How do 20,000 schools get good at computing? It starts at the grass roots.

At the Intel Education Summit earlier this month, some of us heard from Bill Mitchell, Director of the British Computing Society, and Peter Marshman, a computer science teacher and master teacher in the Computing at School (CAS) Network of Excellence programme about how the programme is helping teachers get to grips with the new computing curriculum.

As Bill told us—and many of you will know—it’s now compulsory for children aged 5-16 to learn computing, or, more accurately, to learn to become computational thinkers. Brought in for the new school year in September 2014, the curriculum is completely new to teachers. The challenge is obvious: how do we make sure that the U.K.’s 20,000 schools get the most from it?

The answer, according to Bill and his colleagues, is a grass-roots network of teachers, headteachers, universities and technology companies working together to encourage and foster good practice in the teaching workforce. This is known as the Network of Excellence (NoE), and it relies on master teachers like Peter to champion computing and act as an interface between schools and the CAS community.

At the time of writing, the NoE has provided 38,000 support instances to teachers. Around 380 master teachers work with 1,500 schools, and 90 of the country’s 110 computer science departments, to improve teachers’ ability to teach computing.

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Peter has set up the Thames Valley hub, one of 181 across the country. “It started just as a discussion forum, then we started to look at the needs of schools in the local area,” he says. “Now it runs several times a year.” He also helps deliver continuous professional development (CPD) in his area, and can also put teachers in touch with specialists from IT companies or universities if they have advanced questions. “It’s quite informal, and it’s all voluntary, but it works very well,” says Peter. Indeed, in July 2015 the network was independently evaluated by researchers from Sheffield Hallam University, who concluded that “CAS is making a significant difference to the implementation of the new computing curriculum.”

And this doesn’t just include programming. As Peter told us, the curriculum wants to help pupils learn logical, computational thinking. He breaks this down into five areas:

Algorithmic thinking: getting the steps of a process in the right order. Working out the best approach to a problem and planning before implementing code.

Decomposition: breaking down problems into smaller components, and using skills they’ve used before in other areas to solve parts of a task.

Evaluation: or learning by failing. As Peter said “It’s OK for students to have tried something that was beyond them, to have got part of the way there, and to have identified a new learning goal as a result.”

Abstraction: removing the unnecessary noise around a problem and concentrating on the actual task. Peter gave us the famous example of the Tube map, which simplifies a mass of spaghetti into the logical network of colour-coded tracks we can interpret more easily.

Generalisation: re-using skills that pupils have learnt before to tackle new challenges.

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He also left us with some food for thought about how the teaching of computing could be improved in the future. “Transitional work is important,” says Peter. “Primary schools do great work with physical computing but at secondary level, the time constraints of a lesson mean that by the time we’ve unpacked all the equipment it’s time to put it away again. Why not make computing a cross-subject area, with a thematic approach so students can apply techniques and practices to several subjects?”

Getting involved with the NoE is easy and free. You can register here as a master teacher or sign your school up to the programme to access training, or as a lead school to support others in your area.

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