It’s Hard…

Computer Science; it’s hard, and here’s why.

Imagine a spreadsheet.  A spreadsheet that is being developed by the manager of your friendly local cinema.  He has been told to make a spreadsheet to predict how many seats he needs to sell on a Saturday night to break even.  It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the manager couldn’t do this, despite spreadsheets routinely being used by school children.  The difficulty is that the problem is definitely at the top end of Bloom’s.  It’s hard.

First of all the problem has to be broken down into more manageable parts, perhaps the income and expenditure.  Let’s look at the income in a little more detail.  There is ticket sales.  There has to be a prediction of the number of tickets that are likely to be sold.  This prediction could be based on how well similar films have done; the time of year and the weather amongst other factors.  The manager has control of the ticket prices so now it should be a simple matter to work out income from the tickets.  But how many of these punters will buy popcorn? Or coke?  This will require more analysis.  What about advertising?  You can see that modelling the income is not straight forward, and I haven’t even touched on the expenditure.

Even at Key Stage 3 level, it’s hard.  Using the scenario above, a KS3 example spreadsheet might automatically add up the number of seats occupied by adults and the number of seats occupied by children.  An instruction might be, “Add a formula to the spreadsheet to work out the total number of seats sold.”  At first sight you might think that that the instruction is fairly straight forward but learners fail at several levels.  First they need to be able to understand the question.  Some lack the literacy skills needed to do this.  Then they need to analyse the question to work out the arithmetic required to solve the question.  Then they need to add a further layer of abstraction to translate the arithmetic into a formula using cell references from the existing spreadsheet.  This one seemingly simple instruction must fit well up on Bloom’s taxonomy.  In other words, easy spreadsheet tasks are hard!  They rely on well developed skills from other areas, plus an extra layer of abstraction.

Footnote: If I was writing this post last year I could have written exactly the same thing, but with a different first line – ICT; it’s hard, and here’s why.  It is curious that in society at large, ICT is seen as ‘easy’ and Computer Science is seen as ‘hard’.  I cannot understand this.  Is it because the majority of the population use computers and think that they are doing ICT but are bewildered about how they work?

It’s Hard…


I have frequently had the privilege of mentoring teachers who are new to the profession and it is certainly an aspect of my role that I really value – and I know that not all mentors do.  I have learned more about teaching from my role as a mentor than from almost any other CPD experience.  Observing a new teacher’s lessons forces you to reflect on your own practice.  Sometimes you will see things that new colleagues do that you could incorporate in your own teaching.  Certainly, feeding back on other people’s work forces you to reflect more critically on your own work
No matter how much my own teaching benefits from me being a mentor, the main task is to nurture a young professional.  My best advice is that you have to start the process from where they are and not where you would like them to be.  Before a new PGCE student’s first lesson I will tell them that however it goes, that is their starting point and we will move it on from there – and all first lessons will be different.  It is crucial to identify what a trainee’s initial steps will be in improving their practice – and these next steps will be different for different trainees.
One of the main skills of a mentor is knowing how to encourage your trainee to move on.  I am certain that I could write a huge list of suggestions after that first lesson, and if I concentrated on everything that was wrong with the lesson I could crush a fledgling career very quickly – but that would serve no purpose.  The trick is to use your judgement to decide which is the most important aspect, or possibly two aspects, that trainee can work on and improve first.  Once these aspects are improving, then it will be time to move to another aspect or two.  For some colleagues, progress will be faster than it is for others and that is absolutely fine.
The progress rate of trainees can be frustrating for mentors.  There are always times when progress is really rapid and this is really satisfying for the mentors.  This is often followed by a period of little or no progress which is when a mentor can become frustrated.  In fact, this is usually the time when the previous rapid progress is being embedded and it is a necessary part of the process.  With most trainees, after a short period of slow progress, another period of rapid progress follows.  If you drew a graph of progress against time, it would look a little like a stair case; it would have periods of rapid growth followed by slow growth, with the process repeated several times.
Expert experienced teachers are reflective teachers.  Reflection is an intrinsic part of being an expert teacher and it is important to start building this characteristic early on in a new teacher’s career.  Initially, trainees will need help with reflecting on their work and asking questions that are too open or too closed will not be helpful.  It is very important that trainees reflect on their successes.  As a profession we are very good at focussing on what needs to be improved and we are not so good at recognising what we are good at.  I am convinced that we all need to recognise our successes, new trainees especially, and then it is easier to look at what needs to be improved in a positive way.  Initially the key questions to ask trainees are: what went well, and secondly, what do you need to improve.  That second question can be tweaked to, what is the one key thing that you need to improve.  As time goes on and the trainee has more experience of teaching and observing more experience colleagues, I change the second question to, what could you do to improve the lesson.  As always, it is far more powerful if the trainee can learn to solve his own problems.
At the start of the process the mentor will be driving the process quite hard.  Over time this should change and with a good trainee, by the end of the process they should be driving it.  Remember, all trainees are different and they all progress at different rates and need help with different aspects of their work.  They are all individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses that they need to work on.

One final piece of advice that I would like to add.  Don’t forget where you came from.  Once upon a time all mentors were inexperienced teachers with a great deal to learn once.