The Bad State of School Computer Lessons

I don't know much about what goes on in education, I've been out of it a long while and don't have kids to drag my attention back to it, but I've seen two fairly recent articles belittling the state of computer lessons (or Information and Communications Technology, ICT, as it's more commonly known) which make me wonder.

One was about David Braben, perhaps best known for co-writing the computer game Elite back in the 1980s (you can read a great excerpt from Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford which explains what an achievement this was), who plans to launch a computer for £15 to encourage people to 'tinker' with code.

The second is about the UK's special effects industry, an area where we're a world leader, but which is having trouble finding skilled people so is having to draft them in from overseas.  They both lament what is taught in ICT.

"The level of IT that they teach [in schools] is ridiculous," said Lee Danskin, Escape Studios' training development director.

"It is like, 'here's Powerpoint, here's Excel and here's Word'. ICT lessons are just pushing packages around rather than coding or programming."

Braben thinks the same thing:
They believe that what today's schoolchildren learn in ICT classes leaves them uninspired and ignorant about the way computers work. David Braben says the way the subject is taught today reminds him of typing lessons when he was at school - useful perhaps in preparing pupils for office jobs, but no way to encourage creativity.

I don't think that's changed much, looking back I probably did do some BASIC at school, mainly to control Lego motors on a BBC Micro in CDT, along with the practice of typing up code from magazines into whatever computer we had at home (my parents were pretty tech-savvy, we had computers from a fairly young age) but I didn't really start coding (with Pascal on the Acorn Archimedes, which shows you how old I am) until I did my A-Levels.  Most of my subsequent coding skills have been self-taught, picked up by reading how-to guides online and through trial and error.

Which probably explains the importance of Braben's project, a small machine that anyone can afford and which allows you to have a go at producing something.  I'd argue an internet connection was important too, so you can make use of the tons of online guides and advice, ask questions on forums, etc.

In a world that is increasingly governed by computers, the importance of which is only going to increase, as is the reliance on them to create wealth, more programming skills are needed.  Even writing search terms now seems to be becoming a programming language, let alone writing formulas in Excel and with more and more data stored in databases how long before we all have to speak SQL?

Computers can just be used for what an application lets you do, but they're so much more powerful and useful when you can through together a few lines of code to make them dance to your tune.

Update (4th June 2010): The BBC's Click programme has some more details, including interviews with Peter Braben, Ian Livingston and teacher Ian Addison.


  1. Sarah D

    Ok at the risk of putting my head over the horizon, here's the input from a mum with a teenage boy in a North London comp. (1400 pupils and counting). My son's best mate came into the school from an Oustanding Primary and was immediately identified as Gifted and Talented in ICT. The Primary had built on his natural ability and I'm guessing there was some parental input. No such input was forthcoming from the secondary school. He works alongside my son who went into the school with office worker level ICT skills but whose programming experience is based on telling a floor hoover what to do. They talk in class out of sheer boredom with the lesson covering Powerpoing again, and as a "punishment" are sent to sit in a class two years above them for ICT for two weeks. Both are filled with delight as "at last" they are learning something they don't already know. They are now calculating exactly what level of misbehaviour will have them exiled to that class permanently. Meanwhile the Design and Technology team are setting projects with CAD elements incorporated into them that the children have yet to be taught how to do.
    The basic problem with the national curriculum is a "one size fits all" structure that does not allow pupils to move up and down the age range to find the level at which they are already working when they come into senior school. Widely referred to in education as the Year Seven Dip, what this effectively means is the disillusionment felt by all children when they find they are sitting in a classroom with pupils working at very different levels to theirs. Parallel examples may be found in all subjects, from pupils fluent in a foreign language being expected to sit through basic vocabulary lessons to children doing Tudors and Stuarts or Hitler for the third or fourth time in as many years. Ironically the only area in which natural ability and talent seems to be effectively recognised and supported by a wide range of organisations both in school and in the commercial sector is in sport. If the IT industry in this country put as much effort into spotting junior talent and bringing it on, as the football industry does, perhaps we might have the pool of talent the country needs. Meanwhile my son and his friends will be first in line for the £15 computer, believe me.

  2. Lee (author)

    Thanks, Sarah, good to get some input from someone with experience on the ground as it were. I think this is an area all kids, gifted or not, could do with some experience in (i.e. programming, it doesn't need to be writing full-blown apps), most of them know how to use a computer long before they get to school these days so using office documents is, as you point out, teaching kids something they already know.

    Maybe it's because it's easier to measure achievement in sport (you run a certain time, jump a certain distance, etc) whereas other subjects are far more subjective. It seems if you want to succeed in those it's on your own time. (Mind you, allowing kids to cruise along without challenging them is not something new, most of my teachers only knew what I could do when I took my mocks and most had to reassess.)

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