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Royal Society Report Recommends CS in English Schools: Implications For ­USA?

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Mark Guzdial

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial

The Royal Society, the world's oldest scientific academy, released a report this month on "Computing in Schools," an analysis of how computing is currently taught in England's schools and a recommendation for reform. The report, Shut Down or Restart, explicitly says, "Every child should have the opportunity to learn Computing at school."  

  • Every child should be expected to be 'digitally literate' by the end of compulsory education, in the same way that every child is expected to be able to read and write.

  • Every child should have the opportunity to learn concepts and principles from Computing (including Computer Science and Information Technology) from the beginning of primary education onwards, and by age 14 should be able to choose to study towards a recognised qualification in these areas.

Given the lack of specialist teachers, we recommend that only the teaching of digital literacy is made statutory at this point. However, the long-term aim should be to move to a situation where there are sufficient specialist teachers to enable all young people to study Information Technology and Computer Science at school. Accordingly, the Government should put in place an action plan to achieve this.

The government is responding. Education secretary Michael Gove called the current Information and Communications Technology (ICT) curriculum "demotivating and dull." He has called for an end to the ICT curriculum as early as this September, and described the desired new curriculum:

"Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word or Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations," he said.

Computer games entrepreneur Ian Livingstone, an adviser to Mr. Gove, envisages a new curriculum that could have 16-year-olds creating their own apps for smartphones and 18-year-olds able to write their own simple programming language.

This dramatic change in curriculum is not going to be easy to achieve.  The "Computing in Schools" report is frank in its assessment of the challenge of preparing enough teachers and creating an appropriate computing infrastructure in English schools.  Nonetheless, it's a wonderful development for computing education. The Royal Society speaks with great authority, and it has recognized the importance of everyone having the chance to learn computer science. Bravo for the British government to make that an explicit goal!

 The United States isn't yet to this point.  The ACM and CSTA have been active in documenting the state of computing education in the USA, as in the "Running on Empty Report."  But the National Academies (of Science, Engineering, or Education — all three could speak to this issue) have not yet called for improved computer science education in the United States. Much the opposite — the latest National Research Council report on K-12 Science Curriculum explicitly ducks the issue of teaching computer science.  The US education system is highly-distributed, with almost no direction or control from the Federal Government. Instead, the states (alone, or together) set curriculum.  Despite a concerted effort from ACM's Education Policy Committee, the National Governor's Association's "Common Core Standards" left computer science out.  

England gave us Alan Turing. We celebrate his 100th birthday this year.  Perhaps England will also give us in the United States the model for how to create computer science education for all its citizens.


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