Developing and implementing a new computing science curriculum in Scottish schools
Research advanced national curricular change by informing the revised Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Technologies curriculum and also supported research-informed development of professional learning for teachers.
What was the problem?
In today’s quickly evolving world, digital literacy is becoming ever more important. In collaborative work across the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport and the School of Informatics, Professor Robertson, Dr Andrew Manches and Professor Helen Pain have argued that children have a right to understand the strengths, limitations and potential risks of the technology which permeates their lives.
What did we do?
Research conducted by Robertson, Manches and Pain found that children often lack basic factual knowledge about how computer hardware and software work. The researchers also found that younger children tended to believe that computers have agency by wanting to help them carry out tasks, but overall the children participating in the study were divided and unsure when asked whether computers can think. These findings have important implications since children require basic knowledge of computer architecture to support them to reason realistically about possibilities and pitfalls of future technologies, including artificial intelligence.
In a subsequent paper, Robertson worked with Professor Richard Connor (Strathclyde University) and Professor Quintin Cutts (University of Glasgow) to document the theoretical perspective behind the curricular change which they influenced in computer science (CS), showing the importance of helping children understand how machines and languages are used to create artefacts, in addition to developing computational thinking skills.
They described why efforts to make CS entirely focused on “computational thinking”, in the absence of knowledge of “computers”, are mistaken. They noted the importance of teaching young learners about computational thinking in everyday life, machine architecture, the semantics of programming languages, and building new software. The paper argued that learners require an understanding of three key aspects of CS education:
- domains in which computers operate,
- the computational mechanisms that make computers work, and
- how to use the computational mechanisms to model aspects of the domains.
It is notable that computing curricula at school level in other countries typically focus only on aspect 3, often in the form of writing computer programs. Exploration of common computational processes such as searching or sorting which have many real world applications, or understanding how computers execute instructions in programming languages is often left until university-level courses. The research argues that, for computer science to take its intellectual place beside other sciences at school level, all three foundational concepts should be taught from an early age.
Because topics such as CS are typically new to teachers, it is important to support them through resource development and professional learning. CS, in common with other scientific disciplines, requires the understanding of deep concepts and subject-specific pedagogy as well as practical skills with the various technologies used to develop that understanding. Using a realist evaluation methodology, Robertson led the analysis of evidence gathered on the PLAN C project, a professional development programme designed to support secondary CS teachers at a time of substantial curricular change. This work focused on the formation of a professional development network of several hundred teachers across Scotland.
Results indicated that the PLAN C design has been successful in increasing teachers’ professional confidence and it appears to have catalysed a powerful change in attitudes to learning. The researchers’ recommendations for teacher professional learning were to:
- encourage teachers to engage with pedagogical theories and emerging evidence from the current research literature;
- enable teachers to address gaps in their conceptual CS understanding;
- provide contexts where teachers are regularly able to engage in high-quality professional dialogue with peers in their subject (during which teachers should reflect on their classroom practice, question how their students’ learning could be improved and share ideas with each other); and
- create an expectation that teachers will try out new teaching techniques regularly and reflect on these with their peers.
What happened next?
The research of Robertson and colleagues had impact in two main areas since it advanced curricular change and it developed research-informed curriculum resources and professional learning opportunities to embed the curricular changes.
Advancing curricular change
Based on her research and practice in supporting CS education, starting in August 2014 Robertson contributed to a group convened by the British Computer Society and Nesta to consider what skills and concepts primary children should learn within the field of computing and information and communications technology (ICT), and at what stage in the curriculum. The group was convened by Kate Farrell, who is now Director of Curriculum on the Data Education in Schools project at the University of Edinburgh, with Robertson as a member. During these meetings, Robertson worked with Farrell, Cutts and Connor with input from Education Scotland staff to develop the ideas underpinning the three significant aspects of learning outlined in the section above.
In autumn 2016, Education Scotland invited Robertson and Farrell to join a working group revising the Technologies curriculum within the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), which supports over 51,000 teachers who work with over 600,000 learners in Scotland throughout their broad general education. Robertson, Farrell, Cutts and Connor collaborated to enhance the curriculum draft so that it aligned with the academic recommendations and research findings.
Drawing on the research, the Technologies curriculum now includes CS as a distinct area of learning, supporting learners to develop CS knowledge and skills in a coherent line of progression.
This curriculum supports curriculum organisers to implement the research findings by including the three key aspects of CS education identified by the researchers within a broader framework of “key concepts”:
- The concept “Understanding the world through computational thinking” (TCH 0-13a to TCH 4-13b) corresponds to what the research refers to as “1) domains that can be modelled by computational mechanisms”.
- The concept “Understanding and analysing computing technology” (TCH 0-14a to TCH 4-14c) corresponds to “2) computational mechanisms themselves”.
- The concept “Designing building and testing computing solutions” (TCH 0-15a to TCH 4-15a) maps to “3) how to use the computational mechanisms to model aspects of the domains”.
The change in curriculum has been transformational in terms of Es and Os [curricular expectations and outcomes]. …This is very different from other curriculums. Many are very content led. This was future proofed.
Developing research-informed curriculum resources and professional learning opportunities to embed the curricular changes
The Education Scotland Technologies working group acknowledged that the introduction of a specialist curricular area such as CS within broad general education was ambitious since it would require a steep learning curve for non-specialist teachers. Therefore, to support teachers in updating their practice, a group of academics led by Robertson and Farrell ran a series of professional learning events (which were designed based on the research findings of the PLAN C study) including a successful conference to accompany the launch of the new curriculum and a series of “Coding and Cake” workshops on programming and data literacy.
Robertson and University of Edinburgh colleague Dr Holly Linklater, in collaboration with Edinburgh City Council and sponsored by the technology company CGI, ran a year-long professional learning course in Computational Thinking for 14 Edinburgh-based primary teachers, piloting activities that met gaps in teachers’ knowledge about CS. Participants commented that the workshops and course increased their confidence in CS skills and knowledge and provided them with effective CS teaching approaches that build on pupils’ existing knowledge.
The University of Edinburgh team developed the Teach CS Primary Guide that explains the three key concepts of the revised curriculum informed by the research, providing various example activities for each curricular level and outcome. For example, to support children in the early years who are exploring computational thinking processes involved in everyday tasks and identifying patterns (organiser 1, outcome TCH 0-13a), teachers may use simple activities to help children sort toys by colour or shape, or identify the steps in everyday activities such as hand-washing. Sorting objects in the real world is conceptually similar to sorting information by attribute, which is fundamental to computer science. This Guide was distributed to all 2,019 primary schools in Scotland in 2017 and to 1,200 subscribers to the Times Educational Supplement Scotland in 2020.
The Guide and related professional learning workshops were independently evaluated in February 2020 to (A) understand whether the Teach CS Guide has had an impact on primary teachers’ confidence and competence while teaching the new computing science strands of the Technologies section of the CfE and (B) gather views from teachers about how the change in curriculum has impacted their learners.
Without a doubt, use of the Teach CS Handbook [Guide] has increased the confidence of those teachers using it.
…although Es and Os are giving schoolteachers an understanding of what every child should understand in the curriculum, the document takes that and makes it much more manageable for teachers in schools.
If I hadn’t been directed to the handbook, I wouldn’t have changed my teaching. It made me see it in a different light.
The research has continued to have impact through the Data Education in Schools project which is part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal Skills Programme, funded by the Scottish Government. The project is developing an interdisciplinary data education curriculum for Scotland and a set of engaging real world data science teaching materials for primary and secondary school teachers. There are a wealth of resources available via Data Education in Schools webpage.