4 April 2012 by Pelle Neroth
In the press, commentators are proposing that, from primary school, children from all backgrounds should have to learn some of the key ideas of compter science, understand computational thinking and learn to program. This is a dramatic, revolutionary and exciting proposal, a big vision idea to make coding central to English education. "ICT education in the last two decades has been all too much focused on teaching how to use software products that will soon become obsolescent - instead of actually educating children about the most revolutionary technology of our time."
It is a sophisticated menu that Open University prof John Naughton proposes: to make kids understand computational thinking; understand machine intelligence - so to understand how Amazon predicts your preferences - and know to work with such concepts such as recursion, and heuristics. As he explains, recursion is a method where the solution to a problem depends on solutions to smaller instances of the same problem; and heuristics is about experience-based techniques for problem-solving, learning, and discovery
What is a European angle on this?
According to a survey by Eurostat, the EU's statistics arm, the British are above the European average when it comes to using computers.
Over 90 percent of 16-74-year-olds in the UK have ever used a computer. That compares to 50 percent in Romania, and 61 percent in Italy. It is a little higher than France's 85 percent and about the same as Germany's 89 percent. However, it is lower than Sweden's 96 percent and Finland's 93 percent. Hundred percent of British 16-24 year-olds have used a computer.
The figures for the young everywhere in Europe are generally extremely high; one exception is Italy, where only 90 percent of adolescents surveyed had used a computer.
When you look at the proportion of a particular nationality that has ever written a computer program, the results are also illuminating. In Germany, 18 percent of adolescents have written one, the figure is 17 percent in France and 12 percent in Cyprus. The UK does quite well here: 25 percent. But who tops the table? The Finnish teens and twentysomething, an impressive 37 percent of whom have written a computer program.
I don't think the Finns have focused on creating IT geniuses. Rather, they have an excellent all round education system that gets the basics - the base aspects of the knowledge pyramid - right, especially reading skills.
In the recent PISA international educational comparison survey, where reading, science and mathematics skills are compared across the developed countries, Finland not only has the best European results but lies ahead of several East Asian countries. Finland not only scores highly, but exceptionally evenly, with few weak pupils. And yet the education budget is lower than many other countries. Is it because Finland has few immigrants. Apparently not. Iron discipline in the classroom? Nope.
The basic school in Finland has a very down to earth teaching plan expressional reasonable goals in concrete terms, Teachers clearly understand what pupils have to learn in different subjects in different school years. In the lower school, there is huge emphasis on reading comprehension. There is a big emphasis on understanding one's strengths and weaknesses, and pupils receive traditional marks on a scale from 4 to 10. There is also a developed support system for weak pupils to help weak pupils help catch up with their groups fast.
There is a well developed system of practical education possibilities for the less academic after the end of compulsory schooling at 15; those who remain in the theoretical high school system have a huge choice of courses and subjects, some lasting as little as five weeks.
Finnish high school pupils design their own education programmes. They have to write at least four student essays and choose subjects from groups in such a way that cannot study just science subjects or just arts subjects as in England: they have to straddle the "two cultures". There is a lot of support at basic school level and a lot of freedom at high school level, plus the expectations that students will have to work hard. But discipline is rather mild.
Another factor in Finland's education success is the high standard of teachers: it is a prestigious profession, and attracts some of the brightest people in the country. High marks are required for entering even primary level teaching training schools.
The teachers are confident and the pupils know their teachers have well known for their abilities. Teachers are relaxed in class rooms and know their stuff; they do not constantly chop and change teaching methods. Finnish studies have shown the importance of reading for pupils' academic success, especially the reading of fiction.
Helsinki University had 900 applicants to its teacher training course for chemistry teachers last year. Finland also has a unified school system where all the schools produce good results. Looking at the whole school system picture might just as important as turbocharging IT education when it comes to getting pupils to go more programming - at least if you look at the Finnish example. If 20 percent of a pupil population cannot understand a newspaper headline, how will you expect them to understand a concept like heuristics?
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 28 June 2012 at 05:59 PM by View from Brussels Moderator
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 04 April 2012 08:54 PM General
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