on classrooms, often whole school districts, even into the curriculum of entire
countries—with scant research or evaluation. And without carrying the teachers.
If we are to teach computing in schools
we should go properly equipped. Alongside the admirable energy being poured
into creating curricular and associated
classroom materials, we need an accompanying set of considered and detailed
programs of research, to parallel those
done for previous literacies.
In complement to efforts in mathematical and natural language education we need to undertake cognitive research to discover how children acquire
computational concepts asking questions (for example) as to whether there
is a “best order” for the presentation
of concepts, or whether pedagogically
focused “initial programming environments” are a more productive way to
learn than “real language” teaching.
And, if so, under what conditions? This
is not virgin territory, but the majority
of previous work has been on learning
in cognitively mature undergraduates,
and that is unlikely to transfer directly.
In parallel, we need a program of ed-
ucational research to support teachers,
to ensure ideas work in real classrooms
and with real teachers—and so we do
not repeat cycles of error. At the mo-
ment, teachers are faced with a plethora
of plausible approaches and no way to
choose between them but the convic-
tion (and charisma) of their inventors.
A recent Computing at School magazine
(Autumn 2014) is not short of ideas:
A four step scaffolding exemplar using
Scratch … A simple project utilizing the py-
thon turtle library … Functional program-
ming: an example in VB. Each of these is
a response to the need for teachers to
have something to teach, to be able to
fill their lessons with engaging and use-
ful material. But, at the same time, the
evidence these are based on is solely
“Do it like this! It works for me!”
Finally, we need policy research so
we may effectively coordinate and dis-
seminate practices at scale. It is not
only individuals who can learn from re-
search—districts, countries, and gov-
ernments can, too.
It is tempting to think these are not true
problems, that my opening story is an
artifact of history, and that the atten-
tion of intelligent people, the support
of professional organizations, and the
commitment of money being applied to
making our children computationally
competent is sufficient for success. But
I was recently talking with an industrial-
ist who has a considerable commitment
to outreach work. He was describing
going into sessions for training school
teachers (for children aged 5–11) and
said “When I talk about computational
thinking, they look horrified.”
And what happens when companies
stop donating their staff’s volunteer ef-
fort? When the spotlight of governmen-
tal attention passes on? Without the
scaffold of evidence we risk condemn-
ing both these teachers, their pupils,
and our large-scale efforts (with Scratch
or Alice) to failure (like ITA or look-and-
say), or to be successful only in certain
localities under certain conditions.
When you frame a subject as
literacy, the educational problems that
entails are very different to the problems of subject experts enthusing an
engaged minority. We should learn
from educational history, and—this
time—do the research.
1. Bell, M. The significance of the ITA experiment.
Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 29 (2001).
2. Department for Education and Employment. The
National Curriculum: Handbook for Primary Teachers
in England. HMSO, 1999.
3. Lane, M. Educashunal lunacie or wizdom? 2001; http://
4. O’Donnell, M. In Munro, R., and Warwick, M., Eds.
Janet and John ... James Nisbet and Company,
5. Stuart, M. Learning to read the words on the page. In
Lewis, M. and Ellis, S., Eds. Phonics: Practice, Research
and Policy. Paul Chapman, London, 2006.
Sally Fincher ( S.A.Fincher@kent.ac.uk) is a professor of
computing education and director of graduate studies at
the University of Kent.
Copyright held by author.
me, that seems unlikely ever to be the
case. But, if that’s their goal, I know it
cannot be achieved by enthusiastic effort (however expert) happy to engage
mainly the “gifted and talented” in forums of their own choosing, in voluntary
“after-school” clubs, or via subscription services like Bitsbox, which sends
out monthly coding projects for children with the educationally naive pitch
“Learning to code takes time and practice. Sometimes it’s just plain hard. But
that’s okay—we know kids are willing to
work at learning hard things as long as
they don’t get bored along the way.”
Restricting the Syntax
In historical symmetry we can see a
similar response to coding literacy
as in traditional literacy. Block-based
languages (like Blockly), microworlds
(like Alice), and “Initial Teaching Environments” such as Scratch, reduce the
syntactic complexity of coding to allow
a more direct access to fluency. But
they suffer the same problems as any
“cut down” approach and the question
of transition to “grown up” languages,
remains as potent with them as it was
for the ITA and reading. Are we teaching an ITC—an Initial Teaching Computing—that, in avoiding “obvious”
difficulties, leads to problems later?
Restricting the API
Other approaches believe it is more
appropriate to use real syntax, but constrain the environment to a particular
(attractive) problem domain so learners become fluent in a constrained
space. Event-driven environments
(such as Greenfoot) or scaffolded systems (like Processing.js) aim for the
learner to develop an accurate mental
model of what their code is doing, and
ultimately transfer that to other environments. Although whether they actually do so remains unclear: we may
be restricting things in the wrong way.
Still others hold that coding—
howsoever approached—is insufficient for
literacy and advocate a wider approach,
taking in “computational thinking,”
for instance as embedded in the framework of the “CS Principles”: Enduring
Understandings, Learning Objectives,
and Essential Knowledge.
What is resolutely held common
with traditionally formulated literacy
is that these approaches are unleashed
Are we teaching
an ITC—an Initial
that, in avoiding
to problems later?