Get your school ready to code

16 Jun 2012

Changes to the ICT curriculum put programming back at the core. Getting ready is going to be a challenge, but Andrew Dixon has some pointers to help you prepare

ICT is changing, and programming is once more back in the limelight. In January, Michael Gove announced his intentions to abolish the current ICT curriculum and replace it with a school-defined ICT curriculum with a strong Computer Science theme, giving those of us who teach ICT a serious challenge.

Yet the inclusion of Computer Science in the ICT curriculum has many benefits for students wishing to pursue IT in higher education. Learning programming concepts is good preparation for the type of work they’ll encounter at college and university, and it’s never a bad idea to equip students with an industry-relevant skillset. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all students need to be proficient in object-oriented languages when they leave school, but a foundation in computer architecture and the principles of programming will be an advantage.

However, this new agenda has implications for teachers, and these will differ depending on the educational background of your ICT department. Training will need to be looked at again; this new style of ICT will need a whole new set of tools.

Get your school ready to code

Moving on from flowcharts

The mere mention of “programming” can give even seasoned IT teachers a nervous twitch, particularly at the thought of delivering C++ at secondary school level. Some of us retain distant memories of university lectures on object-oriented approaches to multi- dimensional arrays – and not all of us remember exactly what it means. Luckily, things aren’t as grim as they seem.

In the new curriculum, programming will require students to design and create an executable program using at least one language. This will involve sequencing instructions, declaring variables, iteration (loops and repetitions), storing data, calling functions and procedures, and debugging code. This may seem like a terrifying crescendo of technical keywords, but once you break it down, it isn’t actually as complex as it sounds.

Certainly, teaching programming languages at secondary school is no trivial task. You need to think carefully about how to weight the curriculum because, as the word “language” implies, students have to learn a language as alien and complex as any foreign tongue. They’re also likely to be unprepared for writing code, particularly if their only exposure to programming has been in software such as Logicator, Crocodile Clips or Flowol.

These programs fall into the flowchart programming genre, where, instead of coding using a text editor, students create a series of events and branches in a flowchart. It’s a useful first step, but one that’s unlikely to prepare students for the complexity of proper code. What these programs do provide, however, is a good introduction to the logical steps of designing and writing a program, which is part of the reason they have been on the ICT curriculum in primary and secondary schools for many years.

We can use this to our advantage. The key to introducing programming to the curriculum is to target the middle- ground between flowchart programming and coding. Flowchart programming offers a practical introduction to the fundamentals of programming basic concepts such as loops; subroutines can be explained more easily using a flowchart-style tool than they can in the raw code, and the flowchart can act as a virtual map for designing a coded program.

By tracking student progress, you can also get a clear indication of how well a student or a class will take to more sophisticated coding environments, and this might also aid you in selecting the correct coding language for your school.

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