Beverley Dillon, Maths and Computing coordinator, St Hilda’s Bushey
I have been teaching for 30 years in both Boys secondary and Girls’ Prep schools and have used computers in lessons throughout my career. Contact me here
I remember the old BBC computers, teaching FORTRAN and Basic programming languages – until that went out of fashion- to the present when coding is back at the core of the computing curriculum again.
I am currently participating in a Teacher Inquiry in Computing Education research project with CAS (Computing at Schools) to investigate gender issues in computing. I am in a small team of teachers covering all the key stages in both state and independent schools, under the watchful eye of lecturers from Kings’ College and Warwick universities. It seems to be a Western issue, as these differences in attitudes to Computing and other STEM subjects are not apparent in South East Asia. Why is this? There are very few, if any, girls studying A level computing and even fewer studying at university here or in the USA- even near silicon valley! However, not all boys are technical whiz kids either, so what are the attributes of a Computer scientist? Why are girls put off it at secondary schools? Does it matter whether the school is mixed or single sex?
At St Hilda’s the girls have always been very enthusiastic about all aspects of ICT or Computing as it is now known. Girls do enjoy the visual aspects such as creating PowerPoints, using Publisher and photo stories but they do also enjoy coding too. We have been teaching the girls how to create animations using Scratch, Alice and Kodu for many years, from form 4 onwards. Girls of various abilities can create quite complex programmes using these platforms and it is interesting to note that it is not always the high flyers who can master coding. One of my lower attaining students could write very complex programmes because she wanted to know how to make the programme do what she wanted. Some girls are interested in trying to learn how to write a Python or Java programme and these do tend to be the more mathematically able.
We are currently using Espresso coding (Discovery education) from form 1 which is good as an introduction to coding but is rather restrictive in the upper years, so we use Scratch and other platforms from the end of form 3. Quite often an offline computing unit is a great motivator- to introduce the concept of algorithms and debugging. I enjoy getting the girls to write a set of simple instructions for walking around an obstacle course or making a jam sandwich for example and this illustrates the need for precise instructions and is a lot of fun! There are always some children who pick up ideas quickly and become computer experts and they love to help their peers. Quite often they continue projects at home and discover how to use more complex coding, which they are only too keen to demonstrate. For non-specialist teachers this is great as they can often explain their ideas in a child friendly manner, which inspires the rest of the class to simply have a go.
The issue of gender and computing is quite huge for a one year project but, it has raised many questions and is encouraging teachers to raise the profile of Computing for Girls. It was Ada Lovelace, who programmed the first computer, so why have we let men take over?