Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Coding + creativity = careers?

In my latest Sutton Trust blog post, I consider whether the new computing curriculum can help low and middle income students become tomorrow’s tech entrepreneurs.

It took some time for this government to embrace the importance of technology in education. Now that it has done so, it is making important changes to the curriculum, notably through the replacement of an ICT curriculum focused on office skills with a computing curriculum that teaches coding.

From 5, children will learn to code and programme, with algorithms, sequencing, selection and repetition; from 11, how to use at least 2 programming languages to solve computational problems; to design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems; and how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system. The Design and Technology curriculum is also being modernised with the help of innovators like Sir James Dyson. At the same time new Tech level qualifications have been introduced to strengthen the quality of vocational qualifications available.

But is this enough to ensure that we are developing a generation of young people who can turn the computer literacy they acquire from the first touch of an iPad within months of leaving the pram into the opportunities that could provide them with a satisfying career? Already there are 1.3 million jobs in ICT, and many more that rely on it. In future, there will be many more as we increasingly use technology for our everyday tasks.

That was the theme of a fascinating Sutton Trust policy lunch which we held this week under Chatham House rules, where we brought some of the country’s leading experts on IT and education together with tech entrepreneurs and business people.

And if there was one area of consensus it was that the potential stifling of creativity in the curriculum is in danger of leaving us behind in a technology battle where European countries like Estonia and Ireland are racing ahead, not to mention places in East Asia, like Singapore, which are rapidly rebalancing their curriculum to marry knowledge with creativity and skills.

I have always felt that the creativity v knowledge battle in education was something of a phoney war. Being able to Google information requires some knowledge of context if you are not to make a fool of yourself. Equally, research skills and study skills are pretty much essential if you are going to acquire and use that knowledge.

But some of our lunch guests brought fresh eyes to this debate. One had seen how an unemployed young man with a love of rap music had been persuaded through his music to start creating apps and now trains others in the business power of digital technology. He had barely passed any GCSEs.

Another related how big IT firms like IBM are now as likely to recruit apprentices as university graduates, because they can train people more effectively on the job. Meanwhile, entrepreneurial head teachers who try to bring imaginative ideas like Biztown – where youth enterprise skills are brought to life – are told creating such an environment here would waste money.

And yet the PISA tests, on which the Government places so much weight, are as much a test of practical application as knowledge. Indeed, the next round of PISA will test collaborative problem solving. So, why aren’t we assessing this in our schools too?

Equally, there are real opportunities to improve professional development of teachers – still a major challenge as the quality of new teachers has been improved – through technology, just as there must be ways that peer-to-peer tutoring, a top scorer in the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit, could expand into this area. This isn’t pupil-centred learning, but given the greater familiarity so many young people have with technology, it could be pupil-led.

So, embracing technology with more rigour is only part of the story. Technology in the classroom was a bit of a slow burner, as early investment in the 1990s was in PCs, which are now rapidly being replaced by tablets. As one guest noted, this means that in the future old fashioned skills of dictation may be back in vogue as typing and keyboard skills become as obsolete as the fax machine.

So, there was plenty of food for thought, and some challenges to our thinking on education, not least in a week when too much of the education discourse felt a little passé. But for us, there were also important questions too.

Technology could be a great leveller, in that those with good tech skills are greatly in demand. But is there an easy link between those with the skills and those who need the skills? Many companies are still recruiting overseas because they find it hard to do so in Britain. Technology is breeding many new start-ups, not least in places like Tech City, but how do we link those with good ideas, but without the connections or the capital, with those investors who can help them realise their promise?

If we can answer those questions satisfactorily, perhaps technology could be an important lever for the social mobility of the future.

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