Securing subject-specific knowledge is an unending battle, but a vital one

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Teachers of computer science face a challenge not commonly found in other taught disciplines - the need to continuously ensure that one's subject-specific knowledge is continuously up-to-date and in line with both current trends in technology and substantial advancements in the field.

Whilst many aspects of taught computing remain the same and are likely to remain the same for generations to come, particularly those heavily rooted in mathematics such as binary arithmetic; a concept dating back even as early as the 1600s, (Lodder, 2009) the dynamic and ever-evolving curriculum poses unique challenges for computing educators as they fight to balance their intense workload characteristic of working in education along with finding time to improve their skills as a practitioner.

The far-reaching need for continuous professional development

Before exploring this topic in more detail it is important to preface with an acknowledgement of the importance of continuous learning and self-improvement and that they are cornerstones of the educator's profession, with the most talented and dedicated teachers looking to simultaneously improve their subject knowledge and pedagogical toolset linked to the latest research.

Goodall et al (2005) found that 90% of teachers participating in their study found continuous professional development (henceforth CPD) to be felt at least somewhat useful, in particular for those where improvements in knowledge and skills were most impacted. Furthermore, those within the post-compulsory sector for example can look to professional standards 7, 8 and 9 for further reassurance of its importance regardless of what one teaches. (Education & Training Foundation, 2014)

My own experiences

For the teaching of Computer Science at both the GCSE and A Level specifications, much of the curriculum remains the same over the years due to the theoretical nature of the course, where choices of programming language are broad and allow for more traditional choices when teachers might be lacking in more contemporary resources and skill sets (i.e. many examining bodies allow for choosing Visual Basic over more increasingly popular languages such as C# and JavaScript) and that many areas linked into computational theory have little tendency to change.

Nevertheless, large components of these courses consist of coursework projects whereby students are at liberty to design and create complex software projects using the software development lifecycle (SDLC). Students are often free to create whatever they want, provided that they meet the complexity requirements set by the examining body.

I came into my current teaching role with a wealth of prior programming experience developed in academia and in industry, though I naturally have my preferences in languages and frameworks that I am more familiar with. Some of my Year 12 students were developing using the C# language - one that I was mostly unacquainted with aside from basic tutorials and open source projects I worked on in my free time. This meant that not only did I need to rapidly learn a new language, but since students were often including third-party libraries, I had to learn aspects of its ecosystem too. This is a completely ordinary experience for software engineers and computer scientists to do when they take on new projects or move into new areas, but I do not think that it would be an experience most other fields would be well equipped to deal with. Fascinatingly, the only close comparison I can immediately think of are those teaching music and perhaps also dance, which are continuously flooded with new concepts and contemporary ideas, often also caused by technology. (BBC, 2019)

Furthermore, some students expressed interest in using development engines and environments, namely Unity, to develop video games; a prospect both allowed and encouraged by examining bodies due to their inherent complexity. (OCR, 2015) This naturally calls for additional learning, and if you do not have a powerful enough computer at home to run these environments then this can create additional issues at keeping up with your own students just so that you can be in a position to support them wherever necessary.

The additional challenges of vocational courses

Many colleges and post-compulsory centres and schools will offer vocational courses in IT (information technology), such as 'vendor certifications' or coursework-oriented Level 2 and Level 3 BTEC certificates and the like. These courses sometimes change frequently, even annually, in order to keep up with ever-changing computer software packages, trends, and even legislation. For example, qualifications issued by Microsoft will eventually retire and are replaced by newer programmes in order to keep the certifications current. (2020)

What the research indicates

According to a study conducted by Sentance & Csizmadia (2016), where British teachers of computing across a range of key stages were questioned on the greatest difficulties that they face, the most common challenge reported was in their own subject knowledge. One such teacher reported: 'I do self CPD daily and have given easily 100+ hrs of my own time to building my own skill set up'.

For many teachers, teaching computer science is a new prospect in a United Kingdom that has spent 20+ years previously teaching only information technology, and as a result the need to upskill and learn entirely new curricula is a daunting prospect. Sentance et al (2013) found that in a small group of surveyed teachers, 71% of them needed guidance on how to teach the subject.

A study from Brown et al on the resurgence of computer science in British schools concludes that though the steps to reintroduce the subject in the country has been positive, many changes remain in order to further equip teachers - mainly the need for future training, better resources, and for many, formal training to transition to the more theoretical subject in the first place.

Final reflections

It comes as no surprise that numerous teachers throughout the country struggle and must dedicate large quantities of their own time to keeping their own subject knowledge strong. It is disappointing however, that many former teachers of IT / ICT migrate into teaching computing with little to no support or CPD to enable them to teach what is practically a widely different subject altogether.

Having previously worked in software engineering I am aware of the challenges we face as professionals and the constant need to evolve in the face of change. For many teachers without this experience, it might come as a surprise that teaching computing is more in alignment with industry than one might initially expect, and that they too will be expected to make continuous adaptations as the curriculum does, especially for those teaching vocational subjects and vendor qualifications.

The need to enjoy what you do is paramount for success in teaching computing. I am thankful that I am still passionate for programming and still share the same curiosity for computers and technology that I did as a teenager. As a result of these revelations I have taken steps to conduct my own CPD, including sitting Microsoft examinations to fill gaps in my subject knowledge and to provide proof of my ongoing learning. I will continue to learn and play in my own time to provide my students with a suitable model for emulation, a significant part of my teaching and learning philosophy, so that they too can follow a similar approach in whatever career path they choose.

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