac’s infantilise you, more than PCs, at any rate.

In summary: there seems to be two schools of thought. Those who want to know more about their computers so they can understand them, control them, and make informed decisions and those who want to use them as a tool to achieve something.

And this argument will rumble on and on. I think it has more to do with personality than rationality.

My position is that a computer is a too complex and multi-faceted tool to operate like a hammer. But if you want to retain the defaults set for you by someone who makes decisions about things you have chosen not to be aware of, then don’t blame them when some of those decisions come back to bite you or do things you wouldn’t opt for. Do not swap intuitive interfaces for ignorance! But if you do, take responsibility for your choice of ignorance and blame yourself.

Which is why I am willing to teach computer science.

Hopefully I can make a little bit of difference. Hopefully I might contribute to some children’s overall level of education by adding some awareness of how computers actually work.

ICT, Digital Literacy, and Computer Science in Schools

I have been reading articles on ICT educational policy in the UK.

I am doing this because this is the subject I will train to teach and because these articles were written by my future tutors – it will always pay to know your teacher’s profiles better.

This particular article is worth noting: Embedding Information and Communication Technology across the curriculum – where are we at?* . It opened my eyes to a larger problem that I might encounter in schools. That computers and the ability to use them and understand their social impact can be regarded as a transferable skill, that can improve a students performance in other subjects, and is not being formally taught at GCSE or A level.

Here I detect danger signals. Many schools are so focused on exam results that if a “thing” cannot be tested – whether that thing is a skill, a subject or whatever – then it will get little formal teaching time. Even though ICT skills and digital literacy are thought of as good skills / knowledge to have, it will not be taught.

At least under the much maligned ICT GCSE some attempt to teach ICT skills and digital literacy was made. The focus now is moving to the formal teaching on Computer Science (CS).

It would be silly of me to suggest that the newly released syllabus for the CS GCSE should be changed at a time when everyone is running around trying to cope with the changeover.

So the only route I can think of is to either dedicate some of the formal CS teaching time to “other” ICT skills and subjects – a dangerous thing – or to teach it in after school clubs. Or rely in the more motivated student to just pick it up as they go along.

Or persuade a school to drop another subject. The argument going that it will benefit the performance across all subjects. Which subject would a school be happy to drop?


* The article can be found here at Research in Teacher Education, October 2014.

Computer science teaching in USA

I am very surprised – nay, gobsmacked – by this stat.

"Even if students are fortunate enough to be in one of the less than 10 percent of U.S.high schools that offer computer science..."

Why there’s no such thing as an ‘F’ in computer science

How do I align this with my concept of the USA being the temple and forge of so much computer based technology?

Do they poach a lot of their computer scientists from overseas?

Is training yourself to be a “hacker” better than a formal education?

Do most computer geeks in the USA leave school with formal education and home grown programming skills and then do computer science at college?

I am so surprised by this little snippet that I stopped reading the rest of the article.