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Brave New Curriculum

The new school year sees a new national curriculum.

One of the big changes is the replacement of ICT (information and communication technology) with a new subject, computing. As well as being something of a rebranding exercise, there’s a shift here towards including a lot more programming and other bits of computer science (CS), as well as some critical digital literacy, alongside the core uses of IT for productivity, creativity and communication.

Many hope that the new curriculum will result in more studying CS at university and thence a flourishing IT industry. For me, though, computing’s place on the curriculum is about recognising that in the third millennium CS is as much a part of a rounded education as physics, poetry or music.

The first line of the new curriculum sets out the level of our ambition: ‘A highquality computing education equips pupils to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world.’ While creativity has been a feature of the best ICT lessons for a long time, ‘computational thinking’ is a relatively new term: it’s the concepts and approaches that we draw on when using computers to help us solve problems or understand systems. It includes such concepts as logic, algorithms, decomposition, abstraction and generalisation as well as approaches like experimenting, making, debugging, persevering and collaborating. Computational thinking certainly characterises the work of software engineers and computer scientists, but more importantly it has wide applications across and beyond the school curriculum.

Learning to program is, I think, the best way to develop computational thinking. It’s also great fun. There are some brilliant resources available now that make it so much easier for pupils to learn to program, and for schools to teach this. Better still, the best of these are free, and often online, making it easy for pupils to carry on (or even to start) coding at home.

Top of my list would have to be MIT’s brilliant Scratch platform, where programs are built by connecting coloured building blocks together, like virtual Lego. Scratch has a built-in share button, encouraging users to publish their programs to the web, much like videos onto YouTube, as well as remixing the code written by others. For younger children, the new Scratchers app for the iPad provides an even easier interface for creating scripted, interactive animations, and Microsoft’s Kodu is a very accessible introduction to game programming.

Secondary school sees the introduction of text-based programming languages: Python is the current favourite, and good ‘teach yourself’ resources are available from Codecademy and elsewhere. Microsoft’s TouchDevelop deserves a mention too, as an easy way in to developing apps for tablets and smartphones.

Out of school activities like Coder Dojo and Young Rewired State are great for pupils who want to take their programming further. Code Club and Code Club Pro offer ways for those already working in the industry to help out with after school clubs or getting teachers up to speed with CS themselves.

Teachers and their pupils have so much to look forward to in this world-leading new curriculum!

Miles Berry is a former head teacher and now principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton. He was part of the drafting group that drew up the new computing curriculum. He’s the author of Switched on Computing and serves on the boards of Computing at School and Naace. He’s @mberry on Twitter.