Secrets of success in computer science teaching and learning

Published: 23 Jul 2015

Secrets of success in computer science teaching and learning

Michael Jones, Director of Computing at Northfleet Technology College, Kent, has recently returned from a four-week fact-finding visit to the United States. His aim was to learn about the approaches that schools in the USA have towards developing a computer science curriculum for pupils.

This opportunity was funded and supported by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Michael’s school and the University of Greenwich, and resulted from his research proposal being selected from over 1000 submitted across the UK.

Michael says, “We have an opportunity in England to become a truly world-class force in computer science. The mandatory nature of a computing curriculum from September 2014 means that all pupils should leave school with a highly developed set of digital skills. This will be a challenge requiring the development of a coherent, relevant curriculum and support for teachers as they gain confidence in the new curriculum ideas.”

He visited many American schools, universities and organisations where success has been achieved. A set of common factors is the involvement of schools, local authorities, university computing departments and central government. In particular, Michael was impressed by the changing nature of the USA equivalent of A Level computing, AP CS (Advanced Placement Computer Science) Principles. This has evolved to reflect the broad nature of the subject. At a time when the English syllabus has moved towards 80% formal examination the USA programme has changed to include two portfolio assessments and only one examination. This, Michael believes, is “a move in the right direction and reflects the highly practical nature of computing and computer science.”

In his visits to classrooms Michael had the opportunity to observe best practice and talk with pupils. He noticed that there is a deliberate focus on incorporating ‘engineering’ into the language of computing. This enabled pupils to develop a deep understanding of how software and hardware interact to produce solutions to problems as diverse as delivering medication at pre-determined times through to a pillow that sang you to sleep. What was clearly evident is the fun and learning that pupils had in seeing their ideas move from conception to conclusion. The syllabus in each school had rigorous assessment criteria understood by all and often developed in collaboration with university education, engineering and computing departments.

During his Fellowship Michael taught a four-hour lesson in programing in Python to a group of 15 year-old pupils, and delivered a lecture to the staff of MIT in which he discussed the new computing curriculum in England and the way in which it is being supported.

The research in the USA has enabled Michael to build a wide network of contacts including the University of Colorado, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York City Department for Education and SparkFun. The network is already providing support and ideas for driving computer science forward in England.

Since returning home Michael has been applying some of his findings through exploring how local universities may be able to work with schools, creating new content for the PGCE he and Northfleet Technology College contribute to for the University of Greenwich, disseminating ideas at CAS Hubs and preparing his report for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

Contact Michael: