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The emerging blind spot of computer science provision in secondary schools?

Oliver McGarr, University of Limerick Keith Johnston, Trinity College Dublin

Recent times have seen a high level of support for the introduction of computer science (CS) in secondary schools (schools catering for students 12 to 18 years of age approximately). However, the question of precisely how this should happen in practice raises many possibilities and there is a variety of approaches evident across different countries and regions. Webb et al.’s (2017) examination of CS provision in five countries (Australia, Israel New Zealand, Poland and the UK) found that, while there was consensus that the study of CS is needed in schools, there was no consensus in relation to who should study it or when it should commence. Where CS programmes have been developed, these have tended to result in optional standalone subjects particularly at upper secondary level (approximately 16 to 18 years of age) (Keane & McInerney, 2017).

While an optional standalone subject at upper secondary level best addresses labour-market demands and industry needs, it does not help broaden the exposure of CS to the wider school-going population. Instead, it restricts the study of CS to the relative few, where it is commonly seen as a subject for more ‘able’ students or for those that have a particular interest and ‘aptitude’ in computing. This can reinforce traditional views of the subject and strengthen existing stereotypes, thereby maintaining the inequality of participation of female students and those from minority backgrounds (Goode et al., 2018). 

‘[An optional standalone subject] restricts the study of CS to the relative few, where it is commonly seen as a subject for more “able” students or for those that have a particular interest and “aptitude” in computing. This can reinforce traditional views of the subject and strengthen existing stereotypes, thereby maintaining the inequality of participation of female students and those from minority backgrounds.’

The alternative to an optional standalone subject at upper secondary level is the integration of CS practices and principles across the curriculum in relevant areas or indeed the introduction of CS as an area of study at lower secondary level. However, examples of such approaches are less common internationally. At a time of significant interest in coding and CS, many innovations in this area at lower secondary level (approximately 12 to 15 years of age) and primary school level remain as peripheral components, sometimes driven by external funding from the technology industry and by enthusiastic and committed teachers often working outside of their traditional subject areas. While these initiatives have done a great deal to expose CS to a wider range of students, they are often dependent on the good will of interested and motivated teachers. In addition, such initiatives tend to be adopted as ‘pilot projects’, rather than being deeply knitted into the fabric of the school as an established element of the curriculum. The withdrawal of funding or the turnover of key teachers often exposes the fragile foothold such innovations have in schools. 

To many observers, provision as an optional subject at upper secondary level, is sufficient in addressing the need for graduates in the sector and for providing curriculum choice for students. However, if knowledge of coding and CS is increasingly part of what it means to be educated in the 21st century, then this provision may not address wider needs. Notwithstanding the value of providing optional subjects in the area of CS at upper secondary level, there is the possibility to provide a more solid footing in CS for all students at lower levels of the secondary-level school experience. While initiatives such as the CSforAll [https://www.csforall.org/] movement have aimed to achieve this by providing resources and support to help schools provide CS education and have widened recognition and awareness of the desirability of CS for all, these activities are not usually embedded as specific subjects in the curriculum at lower secondary level. As a result, their future is less certain and has left CS provision at lower secondary level facing an uncertain and undefined future. This, we argue, is an emerging blind spot in CS provision in secondary level schools across education systems internationally – namely, how to provide some basic CS provision for all students at this stage of their compulsory schooling.

This blog is based on the article ‘Curricular responses to computer science provision in schools: Current provision and alternative possibilities’ by Oliver McGarr and Keith Johnston, published in the Curriculum Journal.


References

Goode, J., Flapan, J., & Margolis, J. (2018). Computer science for all. Diversifying digital learning: Online literacy and educational opportunity. Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Keane, N., & McInerney, C. (2017) Report on the provision of courses in computer science in upper second level education internationally (Dublin, NCCA).

Oliver McGarr, O., & Johnston, K. (2020). Curricular responses to computer science provision in schools: Current provision and alternative possibilities [Advance publication]. Curriculum Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.40

Webb, M., Davis, N., Bell, T., Katz, Y. J., Reynolds, N., Chambers, D. P., & Maciej, M. S. (2017). Computer science in K-12 school curricula of the 2lst century: Why, what and when? Education and Information Technologies, 22(2), 445–468. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-016-9493-x