As the degree of technological change and human knowledge continues to grow by leaps and bounds, teachers and policy makers must grapple with several important questions:
- What do we teach?
- How do we cover all the material?
- How do we teach it?
The above questions are not new, pertaining as they do to two basic educational matters: curriculum and pedagogy; considerations that must always be balanced by what we know about student needs and readiness to learn.
In computing education, the considerations are no different. Many educators today believe that technological changes mean that teaching computer programming and computer science is more complicated today than ever before, yet there is little reason to believe that this is true. Indeed, programming is a computer language agnostic set of skills and competencies, meaning that it is hardly affected by the advent of new computer languages. In that regard, it is comparable to playing an instrument as a means of learning music. Moreover, there is empirical evidence showing that as in other fields of study, a focus on real-world skills and competency development can make computer programming an accessible field of study to everyone, including women.
In the early aughts, teachers were having discussions about the legitimacy of Wikipedia as a research tool and other conversations about managing plagiarism in the shadow of the internet. Sandwiched between these constitutional talks were whispered ones about how to survive an ever-growing, exciting, but overwhelming amount of knowledge—knowledge which, until the dawning of this new era, teachers had been expected to learn and teach to students.
The dawning era brought with it an awakening to the fact that machines can now store more knowledge and information than any human being—a fact not lost on Ontario teachers and policy makers.
For over a decade, Ontario has been focused on what to teach in an era in which human expertise is acknowledged as finite and machine learning, infinite. This preparation has included focusing on the development of student competencies, notably in critical thinking, creative thinking, and collaboration.
Competencies are made up of a variety of skills, normally incorporating a number of them, and ultimately, drawing on facts and experiences as a means of development. Building on Ontario’s curriculum, British Columbia has embraced project-based learning as a means of developing skills and competencies; its natural extension is problem-based learning. Done well, project-based learning provides a rich and authentic learning experience that has students learn facts in order to finish a project—which they can then use to solve some critical thinking problems.
While Ontario curricular documents are updated at different, irregular intervals, they are designed to mitigate the irregularity of updating and new publication. Indeed, Ontario curriculum sets out overall objectives and specific objectives, making it clear that the specific objectives—which are often presented as facts, sometimes grouped as classes of facts, or premises for a bigger idea or event—are merely examples of specific knowledge that can be used to reach the overall objectives. As a consequence, Ontario teachers are free to decide what specific knowledge they use to achieve overall objectives.
This freedom is best realized when competency development determines the overall objectives for a subject area. That’s because it leads to a greater separation of overall and specific objectives thereby allowing teachers to make decisions that are in the best interests of the students with whom they are currently working; “teach the student” is no longer solely the purview of the elementary school teacher.
Of course, this approach to curriculum design is predicated on having a well-educated teacher workforce. Ontario’s professional teachers routinely have at least two undergraduate degrees and many have graduate degrees and pursue additional professional qualifications beyond their basic qualifications. The Province’s 2015 decision to extend the study period in teacher education programs from one year to two years can provide more time for prospective teachers to study and understand what curriculum is and to do the same with pedagogy. Doing so means that teachers can genuinely become experts in teaching and learning and focus on the development of skills and competencies that computers may never be able to develop, all the while providing a rich learning experience by using facts as the basis for skill and competency development.