Informatics in Schools
(a personal view)
Note on terminology
"Informatics" includes computer science, but is more general. Definition
from the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh (more about the
term in this tech report):
Informatics is the science of information. It studies the representation,
processing, and communication of information in natural and artificial
systems. Since computers, individuals and organizations all process
information, informatics has computational, cognitive and social aspects.
Where might children go in future with these skills?
Books could be written about this...
When we think about informatics in schools, programming, or coding,
is what comes to mind. Coding can be fun and is a great vehicle for problem
solving, but I think it's important not to over-emphasise the role of
programming in future jobs. Even today, even in those jobs that are largely
programming, many other skills (analysis, abstraction, negotiation,
communication...) are equally vital.
In my opinion this will
be even more the case in future. I talked a bit about this in my inaugural
lecture. Right now it looks as though there
are plenty of jobs that are essentially programming, but
This is not to say that learning programming is useless — far from it. I
think the ability to program a bit will end up comparable to the ability to
type, today — some people are better at it than others, a few people have
it as a huge part of their job, many people's jobs assume that people will
probably be competent at it. (But progress will continue to make it more
and more optional, see e.g. voice typing.)
The implications of this are that it's the higher-level skills that will be
crucial. Computing is a solution technique: for it to be useful, people
need to understand the problem, think about what would constitute a
solution, pick between solutions, manage the development, introduction,
maintenance, and ongoing evaluation and adaptation of the chosen solution.
- lots of work (including my research!) is going into removing
straightforward programming from the solution of all kinds of problems, and
it's succeeding. More and more, taking decisions about what software should
do will be a small part of lots of other jobs, and the actual programming
will be automated.
- straightforward programming jobs are very portable — they
are already often done in developing countries, and that'll only
Concretely, looking towards software development roles and many related
- Can you encourage children to think about exactly what they
want a program to do under different circumstances? Every time a computer
annoys them, they should ask themselves, what could the program have
done, that would have been more helpful? Did it have the information that
would have let it do that?
- Abstraction is a key concept in many settings, something many
people find difficult, and something that improves with practice! What's
important about a situation and what's a detail? Abstractions in software
development are called models, and they're becoming more and more
important there — but the same ideas also appear in many other settings.
Anything you do with making and using models in this sense is useful...
- ... which is the connection with maths, which is also all about
abstraction. Anyone keen on a career involving computing should be
encouraged to work hard at maths and get as good at it as they can. (At
Edinburgh, for example, we don't care whether students coming into the
Informatics school have any Computer Science qualifications, but they do
need to have top maths grades.)
About how to avoid girls disengaging
(It's difficult to write briefly about this without over-simplifying and,
myself, buying into stereotypes. Please imagine lots of caveats added.)
- Claim: girls are socialised to be more worried than boys about breaking
things. Getting good with computers requires experimentation, and if
you're worried about breaking things that inhibits experimentation. So
one thing to do is to emphasise (and make sure it's true!) that children
can't break any of the software they're exposed to, and make sure they
know how to get back to a good state if something they do doesn't work
the way they want it to. E.g. show them early how to close down a
programming environment and restart it afresh, how to save a copy of
their program, document etc. so they can go back to it if something they
try gets them into a mess.
- Claim: when children think about computers, computer games are likely to
come to mind, so when you talk about careers involving computers,
programming computer games probably does; and so many computer games
appeal more to boys that that probably puts off girls. If they like
computer games, fine, the idea that they could program them may be
motivating — but of course it's a tiny, tiny fraction of reasons to learn
about CS. So I think you're spot on in thinking about introducing
children to people who use CS in their jobs in various ways.
- Personally, I have never been interested in computers for their own sake;
although because my father was in IT I had one of the very first home
computers, I only started to get interested once I had a problem I
couldn't solve without a computer. This — being interested in the
problems more than the solution technology — seems to be a common theme
among the women I know in CS. Perhaps cross-curricular use of CS is
therefore a useful approach? E.g. write a program to solve a maths
problem, develop a survey app to support data collection for a project?
- The WISE People Like Me initiative is mostly aimed at much older girls
and people working with them, but still has some resources that might be
useful. E.g. the flyer linked here
has an interesting categorisation of kinds of jobs and the skills and
characteristics that people need in them.
- Discrimination against women in informatics, especially in the form of
unconscious bias, is a serious problem. Be aware!
Mixture of things relating to careers and teaching things...
- Digital World
(Scotland-specific) is well worth a look; for example, there are short
videos of people in lots of different jobs talking about them here.
is some information about the next destinations of students getting degrees
from the School of Informatics at Edinburgh.
- CS Unplugged - computer science
without a computer!
- First Lego League
- Barefoot Computing
- WISE campaign for gender
balance in science, technology and engineering.