How are computers used in primary schools around the world?
Many teachers and home-schooling parents are unsure about the best way to integrate computers into the curriculum. There is universal agreement that computer skills will play a vital part of any child’s future. Children need to be fully computer and digitally literate in the modern world, associated skills such as coding need to be developed too.
It’s no wonder there are so many questions surrounding this. How do you create a curriculum for a subject which is changing so quickly? How do you get funding when technology can become outdated within a year?
And there are other things to consider too: Just how reliant should students be on digital devices in education? How do you prepare primary age children for employment in the future when the jobs – or even the skills that they will need – to do these jobs haven’t been invented yet?
An interesting starting point is to take a look at the different ways in which computers are currently used in primary schools around the world. This is what we will do in this post.
You will learn more about the approaches to computing in schools from across the globe, from the US and Canada to Finland, Japan, Singapore and other countries.
Know the Terminology
The name given to the subject of teaching computer skills differs all over the world. In fact, in the United Kingdom alone, a number of different names are used, including ‘Computing’, ‘Computer Science’, ‘IT’ and ‘ICT’. Although all these terms mean broadly the same thing, there are some differences.
For example, the title ‘ICT’ stands for ‘Information and Communication Technology.’ This generally refers to a subject which explores the application of technology and the skills involved in using various computer systems, networks and applications.
Meanwhile, ‘Computing’ or ‘Computer Science’ are used to refer to the discipline of computing itself, including both skills and understanding. Typically it focuses more on the manipulation of technological elements to create computer applications, rather than simply the use of these applications. Things like coding, programming, problem solving and design can all be covered in these subjects.
When we look at the different curriculums covered in a number of countries, it’s important that we understand exactly what each term refers to, so that we can fully understand the teaching systems which are put in place. As with any curriculum, it’s also vital to look at the bigger picture of how the primary curriculum progresses into the secondary curriculum for a subject.
What importance is given to computer skills in different countries?
As is true for several other subjects, the perceived importance of computer skills varies widely around the world. In some countries, the topic isn’t given a subject of its own or even taught at all. In others, the entire curriculum is based on the use of computers. In some countries, the subject is mandatory. In others, optional.
Let’s look at some of the different approaches that particular countries take.
Computer education in primary schools in Finland
Finland consistently comes at the top of international league tables for pupil performance. It has a highly unorthodox education system – children don’t begin formal schooling until the age of 7, for example. In fact, it has been said that Finland has broken every accepted ‘rule’ or convention with its education system – a system that is widely regarded as being one of the best in the world.
Finland has a well-deserved reputation as a world leader in teaching methodologies. The country is constantly incorporating the latest scientific insights to improve the way children are being taught.
From the outside it might appear that Finland has yet to find the best approach to teaching computing. Computing and IT appear in the school curriculum as optional subjects whose approaches depend entirely on the school. However, this approach is intrinsic to the Finnish school system, in that schools and teachers have the complete freedom to mould and adapt the curriculum and teaching pedagogies to meet the needs of the children they teach.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that computers are not seen as being as useful tools in schools! Computers are used frequently used in the Finnish school system. The National Plan for Educational Use of Information and Communications Technology set out a forward-thinking plan for the use of computers within school. A new national core curriculum for basic education was completed in 2014 and a greater emphasis is now placed on computer skills, replacing the likes of calligraphy and cursive handwriting. Instead, the students are given typing lessons.
But while Finland is moving towards a digital curriculum at a fast pace, it is still not uncommon to see a classroom completely devoid of technology, such as laptops or tablets – other than the teacher’s interactive whiteboard and desktop PC. The exciting journey that Finnish education is currently on is summed up in Finnish Innovations and Technologies in Schools.
So, what’s happening in other countries?
Compared with Finland, the education system in Japan is much more traditional. Until recently, students between the ages of 12 and 14 were taught computer skills, with a rigid curriculum followed from one of three different textbooks: Textbook A, B or C.
The system meant that although ICT existed as part of the country’s national curriculum, the way in which the subject was taught varied depending on the textbook followed by the institution. For example, students taught ‘Information’ from ‘Textbook B’ followed a course focused on the more technical applications of the subject; whereas those who followed Textbooks A or C would follow courses whose emphasis lay in the more general aspects of computer studies.
However, the Japanese government has recognised that computer programming is key to Japan’s success in what has been described as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Understanding that a paradigm shift in the workplace is set to take place through the growth of Artificial Intelligence, new education policies were announced in 2016. Computer programming will become compulsory in all elementary schools from 2020. As well as meeting the changing needs of the employment landscape, the new Japanese approach identifies that the teaching of coding will be useful in developing pupils’ ability to think independently and set goals.
Serbia and Montenegro
The South-eastern European countries of Serbia and Montenegro both offer distinct courses made up of both mandatory and optional modules. In Serbia, students between the ages of 11 and 14 (Grades 5-8) have the chance to complete optional modules covering topics such as interactive graphics, graphic design and programming, along with the mandatory Technology and Informatics areas. Then, between the ages of 15 and 18, students in the vast majority of schools study Computer Sciences and Informatics.
The system in Montenegro is very similar, with students from the age of 11 expected to complete Technics as a compulsory subject. This subject covers topics such as word processing, while programming skills are taught in later, optional modules.
Alongside Finland, South East Asia is the region of the world that is regarded with the greatest envy when it comes to having a highly successful education system to emulate. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai and, particularly, Singapore stand out for their academic success.
However, the education system in Singapore is almost a direct opposite to the approach taken in Finland. Singaporean teaching is extremely uniform and instructional. It is a system based heavily on textbooks, worksheets and consistent practice.
But things are changing. In 2016, Singapore unveiled its third Masterplan for ICT in Education. However, the focus is very much on digital access and enabling students to learn anywhere rather than on developing technical skills. The emphasis is on strengthen self-directed learning. All students aged 12-16 have access to a Computer Applications course, but as yet it is not compulsory for all.
Computer skills at Canadian schools.
A further example of the contrasting approaches seen across the world to computer skills would be to look at Canada. Whereas in the UK, for example, where Computer Science and coding is now compulsory in all 16,000 primary schools, in Canada the picture is very different.
Although schools in Canada are very well resourced technology-wise, the emphasis is on digital literacy and students becoming skilled in navigating software and apps that already exist. Computer programming courses only exist as optional modules at secondary level. For example, in Ontario, advanced technical courses in Technological Education and Computer Studies are available from the age of 14 (Grade 9). But such courses are not compulsory and similar courses are not uniformly available across the entire country.
Some teachers have taken it upon themselves to incorporate coding into their own subject curriculums as low down as Grade 6, but this is simply a case of individuals tapping into their own technological expertise and is a long way removed from the approach taken in the UK, or other countries such as Holland and Australia, which have moved to teaching code.
A similarly erratic approach can be found in the USA, mainly because there isn’t a nationwide approach. For example, in Massachusetts, USA, there is no subject in the set curriculum which focuses solely on Computing or ICT. All the same, students here tend to use technology throughout various aspects of the curriculum in order to reach the Massachusetts Technology Literacy Standards and Expectations. These guidelines explain the various skills and standards which students are expected to achieve between the ages of 8 and 18 in their use of technology throughout the curriculum.
With general skills, such as keyboarding, there is also a great variety seen across the country. Some schools begin keyboarding instruction from Grade 3 or 4, but others do not begin formal teaching until as late as Grade 8.
The biggest issue holding back the teaching of code in the USA is the country’s decentralised public school system. The Common Core is followed in most schools and students take standardised tests. However, classroom-level decisions are taken at state and local body level. Some states categorise Computer Science as a subject in its own right, others incorporate it into other subjects.
Some districts have begun to recognise the importance of coding. In all Chicago public high schools Computer Science has become a core subject, but the overall picture across the whole country is still one of inconsistency.
When is the right age to teach computer skills at school?
While the majority of first world countries seem to agree that some level of education in computer studies is important, there would appear to be no age agreed on just yet. Early ages for this branch of education still varies widely. As you might expect, general ICT skills such as word processing, spreadsheets and presentations tend to be taught at an earlier age, but the spread has still been wide in recent years, from 6-14. Technical skills such as programming and systems management generally begin at secondary school age.
However, a shift is taking place and we are seeing that the age that children are introduced to computers – both general and technical skills – being pushed down lower to an earlier starting point. For example, in the UK children from the age of 5 are introduced to programming skills. The term ‘coding’ itself may not be used, but what pupils learn is essentially just that. The trend of children beginning to develop computer skills at a younger age will undoubtedly continue worldwide
As the technology that surrounds us develops, so will the education available in the subject. As it stands, the computer is a vital tool for primary school classrooms and its inclusion in children’s daily lessons is essential to ensure the students are fully prepared for later life.