Teaching computing: What is a specialist anyway?

By Dave Gibbs. Posted

Continued professional development offers a pathway into teaching computing for educators from diverse subject backgrounds — and computing is all the richer for it

When asked to think back to their school days and computing experience, that memory will be patchy for many people. I remember driving a taxi around a map of a town every week, while our teacher looked on, both mystified and terrified, by the new, beige machines in the school’s only IT suite. For most of us, the depth of learnt experience in computing is unlikely to compare with our experience of established subjects such as maths or English.

Access to computer studies O level was haphazard back in 1985; at its peak, there were around 60,000 candidates per year in England. As schools switched to ICT, student numbers fell drastically, and by 2013 computer studies had almost disappeared off the radar. It is not surprising, then, that today’s computing teacher workforce has the highest proportion of non-specialists among the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects. But what is a specialist computing teacher anyway? The most restrictive definition is someone who holds a degree in the subject they teach. However, a student in the UK is more likely to be taught computing by someone with a degree in business studies than computer science. Science and maths teachers teach a significant proportion of computing lessons, too, bringing contexts and teaching approaches from across the curriculum that enrich this newly rebirthed subject. Many will have undertaken CPD to gain an understanding of the subject or to enhance existing knowledge.

A 2016 report by the UK’s Department for Education looked at the impact of specialist and non-specialist teaching on pupil outcomes in England, and found little evidence that a teacher’s qualifications significantly impacted outcomes. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean subject knowledge isn’t important. In 2013, researchers in the US asked a group of science teachers to sit a multiple-choice test originally written for students. Unsurprisingly, the results found that the teachers who did better on the test were more effective at their jobs. Even more interesting is that the teachers who could identify common mistakes students would make were also more effective. So it’s a broad but thorough knowledge of the teaching content, and of how students understand and learn that content, that matters. 

Easing the transition into teaching computing

With the subject growing substantially in schools, there is a rising and unmet demand for teachers of computing. I’m part of the team working on the National Centre for Computing Education, which helps teachers switch to computing, irrespective of their starting point. The feedback we have had shows that the training courses and teaching resources on the Teach Computing Curriculum have helped teachers ease the transition. Subject specialisms aren’t set in stone — there is always room for growth and evolution.


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