Thinking more widely about computational thinking

I have just read an interesting article by David Richards, in Education Technology magazine,  (February 2019, issue 42, p62), advocating data science over computer science. However should we be looking to include aspects of data science more explicitly within the definition of computational thinking? It certainly forms part of Google Education’s long list of CT concepts.

As someone who champions having demystifying technology at the centre of the school curriculum, I think there is a strong case to be made for lifting the lid on big data and promoting wider understanding of how data is collected and analysed and the resulting implications for us all, even if that means less emphasis on coding.

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Thinking thoughts about computational thinking

Computational thinking (CT) has been held up as the primary driver behind the 2013/14 computing curriculum. Its big strength is that it helps communicate what computer science is all about. Its big weaknesses are that there is not a single, widely accepted definition of what it is and it is often used in an unquestioning way.

I decided that it was time for an exploration; an attempt to unearth the good, the bad and the ugly. What I discovered can be found in The little book of computational thinking. I should warn you that this is not actually a book. Nor is it especially small. However, it is all about computational thinking. Well, mostly.

It is not a definitive work, but I hope that it will act as stimulus material. It takes what has all the characteristics of an education orthodoxy and attempts to put it in the blender, whizz it up and see what emerges, in the hope that others will be encouraged to think their own thoughts about computational thinking.

En route to my conclusions, I had a go at devising my own CT diagram which can be seen below. What do you think a CT diagram should look like and how useful do you find it as an idea?

computational thinking, no logo 2

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Readable word jumbles and artificial intelligence

A few yreas ago I was snet an eaiml cliamnig taht Crmgidbae Uienvitsry rrhesaerces had devoecsrid taht txet rieamend rlaebade if the frist and lsat lertets of ecah wrod had teihr poinsitos fexid, whlist the reinimnag letrtes wree all mxied up. Celarly the sepnllig of all one, two and there-lteter wdros wolud raemin crrocet.

Or, to put it another way…

A few years ago I was sent an email claiming that Cambridge University researchers had discovered that text remained readable if the first and last letters of each word had their positions fixed, whilst the remaining letters were all mixed up. Clearly the spelling of all one, two and three-letter words would remain correct.

To put this to the test, I wrote a small program that a would mix text up in this way. It would also, as a comparison, mix up text without anchoring any of the letters. I did this simply for the sake of interest and as a bit of fun.


However, this can be used when discussing artificial intelligence with pupils. The story goes something like this.

How are we able to read? Surely by knowing the spelling of each word. Individual words can then be added together to form sentences and voilà, we can read.

Jumbling words shows that this simple and intuitive answer is clearly wrong, since it is possible to read pieces of text where most of the words are incorrectly spelt. This simple experiment can be extended to show how knowing the correct context of the text that you are attempting to read, normally makes reading easier.

Therefore reading is not just about the spelling of words and it appears that knowing the context before you start reading aids readability. This points towards one of the problems of trying to program artificial intelligence. We are often trying to mimic or reproduce human processes that we still do not fully understand.

The word-jumbling program Azimnag is a freeware download. Amazing! There is a more comprehensive discussion of this phenomenon in the book, Living in a digital world: Demystifying technology in the section of Chapter 5 titled, “Why is AI so difficult?”

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Where next for computing/ICT?

Entries for GCSE computer science are increasing, whilst those for ICT are in terminal decline, with the last GCSEs for ICT being sat in the summer of this year (2018). Overall the number of examination entries for computing related subjects are in decline, totalling fewer than 25% of the number for mathematics. Perhaps more worryingly, computer science appears to be reducing the diversity of take-up, for example, the early signs are that it is far more attractive to boys than girls.

I have an MSc in computer science and strongly support the educational value of such an academically demanding subject, with an intense relevance to the modern world. I have long held the view that computing/ICT has become so fundamental to all aspects of human endeavour, that it should be classed as a core subject, at least on a par with science and probably slightly ahead of it, whilst bowing to the pre-eminence of English and mathematics.

When the new national curriculum subject of computing was launched in 2013, I was disappointed that the majority of what I read was concerned with justifying the computer science element. There did not appear to be a strong underlying vision for the whole subject – it seemed to be a watered down version of the old ICT, with computer science bolted on. Most of the accompanying commentary was regarding the computer science element.

I could not find any statement of what was wanted from the new subject, either. Just comments pointing towards a growing need for computer programmers. Whilst this might be the case, it seemed clear that the vast majority of young people would still grow up to be users of digital technology, as opposed to authors of the next generation of software tools and I believe that is still the case.

Aims for computing curriculum

My own view is that the aims of the computing curriculum should be along the lines of the following.

  1. To demystify digital technology.
  2. To provide all learners with a wide range of knowledge, skills and understanding to allow them to use digital technologies effectively to support them in future learning and whilst at work, as well as in their everyday lives.
  3. To allow all learners to develop into fully engaged, digitally competent, citizens.
  4. To inspire the minority (albeit a growing minority) of learners who will go on to further specialist study of computing and become the next generation of computer scientists, programmers and ICT experts.

It could be argued that schools and teachers needed the incentive of the withdrawal of ICT qualifications in order to fully commit to computer science, which was always going to be a very challenging process, requiring a lot of new learning. However, simply making computer science an Ebacc subject may have provided enough incentive to begin the transition, allowing the system to evolve more slowly, yet more securely. Training and financial incentives could have been added to speed up this transition.

It does seem that the baby was thrown out with the bath water and there is a strong case to be made for the creation of rigorous, high quality ICT qualifications, to sit alongside computer science. These should attempt to fulfil the aims listed for the computing curriculum, whilst also acting as potential stepping stones onto computer science courses, instead of closing off this avenue of study, because of decisions made at ages 13-14.

Some might argue for GCSE qualifications in computing, that better represent the National Curriculum blend of computer science, ICT and digital literacy. My personal view is that such courses would end up being too general to be useful and that some measure of specialisation at KS4 is appropriate.

Finally, I have long struggled to see the need for any young person to have more than a single GCSE (or equivalent) in computer science/ICT, as part of a well-rounded education. However, it is essential that the qualifications on offer should be of the highest quality, designed to interest, stretch and inspire, rather than lead to the maximum accumulation of league table points.

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New book: Living in a digital world – Demystifying technology

At the end of January 2018 I published my first book, Living in a digital world: Demystifying technology. Words used by readers to describe this book include, extraordinary, great resource, brilliantly thorough, invaluable, friendly, accessible, entertaining, enthusiastic, recommend, recommend, recommend and even, surprisingly humourous.

LIADW CoverImage

Of course, highly edited comments must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Extraordinary might have come from the line, “What an extraordinary load of rubbish.” In fact, the writer of that comment actually said, “The author, Mark Baker, has achieved something rather extraordinary with this book.” He might, however, have gone on to say, “So much fatuous nonsense, compressed into so little space.” Fortunately, he did not. If you would like to see what he actually said, together with other reviews and posted comments, please see You will also find more information about the book, links to its Amazon pages and even a couple of videos.

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Animated selection sort algorithm videos

Teaching about sorting algorithms can be rather dry and dusty. For this reason I created Sorting for Teachers many years ago as a DOS program. As I remember, I had seen something similar that ran on the old BBC micros. The software was later updated to run on current versions of Windows. It shows an algorithm, along with a set of numbers to be sorted and a display showing the values of the variables.


I intend doing some more work on the program before releasing it again, but in the mean time I have used it to create some videos that could be used in the classroom. One shows the program in action, using the selection sort to arrange a set of 8 numbers in ascending order. The algorithm is highlighted line by line as it executes. The variables are updated in parallel and the set of numbers is highlighted and animated to show which ones are being compared and which are being swapped.

By using the play/pause button of video playing software, teachers can step through the algorithm at their own pace, explaining what is happening or getting students to say what will happen next, etc.

The second video just shows what happens to the set of eight numbers and is designed to introduce how the algorithm works, before looking at the code. Finally there is a third video that demonstrates the software and its features. However this may also be useful for teaching purposes, as it models one way of discussing how the algorithm works.

To view these videos, go to the Education Vision Consultancy books page and follow the YouTube video channel link.

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Teach binary at primary? Surely not…

I did not think that I would ever find myself suggesting that teaching binary in primary schools could be a good idea. Then I came across a freely available e-book, Computer Science Unplugged, which includes some excellent activities. I especially liked the binary cards where you can start exploring this amazing number system without ever mentioning the “b” word. It is a very short step from making (decimal) numbers up by adding numbers of dots together, to writing them in their binary form. But if that is a step too far, then you can still use the cards to explore various number patterns that are important in computing. For relevant resources, see csuplugged.

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Skills, characteristics and staying safe

Online safety education needs to be proactive rather than simply reactive and given the rate of change of technologies and services and with the steady drip feed of new crazes and avenues for children and young people to put themselves at risk, we cannot get away with just teaching about specific known hazards. I decided to try and compile a list or a mapping of personal & social skills that contribute towards e-safety, having been struck by the extent to which initiatives like SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) and PHSE are often dealing with things that lie at the heart making someone truly e-safe. It includes some links to associated resources and I hope it will prove a useful reference and communication tool. You can view and download a copy of the document, which has been released under a Creative Commons licence, at the Education Vision website.

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Name change from ICT to Computing

Although the rest of the curriculum consultation process is still being worked through, the Government has decided to go ahead with changing the name in the National Curriculum from ICT to Computing. They have now issued a consultation document for this aspect only and will move ahead with the temporary disapplication of much of the National Curriculum to allow schools to start introducing new aspects to what they teach.

Personally, I am disappointed at the prospect of another name change in this subject area, which is only likely to further distance and confuse parents, carers and members of the public. The key fight however, remains with the detail of the new National Curriculum (currently in draft form), to ensure that we end up with high quality, fit for purpose programmes of study. Computing could end up being a huge step forward or a giant leap backwards, although it is perhaps most likely to be a bit of a muddle that professionals on the ground will need to take control of and sort out. And whatever happens with the curriculum, it won’t address the issue of the available pool of specialist teachers to teach the subject and in the short term it can only make this problem worse.

However, change always brings new opportunities and it is these that I am looking forward to!

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ICT National Curriculum consultation (UK)

If you want to let the Government know your views on the proposed changes to the ICT curriculum, including the change of name to Computing, you have until the 16 April 2013 to respond. The draft programme of study and the response form can be downloaded from the DfE website.

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