Coding and Computational Thinking

Last academic year, the UK government introduced Computing as part of the national curriculum to be taught in almost all of our schools. This came after decades of complaints about the previous Information and Communications Technology (ICT) curriculum – which focused more on using software tools rather than developing them – and years of pressure from the computing industry, bemoaning the difficulty of recruiting developers despite huge market growth.
Truth be told, I was one of the moaners. But I moan no more. I was so delighted by the news of the changes to the curriculum that I volunteered my time to help train teachers in the new material – after all, most of those teachers were themselves educated in the previous ICT era.
However, after the initial fanfare I noticed something of a backlash, with comments along the lines of:

Not everyone can or should code.

They’re right, of course.
Also, others seemed to think that this was a move to bolster the UK economy, and that the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills were not the right sources of sound educational principles.
That’s probably true as well.
But these commentators have slightly missed the point; perhaps they had publication deadlines to meet? As if you read the curriculum carefully, you’ll notice it talks as much about computational thinking as it does about programming. To explain: computational thinking is about creating systems to solve problems in a structured way – a creative and fun process best done with a whiteboard and colleagues; whereas programming is the occasionally frustrating task of sitting in front of a computer screen persuading it to implement your ideas using the programming language of your choice.
I think the confusion is understandable. It’s due to the rise of ‘Coding’, a friendly alternative name for the scary-sounding subjects of Computing, Programming, Software Engineering and Computer Science. I’m guilty of using the term myself, running a Code Club and recommending resources like the Hour of Code.
Computational Thinking
So if you hear criticism of coding in schools, remember that it doesn’t just cover the narrow sense of programming. Sure, some students may enjoy that part, and maybe they’ll even go on to get rewarding jobs in the software industry.
But the real benefit lies in being able to think in a systematic and logical way. That’s both a sound educational principle and one that will help bring real benefits to our future workforce.

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